For Jaime Harrison the key to change is simple: beat Lindsey Graham in the South Carolina senate race.
If he does that in the upcoming November 2020 Senate election, then that means a sea change in what is regarded as a red state with two Republican senators. In fact, if he does win, there will be a unique political dyad — two Black men representing a state in the U.S. Senate, one Democratic and one Republican (Sen. Tim Scott). But first, he has to get there.
Harrison, 44, a former aide to Rep. James Clyburn, knows all too well what it’s like to see both sides of opportunity. The son of a single teenage mother, he was raised in a mobile home by his grandparents in Orangeburg, South Carolina and would eventually go on to graduate from Yale and Georgetown Law.
BET.com sat down with Harrison to discuss his passion for politics, why it’s time to replace Graham and what it’s like being at the helm of the emergence of a bold, inclusive, movement in Southern politics.
BET.com: Lindsay Graham has been in office a long time and has national recognition, plus South Carolina is considered a red state. What’s your strategy to beat him?
Jaime Harrison: Well listen, as people tell me all the time, this is an uphill battle, but it’s a hill worth climbing. What we have seen in this state right now is there are communities that have lost all sense of hope. There are communities that feel that nobody’s fighting for them. That’s Black communities, Brown communities, and white communities and that’s part of the reason why I’ve gotten into this senate race. And despite the fact that I’m running against somebody who’s been in Washington D.C. for 25 years, who is close with the President, we are seeing that this campaign is like no other campaign we’ve seen in recent history in South Carolina.
We are raising money on par with Lindsey Graham. Last quarter he raised $3.9 million. We’re going to meetings in which we’re having hundreds of folks — Black folks, white folks and all around — who are coming to these rallies because they want to see change.
They want someone who will fight for them. They want someone who understands that when their rural hospital is closed that we need to do something. They want someone who understands the hardships of growing up Black and not having job opportunities. They want someone who understands that in areas like North Charleston there are huge eviction rates and so we’re focused on making sure that the opportunities that were there when I was growing up are there for these generations to come.
BET.com: You were actually nearly tied with Graham in the polls last December. Do you think that’s an indication of things to come?
Jaime Harrison: Voters are ready for a change. They’re very hungry for a change...listen I’m still relatively new on the stage. There’s still a lot of voters who don’t know who I am, but they know who Lindsey Graham is and they don’t like what they see. Once voters get an opportunity to see who I am, we can make this race even more competitive.
BET.com: What makes your campaign different?
Jaime Harrison: We’ve launched a program called Harrison Helps where I go into communities and partner with community organizations and we identify some of the challenges that people are facing on a day to day basis. Then we do something novel in politics these days; we help people.
Last August, we put on a big school supply drive and partnered with the Boys and Girls Club in my hometown, Orangeburg, and we had 700 kids and parents show up. We gave out 400 backpacks, and we raised about $7,000 for school supplies. At the end of the event, a mom came up to me with tears in her eyes and she said, ‘I’ve been praying for months and I didn’t know how I was going to get these school supplies for my kids, but you helped me achieve that.’ And in essence, that’s what this job of being a United States Senator is all about... to see the challenges and the problems that their constituents have and try to utilize their powers to help.
BET.com: Lindsay Graham is a major supporter of Donald Trump. Will you be able to undo much of the wall he and other Republicans have built around the President?
Jaime Harrison: This is what I tell people all the time. We’ve got to get out of the D.C. political frame. This is not about Democrat versus Republcan or progressive versus conservative. It’s ultimately about what’s right versus what’s wrong. What I want to do is make sure I’m focusing on what is right.
BET.com: What are some of the issues that you hear are impacting the people of South Carolina the most?
Jaime Harrison: We need to stop hospitals from closing in this state and across the country. We need to make sure that the folks who should have health care have it. We need to make sure that we’re investing in our public schools. We need to change our criminal justice system so that it is fair and equitable to everybody. We need to make sure that there is infrastructure in all of our communities. We need to fight against the environmental justice issue that very particularly plague Black and Brown communities. There’s so much that we can do.
BET.com: I saw the memo you sent out to the Democratic party pointing out that South Carolina is very important in the larger equation of this presidential election. Does this mean this state is the new New Hampshire?
Jaime Harrison: This is a state where there’s so much opportunity. I believe that what we’re seeing right now is the emergence of a new south. A south that is bold, that’s inclusive, that’s diverse. We saw what Stacey Abrams was able to do in Georgia and what Andrew Gillum was able to do in Florida. I believe that South Carolina is going to be the tip of the spear for that change and we’re going to see it in the 2020 race.
BET.com: Many people I’ve talked to say the Democrats have taken the Black vote for granted. What do you think?
Jaime Harrison: When I was chair of the [South Carolina] Democratic party, I was the first Black chair of the party. I was canvassing back in 2014 and went down this dirt road. I knocked on a door and this elderly African American man came out to ask who I was.
I said I was chair of the party and he looked at me suspiciously and said, “well why are you here.” I explained about the importance of the election and he said, “son, you need to stop right there. You see that road you came up on?’
He went on to say “this has been a dirt road since Ronald Reagan was president. It was a dirt road under the Bushes and Clinton and Obama and it’s still a goddamn dirt road.” And that unless Democrats or Republicans change that, he didn’t want to deal with any of it. He shut the door and went back into his house. I was a little hurt by what he said, but when I thought about it, for that man the most important thing was the fact that he lived on this dirt road.
For generations he had heard politicians, Democrats and Republicans make all these promises about investing in the community and nobody ever kept their promises. There’s a lot of broken promises, now people are tired of hearing the rhetoric and they want to see real action. That’s part of why we are doing Harrison Helps, because we want to show and not tell.
BET.com: This primary election has put South Carolina in the spotlight. But voter turnout was low in 2016 during the last statewide primary, not more than about 40 percent in each county statewide. Do you expect that to change?
Jaime Harrison: It’s definitely changing, and people are concerned. They're concerned about where the direction of the country is going. They’re concerned about the direction of the state. And listen, man, this is the first time -- and this is part of the reason why I got into this race -- it’s the first time we’re in a generation of parents who don’t believe their kids will be better off than they were and that’s disheartening. It’s so important that we change that. That’s why we’re in this and why I’m optimistic about our chances.
BET.com: Would getting elected to the Senate put you on the path to the White House someday?
Jaime Harrison: No [laughs], that is not something I want. What I want to do is focus on how I can be helpful to the people here in South Carolina. When I win this race, South Carolina will be the first state in the history of this nation to have two African American senators, serving at the same time. This seat that I’m running for is a seat that was occupied by Strom Thurmond. This is also a seat once occupied by a man called Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, who was once the governor of South Carolina, but he was also a senator and he would often go to the floor of the U.S. Senate and talk about the joy of lynching Black folks. When I talk about this new South, I think it would be great to turn the chapter by electing another Black man from South Carolina.
BET.com: Can you reveal which of the presidential candidates you plan to support?
Jaime Harrison: As an officer of the DNC, I can’t endorse or come out in terms of support [of one particular candidate], but there are a lot of good folks who are doing some good work and have some great policy ideas. I hope at the end of the day that we pick the best person and somebody who will also commit to fighting for South Carolina.
Madison J. Gray is BET.com’s senior editor reporting from the ground in South Carolina.