Jaime Harrison takes on old power in South Carolina, offers a ‘New South’ vision

One of the most surprising stories of the 2020 election cycle has been the competitive U.S. Senate race in South Carolina. Polls show incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, in a dead heat with his Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison.

South Carolina—the first state to secede from the Union—is one of the country’s most conservative states and, in most election cycles, this would be a safe seat for Graham. But nothing is given in 2020. If Harrison prevails, it would become the first state in American history to be represented by two Black senators serving at the same time.

This week on the Reckon Interview, we’re discussing the cracks in the Southern establishment. There’s more to this discussion than partisan politics but in poll after poll, we’re starting to see some of America’s most inelastic states look a little more like swing states.

The former head of the South Carolina Democratic Party, and a long time protege of Democratic House leader U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, may not be who you immediately think of regarding anti-establishment fights in the South. But Harrison is one of many Democratic candidates in the South in tight races with Republican opponents.

And they’re basically doing it on their own because, for decades, the national Democratic establishment had written off the South, investing neither time nor resources in the region.

Harrison discusses the challenges he has faced running in the heart of the old Confederacy and flipping conventional wisdom about the party on its head.

In the second half of the show, Dana Hall McCain, a conservative columnist in Alabama discusses staying true to her values even when the Establishment doesn’t.

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with Jaime Harrison. We’ll post segments from our discussion with Dana Hall McCain tomorrow but you can listen to the whole episode here.

And go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast or wherever else you get your podcasts to stay informed about the South this election season.

Jaime Harrison on growing up in the South

So many folks across the south have very similar stories. My mom was 16 when she had me and she had to stop school for a while. And I was raised by my grandparents, who didn’t have a whole lot of money, didn’t have a whole lot of education themselves.

My grandfather had a fourth-grade education. He quit school to work at a dairy and then he did construction most of his life. My grandmother had an eighth-grade education, she quit school. She had to go work and she picked cotton. And then she worked at textile plants. She did domestic work. They didn’t have a whole lot.

But they were still rich in terms of the values that they had. They taught me the value of hard work. And they taught me the value of helping other folks. And those are things that to this very day still live with me and still push me.

I was the first in my family go to college. I went to Yale University and then Georgetown Law School. After graduating from Yale though I came back and taught ninth grade social studies at my alma mater for a little while, which was an interesting thing. And it sparked my love of education.

When I think about my life, part of how I’ve achieved so much is because I had a strong educational foundation. Even though our schools were not the most well-funded, I still had the basics that I needed in order to go on and do well and to break out of the cycle of poverty that we were in. But the way that I grew up really shapes how I look at the world in so many ways.

There are a lot of good people out there and a lot of smart people out there. But there are a lot of institutional barriers to them breaking out and living the American dream. I was fortunate enough and lucky enough to do so. Education was a gateway and a path for me to do that. But there’s so many other roadblocks that folks have right now. And I believe part of the job of a senator or a congressperson or a legislator is to do the blocking and tackling that needs to be done so that everybody gets the opportunity to be as great as they possibly can be.

Jaime Harrison on Democrats’ level of investment in Southern states

We all know—particularly those of us in the South know—those famous words from LBJ that “we may have lost the South for a generation.” Instead of fighting back against those words, I think the [Democratic] party just kind of ceded that and didn’t invest because of the politics.

I think we’re starting to see a turnaround. I think we are starting to see candidates that reflect the values, the hopes, the aspirations and fears of their constituents stepping up. I think you saw that when Stacey Abrams ran and Beto O’Rourke ran. And we’ve won some races. We’ve transformed Virginia. Just a few years ago, Virginia was just as red as South Carolina or Alabama or Mississippi. And now it’s a totally blue state. It’s because of some investment.

It’s also changing demographics. I think you’re seeing those similar types of changing demographics across the South. You have reverse migration that’s taking place. African Americans—whose forefathers and foremothers, generations before went to the Midwest and the Northeast—are now coming back home because there’s some opportunity there. And that’s influencing the politics.

You’re also seeing a lot of folks from the industrial Midwest and Northeast that are moving and retiring in the South. They’re bringing a much more moderate style of politics to the South. That’s changing demographics and changing the political landscape in these communities.

