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S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison launches bid to run DNC

Final day of the Democratic National Convention

South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016.

WASHINGTON – A week after Democrats around the country were rejected at the polls, the head of the Democratic Party in South Carolina says he's running to lead the party nationally.

S.C. party Chairman Jaime Harrison announced Monday he will seek to be the party's next top leader.

“We need to go back to where the party used to be, which is not a political organization but a community organization,” Harrison said Monday in an exclusive interview with The Post and Courier.

Harrison said he made the decision to enter what could be a contentious and rhetorically ugly race for Democratic National Committee chairman based on a desire to build the national base at all levels – from state and local governments to federal seats, in reliably “red” regions along with the predictably “blue.”

“We need to talk about the bread and butter issues, to talk about people’s daily lives. I think that is at the core of what we have to do as a party and that has to be the focus of the next chair,” he said.

Harrison has an impressive resume and compelling personal narrative. He likens his story to the “American dream,” which took him from poverty and food stamps to college and law degrees from Yale and Georgetown. He taught at his old high school in Orangeburg and then went to Washington, D.C., to hold senior positions on the staff of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, who at that point was already in House Democratic leadership.

Harrison moved back to South Carolina with hopes of becoming the state Democratic Party’s first black chairman.

But back in the Palmetto State, Harrison also joined the Podesta Group, a lobbying and consulting firm founded by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. It could be an attack point by rivals at a time when many Democrats say presidential nominee Clinton’s stunning election defeat less than one week ago requires a new DNC chairman from farther afield who won't be compromised by special interests. 

Many Democrats are instead gravitating towards U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a black Muslim who is co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He was also an early supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

They say having someone at the helm of the DNC who supported Sanders - the U.S. senator from Vermont who affiliates as an independent and self-identifies as a Democratic socialist -would be a salve after accusations the DNC colluded in Clinton’s favor during the primary.

Harrison had not formally announced his DNC candidacy before he was receiving personal attacks from detractors on Twitter.

"YOU WILL STAND DOWN,” one woman tweeted over the weekend. “We VEHEMENTLY reject you. Either we get (Ellison) or we take our movement elsewhere.”

On Monday, Harrison defended himself against accusations he is somehow tainted by his full-time work. Being state party chairman is a full-time job without a salary.

“It’s how I pay back the $160,000 of student loan debt,” Harrison said. “It’s how I pay the mortgage for my grandmother. And I’m proud of my work, my work on racial reconciliation, on dredging the Port of Charleston.”

And he said he rejected being boxed in.

“We lose when we think ‘you’re a Bernie Democrat, you’re a Hillary Democrat, this person is an Obama Democrat,’” Harrison said. “The only thing I’ve ever known is being a Democrat. Those sorts of divisions, having to choose one or the other, a litmus test for determining who is a true Democrat – we need to leave that to the Republican Party. That’s not the big tent Democratic Party that I grew up in.”

Between now and early next year - when the hundreds of DNC members will meet to elect a new leader - Harrison will have to make his case. He is taking a leave of absence from the Podesta Group to devote himself to his campaign and plans to step down if he wins the chairmanship. In the meantime, he will be relying on savings and the salary of his wife, a professor at the University of South Carolina. The couple also has a young son.

Harrison will need support from influential Democrats who know him and can speak to his character. Clyburn, the third ranking House Democrat and most senior black lawmaker on Capitol Hill, could play a major role in elevating the young man to whom he became a “surrogate father” when Harrison was still in high school.

“Jaime has a story that I think will connect with the young people we need to bring back into this party,” Clyburn told The Post and Courier. “We need people who can show by precept and example what this Democratic Party is about, what it can do. A lot of people pontificate and get a lot of verbiage. Jaime has walked the walk. I don’t think we could get a better person than Jaime.”

U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a former Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman who took-over as master of ceremonies during the party’s nomination convention this summer after then-Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was ousted, is also rooting for Harrison to take the reins.

“We have to look to the future of this party. I don’t want somebody my age to be head of the DNC,” said Fudge of Harrison, who at 40 years old would be the youngest DNC chairman to serve.

Both Clyburn and Fudge said it was important to install a full-time DNC chairman rather than someone who already has another job, like Ellison.

Clyburn sent a letter to colleagues Sunday reminding them that DNC bylaws actually required the chairmanship to a full-time position, even though that precedent has not always been followed, most recently in the case of Florida congresswoman Wasserman Schultz.

Fudge said she hadn’t heard criticism about Harrison’s lobbying background, which she said would be to his advantage as the party’s chief fundraiser. When told critiques were coming from Sanders supporters, Fudge grew sharp.

“Bernie’s not a Democrat,” she said. “I don’t care what Bernie says. This is the Democratic Party. I’m a Democrat and I want a strong Democrat to run our party.”

Harrison made his announcement official Monday night in front of a national audience on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC.

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Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier's Washington correspondent. Reach her at 843-834-0419 and follow her @emma_dumain.

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