Democrats call for party unity during annual convention in Columbia

COLUMBIA — In a message echoed by many throughout the day-long event, South Carolina Democrats called on members to unite heading into the national convention in July — and the general election this fall.

U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who served as keynote speaker during the state’s Democratic Party convention, said when he was working for President Bill Clinton in 2000 that Democrats got too comfortable.

“I know we’re in year eight of a Democratic administration and there’s a tendency to get complacent,” he said. “There’s a tendency to demand perfection from your next candidate. And I understand that tendency. But I know what happened. It brought us George W. Bush.”

More than 1,000 South Carolina Democrats traveled to Columbia for the party get-together where they elected the 59 delegates and four alternates who will support either former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for president in Philadelphia in July.

Clinton supporters far outnumbered those backing Sanders at the convention, but many supporting the Vermont senator said they would vote for whomever the Democratic presidential candidate is in November.

“You’re not going to turn the country ‘blue’ if you change parties to protest the (Democratic National Committee),” Sanders supporter Jeni Atchley of Ladson, said. Atchley will attend the Democratic National Convention as a delegate. “If people don’t unite, you’re going to see someone like (Republican presidential candidates Donald) Trump or (Sen. Ted) Cruz become president.”

Charleston County Democratic Party Chairman Brady Quirk-Garvan, who will attend the national convention as a Clinton delegate, said he’s heard some Sanders supporters say they would not vote in November if he were not the nominee. But said he thinks they will come around.

“The primary is still raw in people’s minds,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to unite even before the convention in July. One thing I know is that Trump and Cruz are great unifiers for our party and not for theirs.”

Democrats elected 39 delegates and three alternates to support Clinton, with 14 delegates and one alternate elected to back Sanders. There are six “unpledged” delegates, also called superdelegates, in South Carolina. They are classified as party leaders and other elected officials, or “PLEOs,” and are able to support whomever they wish.

Calls for unity at the beginning of the day appeared to have faded by the evening when it came time to adopt party platforms and bylaws. Attendees passionately debated nuances regarding issues ranging from raising the minimum wage to removing known Republican candidates from Democratic primary ballots.

“What some might see as strife, was family,” party Executive Director Jason Perkey said. “It’s an illustration of how diverse our party is. Republicans don’t have this kind of discussion because you have to believe in their party platform or you’re not welcome in the party.”

Perkey is leaving the state party in the next week to become the Democrats’ coordinated-campaign director in Wisconsin.

“We still come together for a candidate, we may just disagree on how to get there,” Perkey said.

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.