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What it's really like to be a 2020 presidential campaign worker in South Carolina

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Jonathan Alter

Regional organizing director Jonathan Alter explains the proper way to make phone calls to volunteers for the Joe Biden campaign as they kicked off a weekend of action on Saturday, November 2, 2019. Brad Nettles/Staff

It's Victoria Felder's day off, but she's opening the doors at the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign office in North Charleston on a drizzly Tuesday morning.

For now, it's quiet, save for the Stevie Wonder track she commanded Amazon's Alexa to play through a set of speakers.

As the harmonica solo from "For Once in My Life" filled the space where walls are plastered with voter precinct maps, Felder said the room would later be humming with another sound: campaign workers and volunteers making phone calls from 4-8 p.m.

"Sacred time," she called it.

Overall, the goal of the four-hour block mirrors what every presidential campaign in South Carolina is trying to accomplish between now and the state’s Feb. 29 Democratic presidential primary:

Connect with voters. Mobilize the base. Convince undecideds to become definitive supporters. And, ultimately, see their candidate emerge victorious in the first-in-the-South primary.

Victoria Felder Bernie 2020

Victoria Felder, regional field organizer for the Bernie Sanders campaign, gets a text while sitting inside the Lowcountry campaign office. This is the first presidential campaign she has worked on, but said the transition has been natural after doing activism work. Caitlin Byrd/Staff

To do this work, each campaign is counting on people like Felder to make it happen. 

"This may very well turn out not to be a day off," said Felder, a Charleston field organizer for the Sanders campaign.

During the 2020 season, presidential candidates understandably receive most of the attention. They are the ones on the ballot. But behind every White House hopeful is a clipboard army of paid staffers working daily to keep presidential campaigns going.

In South Carolina, the 2020 campaign staffers are a blend of political minds already based in the Palmetto State and an injection of out-of-state operatives.

"You can have all of the automation, all of the data metrics and all of the digital tools," S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said. "But, at the end of the day, campaigns have to be staffed by volunteers and people who work 15 to 20 hours a day for what can be very little pay."

Finding housing

When Jonathan Alter left Chicago and landed in South Carolina this summer to work as a regional field organizer for Joe Biden's presidential run, he found himself living out of his suitcase until he could find a place to stay.

That meant Cindy Boatwright’s home in Mount Pleasant acted as a way station for a few days while Alter searched for short-term housing.

"They are almost like political nomads," Boatwright said. "They've signed on to work in whatever states and in whatever capacity for their chosen candidate."

During the S.C. Democratic Party Convention in June, Boatwright signed up to host campaign workers in her home; the practice is known as “supportive” or “supporter” housing.

Jarvis Houston

Jarvis Houston has been hired as the South Carolina state director for Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign. File/Provided

Jarvis Houston, who oversees Pete Buttigieg’s South Carolina team as its state director, was in supportive housing in Columbia for about a week until he found steady housing.

“A friend referred me to a PhD student in philosophy at (the University of South Carolina) who had a room available, and I moved into the room the next week,” Houston said.

So far, Boatwright has hosted workers primarily from the Biden and Cory Booker campaigns. She expects more will reach out closer to the Feb. 29 primary.

Doing the work

Felder isn't thinking about life after the primary. This is her first time working on a presidential campaign, but as a mother of two, she is resolute in her focus.

"I’m doing this work for them. We get up every morning at 6:30; we get moving around. I get them off to school and I head in to headquarters. I get here and it’s all about follow-up, follow-up, follow-up,” she said.

According to federal election reports, Felder earns about $1,400 every two weeks for her efforts.

Her job is to mobilize Sanders supporters and reach potential voters who may be receptive to the campaign message. That could mean phone calls, knocking on doors and attending events.

Last month, she was knocking on doors in downtown Charleston in the rain. Even though she was drenched, she was determined to stay upbeat.

"People are so judgmental, and you need to show them you’re out there because you want to be out there," she said, stressing that the most important thing is to keep a positive look on your face.

Alter was overseeing similar efforts this month by the Biden campaign during a weekend of action where he led volunteers in phone-banking and door-knocking.

Sometimes it’s thankless work. People slam doors in their faces. People start yelling at them on the phone. But Alter, 46, did organizing work in South Carolina for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and knows it's just part of the job.

"There are often a lot of different things coming at you. Some are in your control and some are out of your control,” Alter said. “But whatever those inconveniences or sacrifices, I’m being given the opportunity to work with a lot of really incredible people who are trying to change the world.”

Jalisa Washington-Price

Kamala Harris' South Carolina state director Jalisa Washington-Price (right) and state Rep. Rosalyn Henderson-Myers watch on as campaign manager Juan Rodriguez speaks to supporters at a Greenville campaign office opening on Aug. 22, 2019. File/Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

Taking a chance

With that leap comes the unknown, and the reality that political jobs could be short-lived.

In campaigns, there are winners and losers, but there is also strategy. Sometimes, candidates will cut or restructure their staffing operations in early states.

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This month, Politico reported former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro would be firing his staff in both South Carolina and New Hampshire as part of an effort to focus resources on Iowa and Nevada.

There are also abrupt endings.

When Jeff Popkin moved from Maryland to South Carolina to work as a regional organizer in the Pee Dee for Beto O’Rourke’s campaign, he was energized.

He found housing in Florence. He turned 26 over the summer, and he said he felt like he was in the right place at the right time.

“It’s a huge honor and privilege, especially working for a candidate who is so relentless in campaigning and bringing people into the process. To be a small part of that process is really an honor and it’s really dynamic," Popkin said.

But when O'Rourke's campaign ended Nov. 1, Popkin found himself out of a job.

Nonetheless, he reiterated his gratitude, writing in a pair of tweets stating it had been "an honor" to do this work.

Popkin, like other campaign workers interviewed for this story, said he felt like he has always been drawn to public service and could envision himself working on future political campaigns.

Every race, he acknowledged, is a chance to gain more experience for future political work.

Meanwhile, on the Buttigieg campaign, Houston is still very much invested in this presidential race. As a graduate of Howard University, he's especially focused on telling African Americans in South Carolina about the plans his candidate has to improve their lives.

Pete Buttigieg.JPG

Amy Lauren Scott (left) with the Pete Buttigieg campaign talks with Christina Jennings at the Charleston County Democratic Party Blue Jamboree on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, at The Bend in North Charleston. File/Andrew Whitaker/Staff

For him, working on the Buttigieg campaign has also become deeply personal.

In September, his 12-year-old cousin Kentayvia Blackful was shot and killed in her Chicago home by a stray bullet. She had been making plans for her upcoming party when she was shot — she died on her birthday. 

"One of the misconceptions is that we are just all about the work. With Pete, it's a family atmosphere. We have each other’s backs," he said.

Houston said it was Buttigieg himself who reached out after learning about the death of his cousin. When Houston's family could not afford a funeral for her, Buttigieg and other members of campaign leadership personally helped pay for it.

Houston took off one day to attend the family gathering. Then, he said, it was back to work.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.