A close relationship to Vice President Joe Biden could be something of a double-edged sword for a former aide running for the South Carolina congressional seat held by Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney.
On the one hand, Fran Person has posted strong fundraising numbers, boosted by his former boss. Biden sent out a fundraising email on Person’s behalf soon after the announcement that he was running. Biden then hosted a fundraiser in June, and he has made some individual calls to raise money, according to the vice president’s office.
On the other hand, it could be risky for Person to ally himself too closely with the White House in an election year defined by rage and frustration with the Washington establishment, especially in a Republican-leaning district.
Person said that while he understood that frustration he heard from voters in his district, he would apply the main lesson of eight years serving as a personal aide to Biden: “simply getting things done.”
“It really isn’t a Democrat or Republican thing to want leaders go up there and get things done again, move things forward,” he said in an interview.
Person, 33, worked with the vice president for eight years before returning to South Carolina in 2014 to work at his alma mater, the University of South Carolina. A former offensive guard for the Gamecocks, he served in an advisory role on student-athlete initiatives for USC President Harris Pastides and athletics director Ray Tanner.
When Person announced his bid for the 5th Congressional District seat, Mulvaney quickly tied him to the political establishment that voters in this election have vented against.
“His resume screams Washington insider,” Mulvaney said in a Facebook post in March. “I suppose it would be possible to come up with a candidate or a set of principles that is more out of touch with South Carolina, but you’d have to work to do so.”
Person said Mulvaney was missing a key point that set the two opponents apart.
“I’m not a politician, though,” Person said. “I played football at the University of South Carolina. When I do stuff I’m looking more through an athlete’s mind that is separate from all that.
“I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican or your race or religion, it doesn’t have anything to do with it. When people say they are frustrated with Washington, they’re frustrated with government that doesn’t work.”
Person out-raised Mulvaney in his first month after announcing, bringing in $175,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings. While the district wasn’t considered competitive this cycle, the strong showing led to it being labeled one of the country’s “Red to Blue Emerging Races” by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
By the end of June, Person had raised $403,443. He received contributions from the political action committee of South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, as well as former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, former South Carolina Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian and current Chair Jaime Harrison.
However, by the end of the second quarter Mulvaney still had almost double the cash on hand going into the final months of the campaign.
While Biden’s fundraising help has certainly been a boost, Person said the real impact went beyond raising money.
“The one thing, if you’re going to measure how the vice president has helped my campaign, is that he’s like another father to me, looking at all he’s taught me and I got to learn at the feet of him,” he said, adding that Biden’s son Beau, who passed away last year from cancer, had been “like a brother” to him.
Most importantly, Person’s eight years with the vice president were an education in how to find common ground to get things done, he said.
“Working for a guy like Vice President Biden was working with a guy who built a career out of building relationships. . . . You can disagree, but working together, moving forward, that’s what people are yearning for,” he said.
Voters in his district have not seen that in Mulvaney’s leadership, Person’s campaign argues.
When Mulvaney won the seat in the 2010 tea party wave, he became the first Republican to represent the district in more than a century. It had been represented by Democratic Rep. John Spratt for nearly three decades. After the 2010 census led to redistricting, the region became more solidly Republican.
Mulvaney is one of the most conservative legislators in Congress and a founding member of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus. He was out of town and unavailable for an interview for this story.
“This is bigger than winning a seat back for Democrats; I really mean it,” Person said. “Mulvaney is a Freedom Caucus guy. He represents an ideology, a group that is responsible for the paralysis of bipartisanship in the House of Representatives – I saw it firsthand.”
Farmers in his district still dealing with last year’s catastrophic floods or workers who depend on budget-strapped Shaw Air Force Base are sick of seeing politicians on television just talking about scoring political points, Person said.
“Democrats and Republicans, people are tired of both of them,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, I just want somebody who’s going to fight for me.’ ”
Person landed the job with Biden after approaching the vice president at a USC reception his senior year. The month after he graduated – and just days after playing in the Independence Bowl – Person started as a driver and staff assistant. From Biden’s Senate office to months of campaigning to the White House, Person became a close aide and confidant to Biden and his family.
With the vice president, he traveled to 47 states and 49 of the 50 countries Biden visited as vice president, skipping only a trip to Cyprus when his second daughter was born.
Although no appearances have been scheduled yet, Person said he hoped to campaign with Biden sometime in the coming months.
“I would love it if the vice president could come down here. It would mean a lot to me personally to go around my district with him and talk to folks,” he said. “It would be an honor.”