Residents living on the Howell Courtblock of Booker Washington Heights in Columbia that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders walked down in Sunday’s steamy afternoon heat described their neighborhood as neglected and politically disengaged.
Several renters along the concrete block row of apartments told The State they had never voted in an election before, let alone seen a presidential candidate up close.
So it was strange — and a nice surprise — to Preston Helms, who said he grew up in the historic black neighborhood located north of downtown off of Farrow Road to find himself shaking hands and briefly chatting with the U.S. senator from Vermont who’s running to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee.
“It means a lot,” said Helms, 26 and a soon-to-be first-time voter in 2020, listening to Sanders speak in front of a home with a broken window and a “No trespassing” sign on the door. Helms is a member of Vision Walkers, an area group that targets young, black men to get more involved. “There are a lot of people that speak up for the community, but we never personally see them ... where the struggle and poverty is at. He can look you eye to eye, man to man, and ask you questions and have a general conversation with you. It means a lot a lot.”
Returning from multi-day fanfare in Iowa, whose voters caucus Feb. 3, making them the first to weigh in on the nominee, at least five presidential candidates returned to South Carolina for the weekend, courting the S.C. Democratic Party’s critically important black voters and pitching newly unveiled policy ideas from rural economics to improvements to the country’s criminal justice system.
Two White House hopefuls — Sanders and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — crossed paths in Columbia, zeroing in on two historic black neighborhoods in South Carolina’s capital city, Booker Washington Heights and Greenview, the latter of which U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn still calls home.
On Sunday, Warren introduced herself to black congregants at Reid Chapel AME Church in Greenview, an area with high voter engagement and a church where Clyburn is known to frequent when he returns to home.
Greenview is no stranger to presidential politics.
“It’s not unusual,” said at-large Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine. “Barack Obama went to Greenview. Bill Clinton in 2008 went to Greenview as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton.”
On Saturday, Warren’s audience was different — majority white and many traveled from outside Aiken — when she spoke to about 925 people at the University of South Carolina Aiken, the first trip for a 2020 candidate to the city that lies near the Georgia state line.
“I just like how thorough she is, and she doesn’t promise rainbows — she explains how we’re going to get there,” said 33-year-old Nicole Kracht, of Clover, who, while in line with her daughter, said she as a stay-at-home mom of three children was drawn to Warren’s candidacy because of her proposals to improve access to childcare.
Kracht was a special education teacher in Florida — and wants to teach again — but said she can’t afford to put her children in childcare, as her youngest is too young. “She’s sensible,” Kracht said.
On Sunday, Warren was allowed to speak from the pulpit for a few minutes.
“I grew up in a family that didn’t have much,” Warren said Sunday from the church pulpit, according to reports, “but I always grew up with a dream.”
The church has hosted other 2020 candidates, including author Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
“We’re not doing anything that we wouldn’t normally do,” the Rev. Carey Grady said of his Sunday service with Warren. “We’re being authentic. We’re not putting on any airs because a presidential candidate is coming here.”
Sanders says he’s evolved as a candidate
Sanders’ walk through Booker Washington Heights wouldn’t have happened in 2016, said self-described human rights activist Mustafa Abdullah, whose family lives in the neighborhood. The visit is a sign that Sanders has changed, Abdullah added.
The trip follows suit with Sanders’ campaign strategy so far, which has been to find ways to connect at a more intimate level with S.C. voters as he did in Denmark, South Carolina, where he visited residents concerned about a water crisis there.
Sanders told The State in a sit-down interview that he has evolved as a candidate, one who went from little name recognition next to the former first lady and U.S. secretary of state in 2016, to now a well-known name.
“I would hope as one runs for office, as you meet people, you become a stronger candidate, that you are more aware of the issues that are impacting people and you’re speaking to them effectively,” Sanders told The State before his town hall.
But Sanders’ visit, co-hosted by the S.C. Democratic Party Black Caucus, also underscored the difficulty of connecting with voters, even after he’s campaigned for president once before in the state.
“People have lost audacity for hope,” said Abdullah, who held a hand-made sign for missing 5-year-old Nevaeh Adams of Sumter. “They have lost faith in democracy ... even the Democratic Party. They just don’t believe in it anymore. They think it’s nothing but lip service.”
Another challenge for candidates is understanding local politics. One person from the Booker Washington Heights neighborhood was missing Sunday — its president.
Regina Williams, whose mother lives in the neighborhood, told The State she met Sanders in June during convention weekend.
At the time, Williams said she spoke to Sanders about redevelopment and her concerns with gentrification. The neighborhood, a mix of homeowners, heir and rental properties, has been identified as a “targeted” area by the City of Columbia for resources.
“He said to me, ‘I want to come to your community, may I come?’ ” Williams recalled, so excited she made a post to Facebook.
But Sunday she did not attend, saying that the campaign didn’t adequately involve the association at the forefront of planning. She also said she was worried the event would perpetuate a negative stereotype about the majority black community, one of high poverty and crime that is home to renters not engaged with the neighborhood association and community programming.
Williams said she prayed for a successful event.
“Our motto for our neighborhood is we stand on the positive side of change,” Williams said. “We know change is inevitable, but we want to always keep things positive.”
‘They leave and then you never see them again’
For now, Sanders and Warren have gotten along on the campaign trail, despite having a lot in common.
They’re both polling between second and third under former Vice President Joe Biden. They’re also older candidates running as the progressive alternatives to the more moderate Biden. The former vice president has consistently led in polls among more than 20 candidates. He’s also very popular among black voters in South Carolina.
But some voters who saw Sanders and Warren over the weekend expressed concern about whether a progressive candidate was capable of beating President Donald Trump.
“That is one thing that would cause me to hesitate on advancing a strong progressive,” said Michael Scarborough, 41, who stood in line Saturday to see Warren in Aiken. “It’s something the country desperately needs, but I’m not sure if America as a whole is ready for what we really need.”
Some 2020 Democrats who haven’t caught on in South Carolina see voters’ desire for a more moderate candidate as an opening, a way to get their foot in the door.
Speaking to The State by phone Saturday as he made his way through South Carolina, Pete Buttigieg said he certainly thinks of himself as a progressive, but also pragmatic, something he connects to his other full-time job as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“All mayors think pragmatically,” Buttigieg said.
Being pragmatic, he said, is what has helped his campaign connect with Republican voters, who, he thinks, “are troubled by what they see done in their name.” Buttigieg, who also is the only openly gay candidate seeking the Democratic nomination, said he’s in the campaign to “remind them that they do have a choice” outside of Trump.
Jacqueline White, 31, has lived in the Booker Washington Heights community for about four years.
She voted for then-candidate Hillary Clinton over Sanders in 2016, and said she’s still weighing who to vote for in 2020.
Having Sanders only a few feet from her door didn’t faze her, she said.
“He’s just like another person to me,” she said. “A lot (of candidates) say they are going to do this and do that, but you never see any change. They leave and then you never see them again. It’s kind of hard to say who I’ll vote for because I really want to see a change.”