GREENVILLE, S.C. — White men dominated campaign staffs for presidential candidates in 1988 when Jonathan Metcalf got his first job in politics with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who made a serious bid for the White House.
Metcalf joined political directors for seven other campaigns during a panel discussion at the Greenville Convention Center in December, and each of the panelists was black. They’re part of an evolving strategy to tap into the most important voting block in the state’s presidential primary.
“It didn’t just happen,” said Metcalf, who is leading Tom Steyer’s South Carolina campaign. “I’m fortunate to have worked with and mentored half of the people on this panel.”
Black voters make up majority of Democratic electorate
Black voters accounted for 55% and 61% of the ballots in 2008 and 2016, respectively, and are expected to cast up to two-thirds of all ballots in South Carolina’s Democratic primary on Feb. 29.
For candidates, it is an opportunity to seize valuable momentum heading into the high-stakes Super Tuesday primaries in 14 states three days later on March 3.
“We will be the springboard into Super Tuesday, and the majority of those Super Tuesday states have significant populations of color and diverse communities much like we do,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson.
Candidates like Steyer, former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former mayor Pete Buttigieg have crisscrossed the state in the months leading up to the South Carolina primary. They’ve pledged to address climate change, economic injustice and health care inequities, and increase funding for historically black colleges and universities.
Trump-era one of ‘ugliest’ in history
But some say the biggest issue may be Trump, himself, and finding a candidate capable of keeping him from a second term.
Greenville’s Mary Duckett is one such voter, telling the Greenville News her primary concern is putting an end to what she called one of the “ugliest” presidential administrations in American history.
“I’m 70-plus and I’ve been through the good, the bad and the ugly,” the community activist said. “This is the ugliest other than segregation. If segregation wasn’t enough, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
For a large share of black voters, Biden has the best chance.
“I think that group is particularly looking at electability,” said Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville. “African American voters would just like someone who is going to win.”
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Biden receives key endorsements
Paige Hill, communications director for Biden’s campaign in South Carolina, said he has forged deep connections with black voters.
“What we are hearing on the ground is that African American voters just know Joe Biden, especially here in South Carolina. They know his heart. They know his character. They know his track record,” Hill said. “South Carolina voters saw him stand faithfully as President (Barack) Obama’s vice president for eight years, and that has really resonated here.”
That experience counts for Helen Nixon, a Greenville resident of 40 years who, like Mary Duckett, said she’s looking for someone who can win.
“He has experience and I feel like he is the best one to beat Trump,” Nixon said. “I feel like on day one he can come with an entourage of people who can help straighten out the mess that we’ve gone through the past three years.”
‘Torn between two lovers’
In the weeks leading up to the state’s Democratic presidential primary, some voters had not yet made up their minds.
Duckett, for example, is torn between Biden and Steyer.
“I’m torn between two lovers,” Duckett laughed.
Duckett likes Biden because she’s known him for years as vice president and thinks he can pull the country together, rather than further divide it. But Steyer, she said, “kinda came out of nowhere.”
“He has a great message and the fact that he won’t take any money from anyone, he doesn’t owe any favors.”
For USC-Upstate student and 25-year-old black voter Ciera Edwards, the challenge is finding a stand-out candidate in a crowded field.
“It’s gonna be tough because so far what I’m seeing is all are saying a lot of the same things as far as what they want to do if they get in office and so it’s gonna take a little bit more time to decide who that vote should go towards,” Edwards said.
Time will tell, said longtime Greenville City Council member Lillian Brock Flemming, for her and many of her constituents who are paying close attention to issues like affordable housing, health care, social justice and stabilizing Social Security.
“The stock market is fine,” she said. “But the stock market is not an issue for 80 or 90% of the people.”
Flemming also said she wants to see the field of candidates solidify.
“They come, and they go,” she said. “I want to be working on somebody who is going to be stable, who is in for the long haul. I don’t know who that is going to be, but hopefully we will get to that particular point pretty soon.”
