A few hundred South Carolina Democrats will meet in Columbia today to discuss issues, campaign strategy and political techniques they hope will bring them success this fall.
The intriguing thing is – for a party struggling to rebuild after being hammered in the last 21 statewide elections – they will attend two different meetings.
In late January, the S.C. New Democrats announced it would hold “new leader training” on March 10. About two weeks later, the state Democratic Party announced it would hold an “issues conference” on the same day in the same city at roughly the same time.
The dueling conferences is the party’s first open rift since New Democrats president Phil Noble of Charleston lost the race for state party chairman to Columbia lawyer Dick Harpootlian last May.
Harpootlian said the New Democrats’ event holds no more significance to the Democratic Party than a kid’s soccer game would. “We’re the South Carolina Democratic Party. We recruit candidates and contribute money, effort and time to electing Democrats. I don’t know what he does.”
Noble noted after he lost the chairman’s race, he released a statement asking all his supporters “to join me in supporting our new Chair, Dick Harpootlian, as he carries this battle to the Republicans.” Noble added: “In terms of party unity, he’s attacking me. I’m not attacking him.”
The S.C. New Democrats faction was created in the late 1980s by state Sen. Isadore Lourie, who died in 2003, and former Gov. Dick Riley. It was part of a larger effort among Southern Democrats, including then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, to boost their party’s prospects by pushing it toward the political center. It’s different from the more recently created New Democrat Coalition.
Noble said the new leader training is designed to bring new blood and energy into a party badly in need of both. “I looked through the list of people who registered, and I had never heard of 85 to 90 percent of them,” he said. “That’s what was so encouraging about it.”
He also said the New Democrats are engaged in a struggle for the soul of the party.
“Are we going to be part of a corrupt political system: Democrats and Republicans, it’s called the ‘Good ole boy party.’ Or are we going to be the party of change and reform? That’s the question the Democratic Party has to decide,” he said. “If we continue to do what we’ve been doing, we will continue to lose as we have been.”
But Harpootlian said the New Democrats’ work can hurt because it diverts money and energy that would be better channeled into the party, not a faction.
“Phil Noble can’t connect them with campaigns. He can’t connect them with strategies,” he said. “At our issues conference, we’re going to be talking about issues and try to develop positions that actually will be promoted by the Democratic Party.”
While the party’s Issues Conference is capped at the first 150 people to enroll, the New Democrats event is expected to welcome twice that number.
Neither Noble nor Harpootlian said they foresaw any specific harm being done by today’s conferences.
In fact, Noble is planning a “unity happy hour” after both events at a Columbia bar. “I hope Dick and all his people show up,” he said.