Politics & Government

Next week, 2020 Dems debate. But first: courting SC voters at Clyburn’s fish fry

Thousands turn out for Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry in Columbia

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn holds his “World Famous Fish Fry” in Columbia on Friday, June 21, 2019. It's the state Democrats’ annual party that lets average South Carolinians mix and mingle with local and national politicians.
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U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn holds his “World Famous Fish Fry” in Columbia on Friday, June 21, 2019. It's the state Democrats’ annual party that lets average South Carolinians mix and mingle with local and national politicians.

Shortly after 11 p.m., 21 Democratic presidential candidates in the most diverse field in history posed for a group photo. They were all smiles, all sporting the same t-shirt made specially for Jim Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry.

The moment of unity won’t last: Next week, the two presidential debates will force contenders to draw stark policy differences — and take direct personal shots.

But on Friday, unity — or at least a show of it — reigned supreme at the 27th installment of the South Carolina Democrat’s annual political fish fry.

Here are highlights from the night.

Technical difficulties

Not enough hot fish. Long lines. Hard to hear. And, no time for walk up music or dancing to the Electric Slide.

In exchange for hosting the biggest fish fry in Clyburn Fish Fry history, certain longtime fixtures of the event fell to the wayside. A once-scrappy gathering in a parking garage was now a massive national spectacle, and there were sacrifices along the way.

Many of the more than 7,000 S.C. Democrats on hand Friday night said they weren’t able to get the fried fish and white bread they’d been promised after waiting in line for close to an hour. Some got tired of waiting and gave up.

“I’m hungry and I’m tired,” said one woman, who asked not to be named and instead concentrated on her fish, which she considered a small consolation.

It was unclear whether staff ran out of free alcohol, but one was spotted working his way through the crowd with a handle of vodka.

By late Friday, thousands had filled Coble Plaza to capacity, and eventually people were turned away the door.

Told by security that Biden had already spoken — he was second on stage — some in line uttered, “Ugh.”

Typically, following speeches, candidates go out into the crowd to mingle with the people. Clyburn had been hopeful candidates and South Carolinians would go to take photos together at a designated “selfie station.”

But once the group photo had been staged, most candidates dashed for the exits, and sweaty and exhausted attendees headed toward the exits, too.

A few candidates shook hands on the other side of a metal barrier. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., was the only presidential candidate seen outside the security parameters to talk to voters immediately following the speeches. Vice President Joe Biden mingled later.

Another tradition also fell to the wayside: Few stuck around for the line dances that have become signatures of the Clyburn Fish Fry. Not even Clyburn could be seen doing the Electric Slide or the Charleston Wobble.

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Bernie breaks the rules

The fish fry got underway before the VIP’s had a chance to make their way over from the S.C. Democratic Party banquet near by. Organizers instructed candidates to enter the event through a back entrance and stay out of sight until they were called up on stage to give their speeches. One candidate, however, didn’t follow those rules.

Shortly after 9 p.m., murmurs rippling through Coble Plaza turned into thrills of delight as South Carolinians caught their first glimpse of a presidential candidate in the wild: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Sanders weaved his way through the crowd, shaking hands and posing for selfies. Asked whether they were excited to see the candidate because they were fans, many said they were not yet committed.

“It’s just I’ve never seen him before,” one woman explained.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders enters Jim Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry at Edventure, featuring twenty one Democratic presidential candidates. Jeff Blake jblake@thestate.com

Everybody loves Clyburn

For attendees, the 2019 fish fry was a chance to see 21 presidential candidates all in one place.

For the candidates, the event was an opportunity to endear themselves to Clyburn.

Though Clyburn has pledged to stay neutral throughout the S.C. Democratic primary, it was not stopping presidential aspirants on a hot, muggy Friday night from doing everything they could to show off in front of the state party kingmaker.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas delivered remarks that seemed designed to appeal to Clyburn’s interests, praising the local Reconstruction era monument Clyburn helped establish and condemning the tainted drinking water in the small S.C. city of Denmark.

Former Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee boasted he stood with Clyburn against the war in Iraq. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio urged the crowd to thank Clyburn for his service in the civil rights movement — “and some damn good fish.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden bragged this was his third fish fry and praised Clyburn as “the highest ranking African American in the history of the United States of America — other than the guy I worked with for eight years,” referring to President Barack Obama.

Clyburn, who has battled some accusations he has a preference for Biden, worked to receive each candidate with an equal measure of enthusiasm.

Everybody loves Jaime

The fish fry Friday actually consisted of 22 miniature campaign rallies: 21 presidential and one senatorial.

Prior to the main event, Clyburn invited Jaime Harrison onto the stage to address the crowd, referring to the former S.C. Democratic Party chairman as “one of my proteges.”

“I love this young man,” Clyburn added.

Harrison, who is running a longshot but increasingly high-profile bid to unseat incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, led the crowd in a recitation of his popular Twitter hashtag, “send Lindsey home.”

Later in the night, multiple presidential candidates nodded to Harrison as the state’s next senator. Harrison t-shirts and bumper stickers stood out among the other campaign paraphernalia.

It was an exciting night for Harrison, but unspoken was the fact that there is actually another Democratic candidate in the race. Former congressional candidate Gloria Bromell Tinubu is also vying for the nomination to go head-to-head with Graham next year.

Bromell Tinubu was at the fish fry earlier in the evening, but had departed by the time Harrison was brought up on stage.

Awkward moments

The fish fry isn’t just a prime opportunity for presidential candidates to show off their retail politics, but a chance for candidates also to rub shoulders with the state’s most influential Democrat — Clyburn himself.

But has Clyburn gotten too chummy with at least one of the candidates? Some think yes.

This week, former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, a native of Denmark, who ran unsuccessfully in 2014 for lieutenant governor, accused Clyburn of “tacitly endorsing Joe Biden” in an interview with McClatchy DC.

Sellers, who has endorsed U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, said his feelings do not take away from the night.

“This is an event where people get to come out and touch people and see people,” Sellers said. “This isn’t a political event as much as it’s just a real feel-good social event where people can rub shoulders with the next president of the United States.”

But if there were people whispering about Sellers, dozens of others were thrilled to see the CNN celebrity, screaming “Bakari” from the upper level deck of the venue and asking him to pose for selfies.

Another South Carolina Democrat who made waves in party politics was also on hand Friday night: Archie Parnell, the Democratic candidate for South Carolina’s 5th District congressional seat in 2018 whose once-promising bid was tarnished by revelations that decades earlier he’d beaten his ex-wife, was seen weaving in and out of the crowd.

Up on the event stage, there were moments that prompted pause. Clyburn accidentally said John Hickenlooper was from California, not Colorado. Sanders was the only candidate who did not wear a Clyburn fish fry t-shirt during the speech portion of the evening, but he’d found one to put on for the group photo. And Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Yang exited the stage by jumping off it.

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Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.
Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.
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