PHILADELPHIA — South Carolina isn’t expected to go “blue” in the 2016 presidential election. The Legislature is controlled by Republicans and there’s only one Democrat representing the state in Congress.
Yet at the Democratic National Convention this week, four native sons have been selected for speaking slots on the main stage: U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, state Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and former state Rep. Bakari Sellers.
The high-profile role South Carolina will play at the DNC demonstrates the strong talent pool from inside the state’s Democratic political scene, which boasts both “rising stars” and establishment stalwarts.
It also demonstrates Hillary Clinton’s appreciation for South Carolina, which gave the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee the decisive primary victory she needed to show the strength of her campaign against challenger Bernie Sanders.
“Clinton has promised me her goal is that she’s going to focus on a Southern strategy — a Democratic Southern strategy — so that she starts to build this bench of talent all across the South,” Harrison said. “I think the role South Carolina played in the presidential primary in terms of really vetting the candidates and pushing the candidates — I think that’s been acknowledged.”
South Carolina has also become a focal point of issues joining the national debate involving gun crimes. Among them is the shooting of nine worshipers at Mother Emanuel AME Church last year at the hands of an avowed white supremacist who killed them during Bible study. Dylann Roof has been accused of the crime.
Two of the survivors of the church shooting, Polly Sheppard and Felicia Sanders, will be speaking at the DNC next week.
Clyburn, the third most senior House Democrat, earlier announced he’d been asked to deliver remarks at the DNC, perhaps even in prime time on Thursday night before Clinton accepts the nomination.
“‘Stronger together,’ that’s my theme,” he told The Post and Courier. “(Republicans) talked about ‘stronger,’ but they haven’t talked about ‘together’ too much.”
Clyburn has spoken at conventions in the past but his participation in this year’s event is particularly significant. After pledging to be neutral in the presidential primary, Clyburn in the weeks before the Feb. 27 vote came out in support of Clinton, an endorsement that her campaign viewed as crucial to winning the state in a decisive landslide.
Clyburn’s national profile, which ebbs and flows depending on what else is going on in the political world, has lately been on a high. He has been in the news in recent weeks based on his leadership in the Capitol Hill charge to pass gun safety legislation. He was an organizer of a recent sit-in on the House of Representatives floor, which shut down legislative activity for 27 hours. He also served as master of ceremonies at a speak-out on gun violence which drew hundreds of activists to the National Mall.
Harrison said he plans to speak about his own vision for the “New South,” in contrast to Gov. Nikki Haley’s. Haley, of Indian heritage and a GOP rising star who was mobbed on the floor of the Republican National Convention last week, has talked about the “New South” in her terms. Harrison, who is black, wants to offer an alternative.
“Part of my vision is being realized,” he said, in “the fact that my son will never have to see that flag flying from the Statehouse grounds.”
“I’m going to talk a little bit about of how I grew up,” he continued. “My mom was a teenager when she had me, but yet I look at what I’ve been able to accomplish. And not on my own, because people gave me opportunities to succeed. And that’s the key part, to make sure we continue to create opportunity so that people can succeed, so they can realize the American Dream.”
Meanwhile, Benjamin has become a friend of President Barack Obama’s administration. He was recently invited to the White House to speak to a reporters’ panel on Columbia’s role in carrying out Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to empower young men of color in their communities. Benjamin also served on the DNC platform committee, where he successfully championed language expressing Democrats’ rejection of Confederate imagery on federal property.
Sellers has increasingly become a household name in his capacity as a political analyst for CNN. He was in Cleveland providing commentary during last week’s Republican National Convention.
South Carolina will not only play a feature role in the convention proceedings but also during the daily business. Per tradition, the state delegation will host guest speakers during breakfast meetings at its hotel in downtown Philadelphia. Harrison said the state party will partner with Louisiana on joint-programming, expanding the range of presentations.
Harrison confirmed he had lined up presentations from Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Louisiana Gov. Mitch Landrieu. Delegates are also expected to hear from U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas; U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Save the Children Action Network president Mark Shriver; and Emmy-winning actress Lynn Whitfield. Another speaker is U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., one of two practicing Muslim members of Congress.
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent. Gavin Jackson reported from Columbia.