Although South Carolina is among the nation’s most staunchly conservative Republican states, S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison thinks he’s best suited to head the national party as Democratic National Committee chairman. If successful Harrison, South Carolina’s first black state party chairman, at 40 would become the national party’s youngest chairman. But the answer to whether or not Harrison has the chops to lead the national party depends on who’s asked.
The Orangeburg native cut his political teeth as director of operations for Sixth Congressional Dist. Cong. James Clyburn while Clyburn was House Majority whip. With a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Yale University and a Juris Doctor Degree from Georgetown University, Harrison quickly moved up the party’s leadership ladder. He served as executive director of the House Democratic Caucus and vice chair of the S.C. Democratic Party before in 2013 ascending to the chairmanship. He is a lobbyist for his Columbia-based company, Podesta Group.
But as they say it’s not what you know, but who you know that counts. Knowing one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent and powerful legislators doesn’t hurt. Clyburn has carried more than one young protégé to the pinnacles of party leadership on his coattails. Still, being one of Clyburn’s young turks has its pitfalls.
Charleston Rep. Wendell Gilliard defeated Clyburn protégé, Clay Middleton in an upsetting 2008 victory to win the S.C. House Dist. 111 seat. He said Harrison is part of an elite leadership that has lost its connection to the grassroots foundation of the party. That dynamic also exists at the national level, Gilliard said. Despite the generational shift, a Harrison chairmanship of the national committee would continue that elitist philosophy, he said.
Dimitri Cherny who unsuccessfully in November challenged Republican Mark Sanford for the First Congressional Dist. seat characterized Harrison as a decent guy who got into politics for the right reasons, but soon found himself a part of the party establishment. South Carolina’s party leadership, like the national party leadership, couldn’t get past their own egos and lost elections supporting candidates because they felt it was a candidates’ turn rather than supporting candidates who could win, he said.
But Harrison responds to his critics saying you must consider the source. With only four full time staffers at the state level, volunteer position requires 50-60 hours a week of his time, said the three-year veteran chairman. Despite South Carolina being redneck red, the party still managed to pull off some victories, Harrison said. He’ll take some concepts like the Clyburn Fellowship that recruits and trains young Democrats for service in the party and as candidates to the national committee. He thinks his experience as a state chairman offers a perspective on the importance of state parties as a foundation for the national party.
The DNC Chairman election will be held Feb. 23 in Atlanta, Ga. Harrison will face three other contenders including Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.