Politics & Government

S.C. Democratic Party chairman vows to fill bench

South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison says he has a plan for refilling the party’s political bench after years of demoralizing losses.

The plan includes launching a program to prepare 250 young Democrats to run for office or direct campaigns over the next five years and building county parties where Democrats have performed the worst.

The challenge for Democrats is “getting people to believe again” and “building a whole cadre, a whole army of believers,” said Harrison, elected in 2013.

Recruitment efforts could get a boost this weekend, as Palmetto State Democrats gather in Columbia for their annual Jefferson-Jackson fund-raising dinner and state party convention.

The events will honor Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s 40 years in office and give party activists a chance to hear from 2016 White House prospects or their surrogates.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – alone so far in her quest for the Democratic nomination – will miss the party’s weekend but is planning to visit the state in May. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe will attend the events on her behalf.

But S.C. Democrats will hear from former Govs. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Martin O’Malley of Maryland, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent – all weighing runs for the Democratic nomination. David “Mudcat” Saunders also will speak on behalf of former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, another possible candidate.

Jason Perkey, the state party’s new executive director, said the potential 2016 field offers a “pretty diverse group of people on the political spectrum.”

Joining front-runner Clinton in the race could be onetime Republican Chafee, progressive O’Malley, self-styled socialist Sanders, and war hero Webb.

Despite Clinton’s advantage over the lower-tier candidates considering a run, S.C. party leaders say the 2016 hopefuls allow for a debate of the party’s values.

Democrats have reason to be discouraged, stymied by repeated losses in statewide contests. Republicans won the state superintendent of education race, the last statewide office held by Democrats, in 2010. Jim Hodges, the state’s last Democratic governor, lost his re-election bid to Republican Mark Sanford in 2002.

But Republicans – who dominate state politics – were lost in the wilderness too not long ago, unable to win elections, said Harrison, the party’s first African-American chairman.

“They were in the same situation we’re in now,” Harrison said. “(Republicans) had to build a bench. They had to put people up (to run for office). They had to train them.

“They had to build a brand.”

Toward that end, Harrison is raising money to fund year-long political fellowships for young Democrats across the state, aimed at making candidates and political operatives out of them.

Harrison sees promise. Some young Democrats already are involved, where they were not several years ago.

Mike Glymph, president of the Young Democrats of South Carolina, said he was one of two members when he joined that organization in 2011. Now, the organization for Democrats ages 18 to 35 has a few hundred members across the state.

Harrison hopes to launch his next generation leaders program this fall, inviting one young Democrat from each of the state’s 46 counties and four at-large fellows to join the inaugural class.

If all goes according to plan, the party will have a bench of 250 potential candidates and activists eager to get involved five years from now.

To show the candidates they can be successful, national Democratic groups must invest more in South Carolina and develop a Southern strategy, said Harrison, who represents 13 Southern states on the Democratic National Committee’s executive committee.

He said he is trying to recruit Democratic candidates for 2016, when the state’s seven U.S. House members will be up for re-election.

Harrison also wants to put up a challenger for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Tim Scott. Last year, Scott cruised to victory, filling Jim DeMint’s unexpired term, defeating Democrat Joyce Dickerson, a Richland County councilwoman.

Democratic candidates will have to be willing to lose.

“It’s not always about winning,” Harrison said. “The big thing for young people at this point is to get experience. To run a race and not to win it, you learn something from it.”

Reach Self at (803) 771-8658

S.C. Democratic weekend

Friday

2015 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner: U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia will give the keynote address at the Democrats’ annual fundraising dinner. Democrats will honor Charleston Mayor Joe Riley for his 40 years in office. Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, 7-9 p.m.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry:” Held in the parking garage at 1227 Taylor St. in downtown Columbia, 7:30 p.m. to midnight

Saturday

S.C. Democratic Party State Convention: Democrats to elect officers and organize caucuses. They also will hear from potential 2016 White House hopefuls or their surrogates: former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe will appear on behalf of Hillary Clinton, and David “Mudcat” Saunders will represent former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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