Politics & Government

Could Democrats really pick little-known South Carolina native as their new chairman?

The SCDP chair Jaime Harrison introduces Congressman James Clyburn at a Democratic Rally held in the JH Adams Gymnasium on Allen University's campus in Columbia, S.C.
The SCDP chair Jaime Harrison introduces Congressman James Clyburn at a Democratic Rally held in the JH Adams Gymnasium on Allen University's campus in Columbia, S.C. The State

He wants to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee and help lead the party back from the wilderness. So far, though, he’s just Jaime Who?

“I just don’t know him personally,” said Teresa Garcia Krusor, a longtime Democratic National Committee member from Kansas.

“Who?” asked Rosalind Wyman of California, another DNC veteran.

As Jaime Harrison seeks to lead the party, the first challenge for the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party is simply to become better known. He’ll get his first high-profile chance Friday, when he and three rivals appear before state party chairs from around the country at a “Future of the Party Forum” in Denver. State party officials are part of the DNC and get to vote for the new leader.

Harrison faces better-known figures. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., has emerged as a favorite of the party’s liberal wing. He’s won the backing of incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and party presidential runner-up Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt.

The approximately 447 members of the Democratic National Committee, the party’s governing body, plan to vote in February to replace Donna Brazile, the interim chairman. It’ll take a majority to win.

Also in the mix are Howard Dean, the former party chairman and Vermont governor whose “50-state strategy” is still lauded by party regulars, and Raymond Buckley, the highly regarded New Hampshire party chairman. Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which advocates for abortion rights, is also said to be weighing a bid.

Dean, Buckley and Harrison are all emphasizing that they’d be full-time chairmen.

Our next DNC chair must work full-time to rebuild our party.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., in an email to Democratic National Committee members touting Jaime Harrison

Harrison starts with plenty of goodwill. “He’s very well liked by those who have worked with him,” said Krusor.

“He’s salt of the earth. There’s nothing bad I can say,” said Alexandra Gallardo-Rooker, California party first vice chair. But, she conceded, “it’s going to be harder for him.”

Harrison has to overcome not only his lack of name recognition and his rivals, but the recent Democratic record in South Carolina.

“Ineffective. What’s he won?” asked David Woodard, a Clemson, S.C.-based Republican consultant.

Republicans hold the governorship, both U.S. Senate seats and six of the seven House seats. Democrats thought Gov. Nikki Haley was vulnerable in 2014, after she endured a tense relationship with officials in her own party and was lagging among independents. Then she won by 14 points.

Donald Fowler, a former DNC and South Carolina chairman, said there’s no favorite yet as members are just getting started considering the candidates.

Harrison will stress his roots. An Orangeburg native, born to a teenaged mother who dropped out of school when he was born, he excelled at school and graduated from Yale University. He interned for Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and at age 30 became executive director for the House Democratic Caucus. When Clyburn became House Majority Whip in 2007, he named Harrison his floor director, or top vote-counter.

He’s got a lot of political experience.

Donald Fowler, former national and South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, on Jaime Harrison

The job came with challenges. Democrats had regained the House majority after 12 years, and that meant dozens of moderate southerners who were not always agreeable to the more liberal leadership’s policies.

Harrison developed a knack for avoiding ideological disputes, ultimately helping win votes for a host of measures including hate crime and climate change legislation.

Harrison’s pitch to Democratic Party officials will involve his ability to organize and count.

“The Democratic Party has to transform itself,” he told McClatchy in an interview. “We can’t just pop up every two or four years and hope people will support us.”

He wants the national party to provide more staff and more financial resources and expertise for state parties, more visibility in communities – similar to the strategy Republicans have employed over the past four years.

The national party, Harrison maintained, has been starving state parties for years, failing to give them enough to hire staff or even pay bills. That’s why DNC members fondly recall Dean’s 2005-09 stewardship.

We need to rebuild trust between people and the party.

South Carolina Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison

Krusor, a former Kansas party vice chair, recalled how Dean would have the national party check with each state and ask their needs. In Kansas, officials wanted help reaching more Hispanic voters and voters who lived in remote areas.

Harrison is touting the 50-state strategy. “We should not be so much of a D.C. party,” he said. “The state parties are the engine we need to get over the hill and we don’t have that.”

That begs an obvious question: If Democrats need a 50-state strategy, why not turn to Dean, the architect? “I love Howard Dean,” Harrison said. “But I’m uniquely qualified.” He knows congressional Democrats, he said, and has the vote-counting on his resume.

Harrison wants to bring the sort of party-building ideas he used in South Carolina to the national stage. He’s hosted Chair Chats, video interviews with local officials and activists to discuss issues and showcase Democratic talent.

He’s organized issues conferences around the state to discuss policy and train activists. He’s launched the Clyburn Political Fellowship program to train hundreds of young people.

The program involves 50 fellows – one from each county, and four statewide – who participate in seminars and training sessions. They prepare to run for office, manage issue or political campaigns and become active in local and county politics.

One question he could face with DNC members involves his work with the Podesta Group as a lobbyist.

Harrison has been on unpaid leave from the firm since announcing his chairmanship bid in mid-November. He stressed that his boss was Tony Podesta, not his brother John Podesta, who ran Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign but has not worked for the group for years.

Harrison’s convinced Democrats will understand. Winning the chairmanship is akin to getting all sorts of House Democrats together on a vote. “I know what it is to bring people together,” he figures.

DNC members want to know more. After all, said Wyman, “he’s a new name.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid