Jaime Harrison of South Carolina campaigned to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Friday, selling himself as “a poor black man from South Carolina” who knows young voters, knows the grass roots far from Washington and would be free to devote himself full time to the job.
In his pitch to state party officials from around the country, he spoke about the pain of the party’s losses last month, and how his 2-year-old son came into his room asking why he was sad.
As he leaned over to kiss his son, he said, he realized it wasn’t simply the fact that Hillary Clinton had lost. It was the consequences of political failure, for his generation, the generation of his son and the generation of his mother.
“I’m a poor black man from South Carolina,” he said. “My whole life people have been telling me to sit down. That’s not going to happen anymore. I’m not going to have it.”
Harrison, who is not well known outside his home state, got a potential boost when one of the better-known rivals dropped out of the competition Friday.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean opened the forum with a video message in which he removed himself from consideration to lead the party for a second time.
Dean was not only better known but also was the father of the party’s strategy of pouring money and effort into all the states, even those unlikely to vote Democratic in presidential campaigns. Harrison promises a similar approach, and Dean’s withdrawal removes that part of the competition.
Also, Dean urged the Democratic National Committee to elect “a full time” chairman. That was a veiled shot at the presumed front-runner for the job, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
Ellison said he had been struggling with the idea of whether to resign his seat in the House of Representatives in order to take the top seat on the Democratic committee. He said, however, that he would make the DNC position his top priority. “We’re in an all-hands-on-deck moment,” he said.
Harrison’s other rival to head the committee is DNC vice chair and New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley.
At least one party official said the race remained wide open. Bob Mulholland, a DNC member from California expects more candidates to jump in before the winter vote.
“Ellison is a nonstarter with too many DNC members. He has a job and he has too much political baggage,” he said. “Harrison is probably too inexperienced and might not be ready.”
Otto Lee, a DNC member from California, said that Ellison was the brightest light, but that he’s also fully employed in Congress. The DNC needs a full time chair, Lee said. “He owes the people who elected him his full attention,” he said. “But we need that full attention, as well.”
Alan Clendenin, a DNC member from Florida, said it’s too early for any candidate to make a mark. State party organizations are dealing with their own issues right now, and he expects more candidates to enter the field before the vote.
“They’re all well-meaning,” he said. “But it’s too early to even think about picking a candidate.”
Harrison’s case focused on grass-roots politics, being willing to go door to door and spend money as a national party in elections in all 50 states. He said that in 2008, as Barack Obama swept to victory and Democrats controlled the White House as well as the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the party thought it was looking at lasting change.
Now that this recent election has left the national Democratic Party in shambles, he likened it to a beautiful big house decorated impeccably but built on a foundation that had been neglected.
“We thought we could bottle the Obama magic and bring it out to use again and again, but that just wasn’t the case,” he said in an interview before the meeting. At the forum, he added: “This past election was like a punch in the gut. It hurt, and it still hurts. ”
Harrison said while that the election had left Democrats panicked about their party’s future on a national level, they should think back to 2004, when Republicans controlled the White House, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and how the Democrats had retaken the Senate and House in 2006 and the White House in 2008.
“If we build a strong organization, it doesn’t matter if you have a political phenom like a once-in-a-generation Barack Obama or a policy wonk like Hillary Clinton: We will win,” he said.
Harrison said the DNC had to stop handing the control of the party to the presidential candidate every four years.
“We have to stop with all the window dressing in here,” he said. “This has to be the very last election cycle in which the presidential candidate takes over the DNC. The DNC is not just about the presidential race.”
Harrison, who at 40 is the youngest of the candidates, said the party faced problems with young voters.
Young voters agree with Democrats on issues but don’t identify with the party. As a candidate who understands the struggles of millennials, down to carrying $160,000 in college debt that he’s still paying off, he said, he can reach such voters.
Lawrence Murakami, the vice chair of the Alaska party, said he’d heard “a lot that Alaskans wanted to hear” from all three candidates.
However, he noted, the three had similar platforms.
“I’m not sure I heard much that would help me make a choice between them,” he said.
The Texas state party chair, Gilberto Hinojosa said that he liked what he heard but also expects other candidates to emerge before February.
Ron Harris, a DNC member from Minnesota, said it was important the candidates struck a balance between diving too deep into despair and using the fact that Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote to think change wasn’t necessary.
“We could have seen people going in multiple directions today, we could have over-corrected to the right to appeal to Trump supporters, or we could have said the popular votes shows we were okay,” he said. “What we heard was that we do have problems, but that we can fix them. It was good.”