The Winthrop University campus was slightly busier than a typical Friday as it hosted the “First in the South” Democratic presidential forum, broadcast live on MSNBC.
Metal guard rails lined the walkway leading to Byrnes Auditorium, and about 80 yards away, a blue and white sign proclaimed: “Line begins here.”
As the day wore on, more and more people arrived on campus, many of them toting signs proudly reflecting which of the three Democratic candidates they supported.
By nightfall, when the TV lights went up for the live broadcast of “Hardball,” with host Chris Matthews, the crowds had grown rowdier – some to the point of having to be called down by MSNBC security during the show.
“We need to show the South how much support she’s got here in South Carolina,” said Debbie Gudenas, the Hillary Clinton campaign’s neighborhood team leader for York County. “We’re gonna be organizing the Hillary folks to have a great time.”
Some supporters of Bernie Sanders already were having a great time. About two dozen students and Charlotte residents arrived on campus around lunchtime. They could be seen – and heard – walking around campus, holding up “Bernie” signs and voicing their support for the Vermont senator.
Two Sanders supporters swapped high-fives as they passed each other in front of Byrnes, belting out the popular phrase that was plastered on many T-shirts worn by his supporters: “Feel the Bern!”
Both camps stayed on campus for hours, gathering behind the makeshift set of “Hardball,” which Matthews hosted live outside Byrnes leading up to the 8 p.m. forum inside.
“We know there’s gonna be a lot of people in the crowd cheering for Hillary, but it’s kind of manufactured,” said Rebecca Waldkirch, a student at East Carolina University. “We’re a new generation of politically informed people, and we want to get millennials involved in politics.” Millennials are generally considered people born after 1980.
‘Exciting just to be here’
Alexis Culbertson, a Winthrop graduate student, stopped to take pictures of the growing row of TV trucks parked beside the Lois Rhame West Health, Physical Education, and Wellness Center, which served as the temporary working quarters for the scores of reporters and photographers who descended on Rock Hill to cover the forum.
“It’s something new for the campus,” she said. “They haven’t experienced something quite like this before. It’s got everybody really excited.”
Genesis Doster, 24, a senior from York, called the forum a “once-in-a-lifetime event” for Winthrop and York County.
One of the earliest arrivals Friday, Chester City Councilwoman Angela Douglas, said she was “thrilled” to be part of the forum.
“It is exciting just to be here and be part of something so important,” said Douglas, who taught political science at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Michael McCove of Fort Mill was another early arrival at the Winthrop Coliseum, where the lucky 3,400 who got tickets to attend the forum had to pick up their tickets. He, too, said he was “excited” to see and hear the candidates.
Even the bus drivers shuttling people from the coliseum parking lot to Byrnes Auditorium were thrilled to be a part of history.
“To be here, in my hometown, helping to put this event together, makes me very proud of Rock Hill,” said June Barnette, owner of June’s Tours bus service.
Paulette Hallman, a retired elementary school teacher, greeted busloads of arrivals and welcomed them with warmth and York County friendliness.
“Great to have you here in York County!” Hallman said to so many people.
The volunteers also hoped for a chance to meet the candidates, as did many of the forum attendees.
Niles Bernick of Bluffton said he was not just excited to see the candidates, he wanted to see how they reacted when being questioned one-on-one by moderator Rachel Maddow during the forum.
“I want to hear what they have to say,” he said.
First in line
The very first person in the line to get into the forum can’t even vote. Madison Kimrey, 14, from Burlington, N.C., talked her mother into driving her the three hours to the forum so she could arrive before anyone else.
The line started at noon. Madison was there at 11:45 – more than eight hours before the forum was set to start.
“I’m kind of a Hillary Clinton fan-girl,” Madison said.
Yet even though she can’t vote, Madison wanted to see and hear the candidates because whoever is elected in 2016 will help forge the country her generation will inherit.
In the line waiting for Byrnes to open stood one man apart from the rest not because of his politics, but his uniform.
U.S. Army Spc. Tyler Collins said he is a Democrat and leans toward Bernie Sanders, but he supports all the candidates.
Collins, 21, eligible to vote in a presidential election for the first time, said a commander-in-chief needs to be a strong leader, but must use restraint when it comes to deploying American troops.
“War is not always the first option,” he said.
Some Republican presidential candidates seem too willing to put troops in harm’s way, Collins said, as Republican President George W. Bush did.
“The military should only be used when necessary and American interests are at risk,” Collins said.
Waiting for hours
The line to get into Byrnes Auditorium started minutes before noon and lasted all afternoon. More than 3,000 people stretched from the auditorium, past Tillman Hall and through the length of the campus.
The line looked like America. It was white and black and Asian and Hispanic. It had men and women and young people with braids in their hair and old-timers who were lucky to have hair.
There were guys wearing work shorts and women in heels, and everything in between.
The Democrats in the line threw their hands around, claiming that their party and their candidates are the true representation of the country as a whole.
At the end of the line stood Phyllis Archie-Twyman of Rock Hill and Colleen Cicci of Fort Mill. It was worth the wait, the Clinton supporters said.
“We need a woman president,” Cicci said. “It is time for a woman in the White House.”
Clinton supporters seemed to outnumber those for Bernie Sanders by a wide margin. Yet Sanders supporters were there in big numbers, too, and seemed generally to be younger.
In front of the auditorium, vying for camera time on television news shows, supporters for both sides traded “Hillary!” and “Feel the Bern!” chants.
“Bernie Sanders is the only path to equality for all,” said Emily Andersson, 18, who carried around a cardboard cutout of Sanders so that people could take “Selfies with Sanders.”
Seemingly absent from the campus throng throughout the day: Any visible sign of supporters of the third Democratic candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
No major problems
Most of the day went smoothly, with no major threats or security problems, said Capt. Mark Bollinger of the Rock Hill Police Department.
The only arrest was an Atlanta woman who tried to pass through the security checkpoint to get into Byrnes Auditorium with marijuana in her possession, Bollinger said. Because she was from out of town, the woman was arrested and placed in the Rock Hill jail.
“If she was a local person, we would have just cited her to return to court,” he said.
Friday’s security detail included officers and agents from local and state agencies and the U.S. Secret Service.
“We had to be flexible today,” Bollinger said. “Things have changed, things are continuing to change with the candidates’ schedules. The people that were supporting the candidates were loud and well-behaved, and that’s all we asked.”