S.C. Dem Party chair slams Sanders’ anti-South rhetoric

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democratic presidential hopeful, was at a campaign event at the Doubletree Hilton in Columbia in February.

S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison and former Gov. Jim Hodges are among seven Southern Democratic leaders to formally condemn Bernie Sanders’ characterization of the region’s voters.

In a scathing letter dated Wednesday, the two men accused Sanders and his presidential campaign surrogates of demeaning Democrats in states where he lost to his presidential primary challenger Hillary Clinton.

First reported by Politico, the letter’s co-signers also suggest Sanders is dismissing Southern Democrats as not as progressive as his supporters in more “liberal” parts of the country. A self-identified Democratic socialist, Sanders has sought to cast himself as the progressive alternative, with Clinton as the establishment moderate.

“You and your surrogates have sought to minimize Secretary Clinton’s victories throughout the South as a symptom of a region that, as you put it, ‘distorts reality,’ ” they wrote. “You argue that the South is ‘the most conservative part’ of America, implying states that traditionally vote Republican in a general election are not worth contesting in a Democratic primary.”

Also signing the letter were Democratic Party chairs from Florida, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi, plus Don Fowler, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and a South Carolinian.

The letter also sticks up for Clinton, the party front-runner.

“Hillary Clinton has spent her entire career trying to help people all across the South,” they wrote. “She saw a region full of families and children of every color, and instead of diminishing them, she worked to build them up. She has not dismissed the importance of states that you have won, because she realizes that to be president of the United States, you have to be a champion for all states. To be a leader of the party, you have to be with Democrats in all states. That includes the states you won and yes, even the ones you lose. And that’s why we’re with her.”

Harrison told The Post and Courier he kept his promise to remain neutral in the lead-up to the state’s Feb. 27 Democratic primary, saying he pledged to support whichever nominee prevailed. Clinton trounced Sanders in South Carolina by nearly 73 percent.

However, Harrison said that since that time he’s been disturbed by rhetoric from the Sanders camp. Sanders should have stepped in, for instance, when actor Tim Robbins dismissed Clinton’s victory in South Carolina as inconsequential as winning Guam, Harrison said.

“That was over the top,” Harrison said, “particularly if you know the history of how South Carolina became one of the early primary states, and the DNC made the movement to make sure African-American voices were part of the conversation about who would become president. If you saw how President Barack Obama performed here in 2008, you wouldn’t be dismissive.”

Voters also noticed that Sanders left South Carolina in the days before the Democratic primary, Harrison said, sending a signal he didn’t care.

But ultimately, Harrison said Sanders’ attitude, and that of his surrogates, was most upsetting in that it could hurt the Southern movement to grow the Democratic Party.

“We are all focused, as Southern Democratic Party chairs, on building a party so we can win seats in the House, we can win seats in the Senate, we can win seats in the legislature,” he said, “so you hear one comment and then two comments about the South being one of the most conservative places ... a bunch of us said, ‘enough is enough.’

“It’s hard enough now to get resources into the state,” said Harrison. “It’s hard enough now to get people to take us seriously.”

Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.