By Barney Blakeney
Former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jamie Harrison is set to challenge Sen. Lindsey Graham in the November 3 general election to become the first Democratic senator from South Carolina since Fritz Hollings retired in 2005. He perhaps is mounting the most serious challenge Graham has faced in years.
I used to like Graham. When he first went to the House of Representatives in 1995, I thought he did a fair job working across the aisle with Democrats. It won him some disfavor among staunchly conservative Republicans who sought to unseat him. But he seemed to change when he was elected to the Senate in 2005. Today I see Graham as ridiculously ultra conservative. I’m almost saddened to see Graham emerge as a Donald Trump clone, though on rare occasions he breaks from of the Trump camp.
The alternative Harrison offers is a breath of fresh air. I first met the 44-year-old Orangeburg native in 2008 while working for Clay Middleton’s S.C. House campaign. Those guys were Jim Clyburn protégés. Middleton had a slew of young guns running his campaign. They ran a tech savvy campaign. I thought it was a mistake. We live in a modern technical age, but old school back in the day political campaigns still is what works – meet and greet/press the flesh. Old schoolers represent the vast majority of Black voters. If you want their votes, you gotta go old school campaigning. Middleton lost the election.
Since then, Harrison has emerged as a leading character on the state’s political stage. He served as chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party from 2013 to 2017 and is an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In 2016, he ran for Democratic National Committee chair. We talked numerous times while he ran the state party. I found him to be a smart guy.
Harrison was raised by his mother and grandparents. He attended Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School and received a scholarship to Yale University where he majored in political science. After graduating from Yale in 1998, he was appointed COO of College Summit, a non-profit organization that helps low-income youth find a path to college and a career. He earned his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in 2004.
After leaving College Summit, Harrison became involved in politics, working for Jim Clyburn as his floor director of operations while Clyburn was the Majority Whip of the House of Representatives. Harrison went on to serve as executive director of the House Democratic Caucus and vice chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. He later served as a lobbyist for the Podesta Group. In May 2013, Harrison became chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. He is the first African American to have served in the role.
When I heard Harrison was running for the S.C. Senate seat I wondered “What could this guy be thinking? Who can beat Lindsey Graham in South Carolina?” Shows you how much I know.
Since announcing his candidacy, Harrison has emerged as the quintessential candidate to succeed Lindsey Graham. Beyond the Trump cult, Harrison has demonstrated the qualities of a Yale educated/Georgetown U. lawyer independent thinking Republican voters can relate to and the compassion Democratic voters espouse. As an independent voter, I see Harrison as a viable alternative to an increasingly more politically pandering Graham.
I asked a friend, political consultant Abe Jenkins, what he thought. He said Harrison probably is the Democrats’ strongest choice to run against Graham. Even with Graham’s hefty campaign war chest, Harrison has been competitive, raising more funding in a single quarter than any other candidate before him. Tech savvy Jenkins said Harrison has a “solid chance” of beating Graham according to political polls.
“Harrison’s a really good candidate,” Jenkins said. “He’s extremely intelligent and he knows how to build coalitions. He has the experience, capabilities and skillset. There’s no questioning his ability to implement policy or his knowledge of how the system works. The question is can Harrison win in this state.”
I think that’s the question South Carolina voters must ask themselves – can our voters look beyond blind party loyalty to support a candidate who can take us into the Future? I think we have to. Our world is changing. We must also change. I think that change can begin with Jamie Harrison.