South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Hopes to Run the Party Nationally

Feb 23, 2017

UPDATE, 2/23/17, 2:30 pm:

The Associated Press is reporting that SC Democratic Party Chair, Jaime Harrison, has withdrawn from the race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Jaime Harrison is running to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee. 447 Democratic officials around the country will vote this Saturday in Atlanta on which of the eight candidates will succeed. With major losses recently both in national and state elections, many look to the next head of the DNC as the key strategist for future success. Harrison is the current head of the South Carolina Democrat Party and believes his experience will translate well to the national stage. 

Harrison was raised in Orangeburg, South Carolina by his grandparents. They lived in a low-income community, Harrison says, adding "I know what it's like to not have your lights on. I know what it's like to be on food stamps." His grandparents didn't get much of an education, so they emphasized one for him.

Harrison showed promise young. In High School, he was president of the National Honors Society. At one point, he organized a regional conference at his school and invited Congressman Jim Clyburn to be the Keynote Speaker. It was a turning point for him. 

"After the speech, I walked up to him and thanked him and said Congressman, I want to work in your office someday. He said, 'that's great, but I want you to go to college first,'" Harrison says.

He did just that at Yale University. One summer, Harrison interned with the Congressman's office. He refers to him affectionately as his "political dad" and first real political influence.

After undergraduate, Harrison moved on to Georgetown University for his law degree. In his second year, Clyburn became Vice Chair of the House Democratic Caucus when he called on Harrison to lead the staffing. He says, "the rest is history, I accepted the position, and that really set me on a political path."

Harrison went on to run floor operations when Clyburn became the Majority Whip for the House.  He then became a principal at the Podesta Group, a well-known lobbying firm in Washington D.C. He's known to have clients primarily in the transportation sector such as Boeing and the State Ports Authority.

In 2013, Jaime became the youngest and first African-American to lead the South Carolina Democratic Party. Into his second term, Harrison threw his hat in the ring for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship.

Harrison says the party is broken. He feels theres no unified message and too much in-fighting. He also feels the party needs to focus more on state and local elections. 

"For far too long the DNC has been the Democratic National Presidential Committee. The sole focus has been on the presidency. We need to reinvest in our state parties, and if we do that, then I think success will come," Harrison says.

The previous South Carolina Democratic Party chair is Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia-based lawyer. He doesn't believe Harrison is the right man for the job. "I'm not saying he's a bad guy. I'm just saying he's the wrong guy," says Harpootlian.

Harpootlian is similarly frustrated with the state of the national Democratic Party, though he doesn't think Harrison is the answer. He points to Harrison’s record as chair in South Carolina.

"We lost seats in the house and the senate, we did not compete effectively for any statewide office, we did not recruit candidates in counties to run. And I think, if he took that record nationally, we can probably guarantee Donald Trump re-election four years from now," he says.

Harpootlian says he believes it's critical for the next leader of the DNC to focus on more local elections, especially in state legislature. That's the body that controls the breakdown of voter districts, a map set to be redrawn in 2021. 

Harpootlian also hopes the new chair will have a strong record in fund-raising and candidate recruitment. He laments past chairs have focused efforts in major donor states like New York and California leaving states like South Carolina without support.

"We need a chairman who thinks, 'Hey, where can we fill seats?' Maybe there's one congressional seat in South Carolina they can put money into and win," Harpootlian says.

Kaye Koonce says Harrison is the right man to do this. The Charleston-based Lawyer is the current vice-chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Koonce says she believes Harrison would be able to draw disillusioned voters to the left -- especially rural ones.

"When you look at the fact that he has been a chair of a small red state and a southern state... [it] gives him a perspective that some of the other candidates don't have," Koonce says.

She says Harrison is adept at fighting uphill battles. After all, he's running the opposing party in a deep red state. In that environment, he's worked hard to land county council seats, fought voter suppression, and started caucuses to ensure all Democratic voters feel listened to: "All the demographic areas that have to be considered are all things that Jamie has already considered and been successful at bringing together."

She adds Harrison also has a broad perspective of Democratic interests -- he's young with plenty of college debt, plus he's lived in both rural and urban communities learning the difficulties of both.

Harrison is running against top contenders Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez. A group of 447 democratic officials will vote this Saturday the 25th.