James Smith barely had stepped off the narrow staircase of a friend’s RV outside of S.C. State University on Tuesday when he was confronted by a veteran, who, at first, appeared agitated by the Democrat’s appearance in Orangeburg.
Veterans are being discriminated against and are not being treated as a priority, the older man told Smith, 51.
“I know you are a veteran too,” the man said, shaking Smith’s hand, while expressing support for the Afghan war veteran’s campaign.
It is that moment, that split-second conversation, repeated hundreds of times over the past year, that Smith sees as an indication his campaign strategy is working — a grassroots, door-knocking approach that Smith hopes will put a Democrat in the Governor’s Mansion.
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If Columbia’s Smith is elected on Tuesday, beating incumbent Republican Henry McMaster, it will be a stunning upset. Polls have Smith far behind McMaster in a state that has not elected a Democratic governor in 20 years.
But Smith and his lieutenant governor-running mate, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster, hit the road on Tuesday in a supporter’s RV, plastered with stickers of their faces and the campaign’s slogan — “Leave no one behind.”
‘Ready for new leadership and change’
Huddled over Norrell’s journal, with scribbled talking points, the pair have stopped in Orangeburg, Manning, Darlington, Florence, Chester, Fairfield, Greenville and Charleston over the last week, among others, trying to excite the Democratic base and win over any undecided voters.
The trek is exhausting. But the two have become accustomed to the lifestyle, stopping in three to five counties each day, Norrell said.
In Orangeburg, at the state’s only publicly funded historically black college, Smith expressed support for a Democratic plan to freeze college tuition rates.
In Manning and in Florence, he told the crowd that, on Day 1 in office, he will expand the joint federal-state Medicaid insurance program, an expansion that has been rejected by South Carolina’s Republican governors and GOP-controlled Legislature for years.
Smith also jabbed McMaster over his veto of 2017’s bi-partisan roads bill, which increased the state’s gas tax to help pay the cost of fixing the state’s crumbling roads and bridges, and called for strengthening the state’s K-12 public schools.
Smith likens himself as the state’s next “education governor” — a reference to past Democratic governors, Dick Riley and Jim Hodges — and has called for raising the pay of S.C. teacher above the Southeastern average.
South Carolinians, Smith said, “are ready for new leadership and change.”
“This isn’t about me being governor. It’s not about Mandy being lieutenant governor,” Smith said in Orangeburg Tuesday.
Rather, he said, it is about ensuring every S.C. resident has a seat at the table.
Smith’s supporters say that if any person is able to bring that table together, it is the Columbia Democrat.
“I’m tired of a governor who tells us that tax cuts for his wealthy friends are somehow going to trickle down to us ... while we’ve watched our roads crumble and our schools crumble,” Florence Mayor Stephen Wukela said at an oyster roast. “I’m tired, and I’m ready for some change.”
Former state Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon, said Smith’s message alone is enough reason to vote for him.
“I have known James Smith since the late ‘90s, and I have watched his career and watched the fact that he’s always made the right decisions and he’s always been a leader,” Land said outside of his Manning law office. “He was always looking forward. Never backward.”
Who is that?
But Smith’s first stop Tuesday — in Orangeburg — also highlighted one of the obstacles that he has faced in his candidacy — name recognition.
While Smith has been in the S.C. House for 22 years, representing part of Columbia, he still is little known to many South Carolinians.
“I didn’t know who they were,” S.C. State University student La’Quonda Jeffery, 20, of Darlington, told The State on Tuesday, referring to Smith and Norrell.
The two Democrats appeared at a near-empty auditorium at S.C. State at midday Tuesday.
Former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, attributed the sparse reception to conflicting class, lunch and studying schedules.
But Jeffery wasn’t buying that.
“We feel like if we do vote or if we do actually take a stand ... when you get into the office, all the things that you talked about, we don’t see it,” she said. “Don’t just come at us when it’s something beneficial to you or it’s going to look good on your part. We see you only around this time.”
To win, Smith must have a massive turnout among black voters, who make up almost 60 percent of S.C. Democrats. He also needs to attract independents and moderate Republicans, those unhappy with McMaster’s friendship with President Donald Trump.
Smith has the backing of the state’s most black lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia, one of the country’s most influential Democrats and the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House.
Clyburn backed Smith early in his candidacy and, since, has remained in Smith’s corner, deploying strategies for Smith that, he says, helped Democrat Doug Jones win a special election to the U.S. Senate in the red state of Alabama.
Smith also has stumped with Sellers, who ran, unsuccessfully, for lieutenant governor against McMaster in 2014 and now is a regular CNN contributor.
“I don’t take this (race) lightly,” Sellers told students Tuesday in Orangeburg. “In fact, I want Mandy and James to know from the bottom of my heart how much I thank them for this sacrifice of simply running for office because people don’t understand the difficulty in doing so.”
But is that support enough to win undecided voters, like Jeffery, over next Tuesday?
“No,” she said.
By 2 p.m., Smith and Norrell were back on the road, this time for Manning, where the reception was warmer.
“He knows what’s good for South Carolina,” former Sen. Land said of Smith. “He knows what will change South Carolina.”
Afterward, Smith and Norrell were on to Florence.