The Buzz

22 candidates. 4,400 pounds of fish. Clyburn preps for epic ‘World Famous’ fish fry

Anthony Palmer (left) and his wife Eriko, (right) try out their fried fish as Margaret Cantrell (center) looks on during U.S. Rep. James Clyburn’s annual fish fry for South Carolina Democrats inside the South Carolina Municipal Association garage in downtown Columbia, Friday, April 27, 2007.
Anthony Palmer (left) and his wife Eriko, (right) try out their fried fish as Margaret Cantrell (center) looks on during U.S. Rep. James Clyburn’s annual fish fry for South Carolina Democrats inside the South Carolina Municipal Association garage in downtown Columbia, Friday, April 27, 2007.

On a normal workday, Jim Clyburn is figuring out how he’ll get 235 congressional Democrats to advance his party’s agenda.

This week, the South Carolina congressman needs to know how a couple thousand people — not including 22 presidential candidates, their security details and a fish frying station — will negotiate an expansive, but limited, event space.

“I’ve never done a walk-through for this event before,” Clyburn said in a recent interview. “I’ve done one today, and one two weeks ago.”

The third ranking U.S. House Democrat, Clyburn is currently in full party-planner mode in preparation for his “World Famous Fish Fry” on Friday. The annual tradition is always scheduled to coincide with the S.C. Democratic Party’s gala dinner and convention weekend in Columbia, and this year is expected to be the biggest one yet.

The first fish fry was held in 1992 as a “thank you” to the campaign volunteers who helped Clyburn win his first congressional election. He wanted to give average South Carolinians the chance to mingle up-close with politicians without having to first spend “$250 for cold chicken.”

Twenty-seven years later, it’s now considered a must-attend event for current and aspiring officeholders up and down the ballot, in-state and nationwide.

“Every politician that’s worth their salt wants to get up on the stage and get introduced by Jim Clyburn,” said Jaime Harrison, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party who is now running for U.S. Senate against Republican Lindsey Graham.

The fish fry’s status as a political king-making event is not in doubt this year: 22 of the 24 declared Democratic presidential candidates have confirmed their participation, making this the first time this many White House contenders — in the most diverse field in history —will appear together at the same event to court voters in a critical early primary state.

Anticipating that the number of RSVPs — now around 1,600 — will grow over in the next several days, organizers have ordered 4,400 pounds of fish and 6,400 slices of white bread. For the first time, Clyburn has hired an event planner and media coordinator to negotiate members of the national press corps representing at least 50 different news organizations.

“You can kind of wing it when you have a fish fry of 700, 800 people,” said Clyburn. “If it threatens to be two or three thousand people, we’re not gonna run the risk of winging it.”

This is a far cry from the early days, where Clyburn’s staffers used to fry the fish themselves and the whole event was held inside a parking garage. Catering was outsourced in the late 1990s and recently the event migrated to Coble Plaza overlooking the Columbia canal.

Clyburn’s fish fry is usually considered the “after party” for the state party banquet; this year, it’s being treated as the main attraction. Organizers have even moved up the time of the dinner to avoid early departures for the fish fry.

“You would hate for people to walk out of the dinner,” Clyburn explained.

Clyburn will be going to both events. But he added, without hesitation, that his event is “more fun.”

Putting on a show

Loyal fish fry attendees will see many of the same features as in fish fries past.

Food options will still be fish and bread. There will still be an open bar. Everything will be free, with Clyburn’s campaign picking up the tab.

Attendees will be invited to dance the Electric Slide and Charleston Wobble. Clyburn couldn’t say whether the candidates would dance, but in the past “I’ve seen some try.”

But as his once-scrappy fish fry becomes a potentially chaotic political spectacle, Clyburn said he was making sure candidates don’t lose sight of what this event is supposed to be all about.

“My whole thing is, I wanted my campaign workers to feel that they can walk up to, and shake hands with, presidential candidates,” Clyburn said. “I’ve had people say to me that they come back to this fish fry every year because it’s at this fish fry they were able to get close to someone who ended up being president of the United States.

“At this fish fry, dancing the Electric Slide, or whatever, with Obama, and he ends up as president, a year later, of the United States,” Clyburn paused. “That is something that those people will never, ever, get over.”

Clyburn said he wants the candidates to work the room and talk to voters. He wants them to take selfies with South Carolinians — preferably at the new “selfie station” organizers are providing, though he joked that U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who is a notorious selfie-taker, probably won’t be disciplined enough to pose for photos in the designated area.

He is giving every candidate a chance to address the audience — and receive one of Clyburn’s signature, crowd-rousing introductions — but he’s warning them to be mindful of the clock, since this will be an evening event.

Clyburn also wants candidates to put on a good show, even if they’re not taking a page out of the elaborate playbook of ex-U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., the former presidential candidate who in 2007 actually hired a drumline to escort him into the event.

“Believe it or not, I think the candidates will probably do themselves real good by selecting the right walk-up music,” Clyburn said. “I will never forget — I have a lasting impression of Bill Clinton the first time I heard his walk-up song, which was, ‘Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.’ And that absolutely is seared into my memory.

“If I were a candidate, I would select a song that I could build my two- or three-minute speech on it,” said Clyburn. “And that’s the same thing I’d say to them: Try to make your appearance memorable.”

Clyburn said he has typically used “We Are Family,” by Sister Sledge, as his walk-up song, but his granddaughter is pushing for “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X.

But that’s also the song U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, recently used as his walk-up music at major political event in Iowa, which might influence Clyburn’s final decision.

Courting Clyburn

In many ways, this is still Clyburn’s show.

The host and the master of ceremonies, he is also the state’s most influential Democrat whose primary endorsement is the most coveted, and candidates will be working hard to make an impression on him — or at least be seen associating with him.

In 2016, Clyburn didn’t endorse Hillary Clinton until just days before the South Carolina Democratic primary. A month earlier, at the Clyburn fish fry, the two longtime friends shared a warm embrace onstage — a moment that probably made Clinton’s then-competitors, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, cringe in envy.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. Jamie Self explained what it meant for the Clinton campaign.

Candidates attending the 2019 fish fry will be speaking just as much to Clyburn as they are to the attendees.

“South Carolina is a state that was hit really hard by gun violence — you know, Emanuel Nine,” said U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., referring to the nine black parishioners gunned down at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015. “I’m going to be talking a lot about what I’m going to do with respect to gun violence. This is something that affected Whip Clyburn’s constituents, and I’m going to make the case that we should be bold with my solutions.”

For Sanders, who was rejected by the majority of South Carolina’s Democratic primary voters in 2016, the fish fry represents an opportunity to make his case to wide audience.

“Let me be very clear: I like fish,” Sanders deadpanned.

He added, “I’m proud that we’re receiving a whole lot of support from members of the legislature there in South Carolina, and we intend to be getting all over the state talking about the need for fundamental education reform, criminal justice reform and health care reform.”

Clyburn has made it clear he won’t be making an endorsement, at least not this early on. Fish fry attendees will, however, be paying special attention to how the congressman interacts with current frontrunner Joe Biden, a longtime friend who has been to the fish fry on multiple occasions — as a presidential candidate in 2007, as vice president in 2014 and during his time as a U.S. senator from Delaware.

Speaking with reporters in Washington, Clyburn demurred as to what message he was looking for from candidates at the fish fry. Reminded he’s particularly close with Biden, Clyburn’s eyes seemed to sparkle.

“Oh, I have a longstanding relationship with about 12 of them,” he said.

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