I often talk about a new South that is rising. I think this election cycle is going to be one where we finally close the book on the Old South and really start reading that new book called the New South. One that’s bold, inclusive, diverse, where everybody is valued, and all voices are heard. I’m excited about that. And I’m excited about being a part of that process, continuing the legacy that was laid over the past few years. But we’ve got to continue to go out and recruit. We’ve also got to continue to invest in these regions. We can’t cede any territory.

Jaime Harrison on running as a Democrat in South Carolina

I tell folks all the time, before I’m a Democrat, I’m a Black man, I’m a South Carolinian, I’m an American. When I started this race, my whole message to everyone is that this is not about Democrats versus Republicans or progressives versus conservatives. Those are the battles you have in D.C. This is about what’s right versus what’s wrong.

When you think about what’s going on here in South Carolina, take party off. There are a lot of things going wrong right now. They need to be addressed and they need to be fixed. When you got rural hospitals that are closing, the people in those communities don’t care if there’s a Democratic solution to keep their hospital open or a Republican solution. They just want their hospital open.

When they drive over a pothole or live in a community that doesn’t have broadband internet. Again, it doesn’t matter for them if it’s a Democratic broadband or Republican broadband, they don’t care. They just want broadband in their communities. And so, I’m talking about those issues in that light. Because, again, it’s basic fundamental kitchen table issues that people need to be addressed. And we haven’t had the leadership that’s been doing that over the past few years. But I’m focused on it like a laser. I’ve rolled out a rural hope agenda for how we rebuild and revitalize rural communities.

I sort of tongue-in-cheek always say I want to start a new group called the Dirt Road Democrats. Folks who know what it’s like growing up on a dirt road and the challenges but also the joy of living in communities that are just like that

If you live in a rural community in South Carolina, and you see that we are having constant flooding? Then the question is, why is that? What is creating that? Why are we in that position?

When you are a farmer in South Carolina—and you’re a soybean farmer—and you get frustrated that now you can’t sell your soybeans to China? Why is that? What is the underlying interest? What has motivated this? How do we address these things?

You live on the coast. You know, here in South Carolina, tourism is a large industry. $24 billion came into South Carolina in 2018 in terms of tourism. And much of that is coastal tourism, going to Myrtle Beach and Charleston and Hilton Head. And you know, when they start talking about drilling off the coast of South Carolina, what impact does that have on you? What happens if there’s an oil spill? How would that impact your environment? But how will they impact your livelihood?

What I’m trying to do is drill down a layer deeper in terms of my conversations with the people of South Carolina, and really talk about the things that they are experiencing, and then bring them back up and say, “this is the source of that.” In order for us to really tackle these barriers for you and these issues that you’re dealing with, we got to go to the root cause. That’s why it’s important. That’s why Democrats are talking about these issues, because they are now trickling down into your community into your neighborhood. And they’re having an impact on how you live your life. They could have an even larger impact on the lives of your kids in 10, 20, 30 years from now.

Will it be easy in terms of some of these transitions? No. But I think if we’re thoughtful about it, if we work with the people in those communities, we can find ways to transition ourselves so that it’s over all better for all of us.

I try not to get caught up in the battles on Green New Deal, and this and that, but look at what are the underlying interests?

The one thing we know for sure, climate change is here. It is real. These hurricanes that are being spawned up out of the Atlantic at a much more frequent pace than when I was a kid are real. The ones that you are seeing constantly hitting the Gulf Coast are real. The thousand-year floods that are now taking place every other year are real.

There’s a reason why Charleston is now looking at building a wall because the sea level is rising. That impact is real. What are we going to do in order to address that? We have to do something. We can’t just hope and pray and say that, you know, things are gonna get better. Because we also know that the Bible says, “Faith without works is dead.” We’ve got to put in the work to address the issues that are having an impact on people right now.

I’m willing to work with anybody, Democrats, Republicans, independents, men and women from Mars and Venus. It doesn’t matter, as long as we make some progress to really improve the lives of people in my state.

To hear more from Jaime Harrison about the challenges he faces in 2020, listen to the full episode here.

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