Politics & Government

2020 candidates mostly stay away from Fritz Hollings funeral

It might seem like a golden opportunity for the past and future of South Carolina’s Democratic politics to intersect.

But when the Palmetto State buries Fritz Hollings next week, it appears the Lowcountry will be laid to rest without any of the current field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in attendance.

Of 10 presidential campaigns contacted by The State, most confirmed their candidate will not attend the public funeral at The Citadel’s Summerall Chapel on Tuesday. Campaigns for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper had not responded by publication.

S.C. politics watchers say that’s probably for the best.

“Most of them have no political or professional relationship with (Hollings),” said Danielle Vinson, political science professor at Furman University. “It would look like they were campaigning at a funeral, and it’s not a good idea to campaign at a funeral.”

Hollings last ran for office two decades ago and has been out of public office for 14 years, long before even the senators among the current field reached office. Only Sanders, a Vermont Independent, served in Congress at the same time as Hollings, but Sanders was in the U.S. House until two years after Hollings retired, when Sanders was elected to the Senate.

“He’s from a very different generation,” Rick Whisonant, a York Technical College political scientist, said of Hollings. “All the candidates out there now are more interested in being the candidate of the future.”

2020 politics won’t be completely absent from the funeral, scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday. Former Vice President Joe Biden will deliver a eulogy. Although not a declared candidate, Biden has led most early polls on who Democrats prefer to be their nominee.

But Biden, a longtime senator himself, was a congressional colleague of Hollings and knew the late senator personally. Biden similarly spoke at the funeral of Hollings’ longtime Senate partner Strom Thurmond in 2003.

“That was noteworthy because it was across party lines,” Vinson said. “They were different party leaders, but they could become friends.”

Likewise with Hollings, “Biden makes sense because he served with Hollings, they were friends, and the political connection prompts them to be there.”

But Whisonant doubts a potential Biden campaign could win any political points for anything he says at the funeral. “Do you think anybody will remember it in February?” he said.

Before he passed away Saturday at the age of 97, Hollings was a fixture in South Carolina’s Democratic politics for decades. He was the state’s governor during a key period in the civil rights era, then served as a U.S. senator for almost 40 years.

He retired from public office only in 2004, one of the few prominent Democrats left in statewide office and a holdover from the era in which the Democratic Party dominated the “Solid South.”

In his own time, Hollings deviated from the party’s current norms on race, using racist language to describe groups of people. He once referred to Mexicans as “wetbacks,” African leaders as “cannibals” and Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” as the “Blackbow Coalition.”

But Vinson doubts that history led any candidates to stay away. “I’m sure most of them are not even aware of it,” she said.

The campaigns haven’t altered their plans since Hollings’ death. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will be campaigning in Charleston and Beaufort on Monday, the day before the burial and as Hollings lies in state at the S.C. State House in Columbia. California’s Sen. Kamala Harris will be in South Carolina later in the week, while Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke will be campaigning here this weekend.

None plan to find time during the trip to attend the funeral.

“Hollings represented his time frame, and he did it well,” Whisonant said. But when picturing the Democratic Party of 2020, “he would have a hard time recognizing it today.”

Follow more of our reporting on First in the South

See all 10 stories
Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.