Members of the Democratic National Committee will meet in Denver this weekend for the first time since Election Day. They’ll certainly talk about what went wrong in 2016, but they’ll also begin the process of finding a new committee chairman.
Rep. Keith Ellison has generated the most buzz so far, but Ellison’s part-time availability for the job has left some DNC members looking for a Plan B.
That could come in the candidacy of Jaime Harrison, the 40-year-old chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Harrison is a protege of Rep. Jim Clyburn, who endorsed him for the DNC job this week, more than 20 years after Harrison first met Clyburn as a high school student in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where they’re both from.
Harrison discussed his impression of where things stand, and what needs to change:
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Q: Let’s talk a little bit about where you’re from.
A: I grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina. My mom was about 16 years old when she had me. She dropped out of high school and my grandparents helped to take care of me.
My grandfather finished fourth grade and my grandmother finished eighth grade. Both of them had to stop school in order to work to help take care of their families. If you ever drive on (Interstate) 95 in South Carolina, you’re probably driving on roads my grandfather helped pave. He didn’t have a lot of money or a lot of education, but in terms of core values, you can’t find a better person.
Q: How did you end up at Yale?
A: Yale was never on my radar at all. But I started receiving information from them after I took the College Boards. We didn’t have money for campus visits, so the first time I stepped on the Yale campus was the day I had to be there for orientation. A lot of friends told me, ‘You’re not going to get in.’ But I have always been one of those people who, if you tell me something I can’t do, it adds fuel to the fire and it means I’m going to do it.
Q: I know you had scholarships, but was Yale a struggle for you financially or culturally?
A: It was very hard. On the social front, I felt like a Wal-Mart kid. At Yale, there’s old money and new money, and I had no money. I had always been a confident person, but my confidence was shaken my fist year. But I got involved with the Yale Political Union and the Black Political Forum. I found my voice, my confidence came back, and I started knocking it out of the box.
Q: How did you end up on the Hill?
A: I was running a nonprofit in Washington and going to Georgetown Law School at night when Clyburn’s office reached out to me. He became House (Democratic) Caucus Chair in 2006 and I became executive director. When Democrats won the majority, Clyburn was elected whip and I ran his floor operation. He’s been that person who trusted in a young person and he provided me an opportunity.
Q: So let’s fast forward to 2016. You were a state party chair. What went wrong for Democrats?
A: We could have forecast 2016 in 2014 or 2012 or 2010. People want to say Hillary Clinton didn’t talk to these voters or Hillary Clinton wasn’t Barack Obama. If you have a healthy organization, it doesn’t matter if you have a charismatic leader like Barack Obama or a policy wonk like Hillary Clinton. You can still win.
Q: What’s not healthy about the DNC?
A: For almost a decade now, we have ignored state parties, which are the foundation for our party. It is the engine that keeps us running forward. As a result, there’s an idea that every two or four years you can flip a switch and win an election. That is not the case.
Q: What’s your idea to change that?
A: The big thing is the Democratic Party cannot simply be a political organization that begs for votes every two or four years. It also has to be a community organization, talking to voters and helping them address the pocketbook issues and barriers they face on a day-to-day basis.
You have to address people, not based on what you think, but on the feelings they actually have.
Q: What role should the DNC play in the Trump era?
A: It’s going to be about organization, it’s galvanizing grassroots to push back on Trump and the people who support Trump. I think people are overanalyzing this election. There wasn’t a surge of Trump supporters who came out, that wasn’t the case when you look at turnout. The base of our party, which looks like America, has not been mobilized, hasn’t been talked to, hasn’t been listened to, haven’t been given something to believe in so that they can go out and vote, and vote in force.
Q: Do you put yourself on the moderate to progressive spectrum for Democrats?
A: I hate all of that. I’m not a Bernie Democrat or a Hillary Democrat or any of those things, I’m a Democrat who believes in opportunity for all and I will fight for that.
Q: Are you a still working as a lobbyist?
A: I'm not currently working as a lobbyist. I have de-registered and am on unpaid leave from the Podesta Group. I started working for the Podesta Group, heading up their transportation practice. Some of my clients were US Air, GM, the South Carolina Ports Authority, University of South Carolina. When we moved to South Carolina, I went to a part-time basis. But when you’re a young guy with $160,000 of student debt and a grandma to take care of, you’ve got to have a job that allows you to do all of that and also your life’s work, which is what I’m doing as party chair.