The city of Charleston farmers’ markets, cherished by some as refuges from partisanship, have this year made politicking a part of the market experience.
Representatives of the Charleston County Democratic Party and Charleston County Republican Party have tables at both the downtown Charleston and West Ashley markets on a weekly basis, following a few sporadic appearances last summer.
Charleston Farmers Market manager Harrison Chapman said the city invited both groups to set up booths after the Republicans applied for a permit in 2018.
“I never had anyone like this come up to me,” says Chapman, whose duties include administering the market’s “Not-For-Profit & Community Group” program.
The program’s application states, “Priority acceptance is reserved for locally-based organizations and/or community groups with a mission dedicated to health and wellness.” Previously approved groups include Charleston Waterkeeper and Friends of Coastal South Carolina.
Office of Cultural Affairs Director Scott Watson ruled that the Republicans also fell within the market’s not-for-profit guidelines.
“They went through the process and we decided it was a good fit,” Chapman says. “I am in a position to follow orders.”
Organizations are typically scheduled on rotation but certain groups with missions closely tied to local food have perpetual presences at the market. For example, Fields to Families and the SC Master Gardener program are always granted booth space.
Now, the Republicans and Democrats are also admitted weekly, in part because the city wanted both perspectives represented simultaneously. Chapman says, “One (shopper) in particular was upset because she didn’t see the Democratic booth. And they actually weren’t there because the volunteer didn’t show up. So that didn’t look great.”
Yet parity isn’t enough to pacify all of the vendors and shoppers who take exception to political banners in the vicinity of their favorite greens stands. Chapman says he has heard complaints despite the market taking steps to downplay the groups’ messaging.
“We don’t put them right next door to each other because that would make people uncomfortable as they walk up to one and not the other,” he says.
Chapman continues, “We don’t put them touching one of the vendors, to distract from sales. We might put them at the end of a row so the conversation can be more isolated.”
Additionally, the parties are also governed by the standard community group agreement barring them from engaging in “threatening behavior” and “publicly disparag(ing) any other vendor.”
Despite concerns, Charleston County Republican Party third vice-chair Pete Barnett says the program has been overwhelmingly successful.
“Farmers markets are intrinsically local, so this was the perfect chance to cut through the thick atmosphere of politics and ... engage with people on topics that affect them directly,” Barnett says.
Barnett says the idea has paid off for his party. Since the start of the outreach effort, “Many of those we talk with (have) come to our monthly meetings, and our digital engagement has gone through the roof.”
If shoppers are unhappy with the arrangement, Chapman says, they can bring their concerns to the information booth at the market. He also asks vendors who have received complaints to relay them to market management.