Politics & Government

Democrat presidential candidates are coming to Rock Hill en masse. Here’s why

‘It’s an inspiring time’: Rock Hill mayor welcomes 3 presidential candidates

Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys escorted Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke Friday through downtown Rock Hill during a campaign stop. Democratic candidates Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg will visit Rock Hill Saturday, March 23.
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Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys escorted Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke Friday through downtown Rock Hill during a campaign stop. Democratic candidates Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg will visit Rock Hill Saturday, March 23.

Rock Hill had never hosted a nationally televised presidential primary debate until 2015. Then-top Republican candidate Donald Trump visited Rock Hill in January 2016 during the presidential race.

Bernie Sanders visited Rock Hill in September 2015 and again with Hillary Clinton in November 2015 for a debate at Winthrop University.

With over a year and a half before the 2020 general election, major Democratic presidential hopefuls already have made stops in Rock Hill — and some kicked off their South Carolina campaigns in Rock Hill.

“Rock Hill’s not a sleepy town anymore,” U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, said.

Rock Hill has been moving up in recognition since the 2008 election, said York County Democrats chairperson Jim Thompson. President Barack Obama spoke at Winthrop University ahead of his victory in South Carolina’s 2008 presidential primary.

“A lot is happening in Rock Hill,” Thompson said. “That’s changed, definitely since 2008.”

Rock Hill and area voters have turned out to see former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke; U.S. Sen. Cory Booker; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell; and most recently, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.

Harris was ranked 2nd in The Washington Post’s April 13 ranking of Democratic primary candidates most likely to secure the Democratic nomination. Booker was ranked 4th, O’Rourke 5th, and Buttigieg 7th. Swalwell wasn’t ranked on a list that included only 15 of 20 declared Democratic candidates.

O’Rourke and Swalwell each kicked off their South Carolina campaigns in Rock Hill.

‘We’re going to get them here’

Scott Huffmon, director of the Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at Winthrop and director of the Winthrop Poll, said there could be a few reasons for increased interest in Rock Hill.

“Proximity to the Charlotte airport, the fact that we are kind of a gateway to — if you’re a Democrat, there are people with money here,” he said. “The York County Democrats have been strong and active and they have leadership that is able to influence the candidates. We’re going to get them here, Winthrop’s a great venue.”

He said leadership from Winthrop President Daniel Mahony has been key in making Winthrop an important stop for political candidates.

“Our students need to become engaged citizens, and that is something at Winthrop that we take stunningly seriously,” Huffmon said. “So having all the Republicans, all the Democrats, and even third party candidates coming through so they can see this is really important for us to expose our students to. And if we can help integrate all of that into the community and have the community come and familiarize themselves with Winthrop, so much the better for us.”

South Carolina’s presidential primary is set for February 29. North Carolina’s primary is less than a week later, on March 3. The closeness of those dates, as well as the proximity of Rock Hill to North Carolina may add to the draw for presidential candidates, Huffmon said.

“North Carolina is a swing state in the general election,” Huffmon said. “And so much of South Carolina, is in the Charlotte media market – it’s a way to get your message out very widely, to come to Rock Hill and get covered.”

Democrat chair Thompson also noted Rock Hill’s closeness to Charlotte.

“It sort of doubles their market, they can do York County and still get coverage in Charlotte,” he said.

Julie McClain Downey, director of state communications for Booker’s campaign, said the doubled media market is an added bonus for the campaign, but wasn’t the only reason for visiting Rock Hill. Booker’s campaign in South Carolina has made visiting smaller cities a priority – kicking off with visits to Winnsboro, Denmark and Sumter.

“He is making a focus out of visiting these communities, because they’ve also been the ones who have found themselves without a champion,” McClain Downey said.

Chances on the ballot box

Even if he doesn’t agree with the Democratic candidates, Norman said he’s glad they are visiting Rock Hill.

“Where could you go anywhere in the state that has the growth that Rock Hill has had?” Norman said. “It’s a hub of economic activity now and I think it’s good they’re coming. People, politicians, ought to be where people can ask them questions, they can tell them their views. So I think it’s a good thing, not just for them, for all candidates to get out. Particularly, this is a big job they’re running for.”

Norman has been an outspoken Trump supporter, and said campaign stops were an important chance for voters to question a candidate’s ideas.

“As far as their chances, we’ll see on the ballot box, what they can do, how South Carolina relates as to how they stack up against President Trump,” he said.

Even if a Democratic candidate is at a disadvantage in the general election in York County – 58% of York County voters voted for Republican candidate Trump in 2016 – Huffmon said it’s still worth it for them to campaign in Rock Hill.

“Coming here and getting covered, even if you’re a Democrat, you’re going to lose York County, you’re getting your message out to a lot of key people,” he said. “And you’re fighting in a Democratic primary right now, so you’re getting your message out to people beyond York County as well as York County Democrats.”

Rock Hill is the 5th largest city in South Carolina, according to Visit York County.

“We’re a populous county,” Huffmon said. “Demographics aside, we just literally have a large number of people, so it’s good to start appealing there, especially if you can spread your message beyond.”

Rock Hill on the radar

Thompson said local policies like the city’s new free electric bus system may draw national attention to Rock Hill.

“Rock Hill is getting good coverage with the whole thing of trying to break through with public transportation, the free bus service, and now of course, some of that news with the possibility of the Panthers (moving their practice site to Rock Hill),” he said. “Stories like that get it on the radar.”

And introducing presidential candidate Harris at Winthrop April 19, Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys took time to promote the city’s bus system, which will officially start in July, and the city’s council’s vote to pay city employees a liveable wage.

“A liveable wage, free transportation — those are wonderful things for us to have as a community,” he said. “They’re wonderful opportunities for more people in our community to build wealth, to build prosperity, than ever before.”

Gettys said it’s exciting to see Rock Hill residents involved in politics.

“It’s just an inspiring, inspiring time, not so much because of the candidate, but because of what the candidate brought out — and that was the good people of Rock Hill to share their story,” Gettys said after O’Rourke’s March visit. “It was neat.”

Added political interest in Rock Hill is good news, Huffmon said.

“For the city, it always means money,” Huffmon said. “It means people are traveling here, people are eating here. Hopefully we have folks staying here. It is always good to bring attention.”

It’s not only Democrats coming to the area. The August 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte will bring the spotlight to the area, including York County and Rock Hill, Huffmon said.

“When we had the (Democratic convention) in Charlotte, every hotel in Rock Hill was filled. Now that we’re going to have the (Republican National Convention) every hotel is going to be filled.

“We are going to be on the map. It’s very good for the city.”

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Hannah Smoot reports on money and power for The Herald, covering York, Lancaster and Chester counties. She has been a reporter at The Herald since June 2017. Contact Hannah at 803-329-4068, hgsmoot@heraldonline.com or follow her on Twitter @hgsmoot.