Steyer trailing Biden, Sanders
A Fox News poll conducted in early January showed Steyer running a distant second in South Carolina among all Democratic voters and black voters. He is now sitting in third place, according to the RealClearPolitics rolling average of South Carolina polls.
Steyer, who became a billionaire as a successful hedge-fund manager before entering politics and pledging with his wife to give away the majority of their wealth, went on his own four-day “People Over Profits” bus tour through the Carolinas to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
State Rep. Leola Robinson-Simpson, a Democrat from Greenville who previously backed Sen. Cory Booker, endorsed Steyer in December.
“I am confident that he will be the people’s president, a president that South Carolinians and African Americans can count on,” she said. “Tom’s focus on improving our failing education system and prioritizing Medicaid expansion is the type of bold action we need.”
Steyer’s wife, Kat Taylor, stumped for him at four predominantly black churches in the Greenville area earlier in January. His son Sam Steyer also campaigned for him in South Carolina.
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Pointing out Steyer’s creation of a progressive nonprofit called NextGen America and the bank that he and his wife founded to help low-income communities, Robertson said “people have underestimated the fact that he’s had relationships (with black voters) prior to him running for president.”
Sanders, Buttigieg fight to gain ground
Sanders, who was soundly beaten by Hillary Clinton in South Carolina’s 2016 Democratic primary, is hoping to do better with the state’s black voters this time. He has been endorsed by several black legislators in the state.
Nina Turner, the national co-chairwoman of Sanders’ campaign, wrote an op-ed piece for The State newspaper in Columbia that harshly criticized Biden.
“Will our community side with former Vice President Joe Biden, who has repeatedly betrayed black voters to side with Republican lawmakers and undermine our progress?” wrote Turner. “Sanders, by contrast, began his work in politics by organizing civil rights protests.”
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was among the top finishers in Iowa, came in second in New Hampshire and came in third in Nevada, which all come before South Carolina on the Democratic calendar. But he has failed to gain traction thus far among black voters in South Carolina, and he’s acknowledged as much.
“It is so important to me to earn the support of black voters,” Buttigieg said during a December campaign stop in Allendale County, which has the highest percentage of black residents in South Carolina. “As somebody who is new on the scene, I have to earn that trust. We’ve got to have those conversations.”
Buttigieg’s campaign began airing a radio ad in South Carolina in January featuring Walter Clyburn Reed, the grandson of U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, the state’s longest-serving congressman.
“Now, Grandpa hasn’t weighed in on the presidential race. But I want to tell you why I’m knocking doors and organizing supporters for my choice, Democrat Pete Buttigieg,” Reed says in the ad. “Mayor Pete represents more than just a voice for my generation. He’s a leader of uncommon decency, honor and dedication to the disenfranchised.”
Buttigieg also picked up an endorsement from Anderson’s first-ever black mayor, Terence Roberts, on Jan. 27.
Rep. James Clyburn’s endorsement is expected to come Wednesday, with wide speculation he will throw his support behind Biden.
‘I’m so proud of the people on this stage’
The political directors who took part in December’s panel discussion each spoke about the merits of their candidate.
Jarvis Houston said Buttigieg reached out to him when his 11-year-old cousin died after being struck by a stray bullet. He also said campaign staffers helped pay for the child’s funeral.
“I want a president that cares about me. That means he cares about the community,” Houston said. “And I want a compassionate president like Pete Buttigieg, and that is why I joined the campaign.”
Jessica Bright-Matthews said she supported Clinton in 2016 but chose to work for Sanders this time because he supports Medicare for all, increasing pay for teachers and providing workers with a living wage. She said her personal experience factored into her decision.
“I did the right thing. I went to college, went to grad school, came back home and no opportunities,” Bright-Matthews said.
Metcalf talked about how Steyer has invested $150,000 in the state Democratic Party and $41,000 in county parties across the state.
“Our idea is to serve the communities that we’re in — and then at least have the ability to ask for their support but first serve those communities,” he said.
Metcalf and others on the panel said whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be a better choice than Trump.
“I’m so proud of the people on this stage,” Metcalf said. “And I’m so proud of the people they represent because any of them will better than the failure and fraud that we have.”
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