Orangeburg man rises from 'Corridor of Shame' to U.S. House post

WASHINGTON -- Jaime Harrison's roots inspire and haunt him.

Some of the 30-year-old Orangeburg native's childhood friends and relatives went to an early grave; others are in prison.

Harrison's rapid rise to one of the most powerful posts in Congress -- director of floor operations for U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn -- is all the more remarkable for where he started: a broken home in a dirt-poor community along South Carolina's I-95 "Corridor of Shame."

"A black male growing up in Orangeburg wasn't the easiest thing," Harrison said. "There is this rampant hopelessness among so many black male youths. It seems like so few in my generation have succeeded and gotten out. I'm extremely blessed. I feel like it's my responsibility to give back as much as I can."

Born out of wedlock to a 15-year-old mother, Harrison learned important lessons from his grandmother, Jimmie Lou Harrison, who raised him for most of his childhood.

"Grandma always said it doesn't matter if it's a senator or a janitor scraping gum off the floor, treat that person with respect," Harrison recalled. "She always said you never know who might be looking at you and paying attention to what you do."

These days, lots of folks in Washington are paying attention to Harrison.

Roll Call, a widely read political newspaper on Capitol Hill, placed Harrison among the "50 Fabulous Staffers" for lawmakers. The Hill, a competing publication that also covers Congress, named him one of "35 Stellar Staffers Under 35."

Harrison also is becoming known for something else: the red velvet cakes he bakes in the two kitchens in Clyburn's leadership suite of offices in the Capitol.

"One of the things the whip is responsible for on late nights is serving dinner to members of our (Democratic) caucus," Watkins said. "Being Southerners, we know red velvet cake, but we've gotten some wide eyes when other people see it."

Jimmie Lou Harrison taught her grandson how to bake. He also learned how to cook collard greens, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, ham, sweet potatoes and other down-home dishes.

"His red velvet cake," his grandmother said, "it's better than mine. I hate to say it, but it's better."

On to Washington

After graduating from Yale in 1998, Harrison returned to Orangeburg, teaching ninth-grade geography at his alma mater for a year.

Moving to Washington, Harrison was chief operating officer of College Summit, a nonprofit group that helps low-income students apply and prepare for college.

Harrison also attended Georgetown University Law School, graduating in 2004 -- a year after he took a job with Clyburn.

Harrison met Clyburn, now an eight-term lawmaker, in 1993. Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat, was new to Congress.

Harrison invited him to speak to the Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School chapter of the National Honor Society, which Harrison had been chosen to lead.

Harrison interned for Clyburn in the summer of 1997 while attending Yale, and he went to work for him in 2003.

"I call him my political daddy," Harrison said of Clyburn. "Words can't express my feelings for Congressman Clyburn. He has taught me so much about politics and about civility in politics."

Now, as Clyburn's eyes and ears on the House floor, Harrison is in constant communication with lawmakers and their aides about the often cryptic and sometimes chaotic mix of political theater and serious legislative business.

On a recent day, Democrats and Republicans clashed noisily over President Bush's demand to give legal immunity to telecommunications firms that allowed the government to eavesdrop on customers.

Lawmakers also quarreled over a Democratic measure to hold in contempt White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former counsel Harriet Miers for ignoring subpoenas to testify about the controversial firings of U.S. attorneys.

As GOP lawmakers staged a symbolic walkout, their Democratic counterparts chanted, "Work, work, work, work!"

Harrison stood in the middle of the tumult. While members voted on the contempt resolution, he eyed the electronic multicolored tally board at the front of the chamber -- green for aye, red for nay, orange for present.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi approached Harrison and asked whether, after the Republican walkout, there would be enough votes to reach the quorum that must be present for the House to conduct business.

Harrison pulled out his Blackberry and hammered off text messages to aides, his fingers flying over the minikeyboard as he asked them to get their bosses to the floor.

Harrison picked up a vintage 1950s black phone handle from under the leadership table and called other Clyburn staffers for help.

Clyburn came up to confer.

A half-hour later, the vote was over. The contempt measure passed by a 223-32 vote, as 35 Republicans returned from their walkout to participate. The quorum had been reached.