Meet Jaime Harrison, the Democrat taking the fight to Lindsey Graham: Part 2

Harrison is drawing national dollars in his race against Trump's golf pal — but where does he fit among Democrats?

Published July 22, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

U.S. senate candidate Jaime Harrison and Senator Lindsey Graham (Getty Images/Salon)
U.S. senate candidate Jaime Harrison and Senator Lindsey Graham (Getty Images/Salon)

Jaime Harrison is the South Carolina Democrat running against Sen. Lindsey Graham this fall. He's overperforming in the polls and blowing Graham out of the water in fundraisingtopping the 25-year incumbent in both reporting periods this year. Last week Harrison announced a $14 million haul, while Graham pulled in $8.4 million.

Democrats are typically reluctant to put hope in a state like South Carolina, even with a focused campaign and a charismatic candidate. The buckle of the Bible Belt, South Carolina voted for Democrats all the way from Reconstruction into the 1960s, flipping Republican, like most of the Deep South, in response to the civil rights movement. In 1964, South Carolina was one of just six states to vote for Barry Goldwater, the godfather of the modern conservative movement. It has gone red in every election since then, with the sole exception of 1976, when it went for Jimmy Carter, a moderate Democrat from neighboring Georgia. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the Palmetto State by 14 points, 55 to 41%.

Still, Harrison inspires hope. It doesn't hurt that Graham has disappeared from the state almost entirely, seen now by many constituents as just another club in Donald Trump's golf bag. Though that obeisance has played well to the gallery on the right, many South Carolinians, including traditional Republicans, feel that Graham has gone MIA when they need him most. The acute crisis of the coronavirus pandemic seems to have driven home an old lesson: Distance can have real consequences, especially at the state level.

Harrison doesn't have the national name recognition that Graham does, but he's demonstrated the political chops to run a cagey, powerful campaign. He also stands to benefit as a Black man up against a white institutionalist in a revolutionary year for racial justice.

He also knows the race he wants to run. Harrison's rhetoric is polished, inclusive and relentlessly on message, and he knows he needs to put in the legwork. While he says he's trying to build a coalition "like Lindsey Graham 1.0," a bird's-eye view suggests something more like Beto O'Rourke 2.0: a blue streak in a red state, against tall odds (although the pandemic has blunted Harrison's plans for county-by-county barnstorming).

But while Harrison has pulled off the newcomer look, he's a total insider. His trajectory is the stuff of American myth: He grew up poor in rural Orangeburg, but went to Yale, followed by Georgetown Law. After graduation he signed on as a staffer to South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, where Harrison worked on the Affordable Care Act and eventually rose to executive director of the House Democratic Caucus.

After five years in Clyburn's office, Harrison moved to the Podesta Group, now defunct but at the time among the largest Democratic lobbying shops in Washington. His personal client list, however, would give many left-liberal voters pause: Walmart, Boeing, General Dynamics, Merck, Lockheed Martin, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Harrah's Casinos, the pro-coal special interest group American Coalition for Clean Coal — it's a lot to take in at once.

Such a résumé might be enough to tank him in a liberal stronghold or a national race (it might have derailed his 2017 bid for chair of the Democratic National Committee), but it's no poison pill in a place like South Carolina.

Harrison arrived at Clyburn's office $160,000 in debt, he says, and over the next few years put his salary toward paying that down and helping his mother meet her financial obligations at home. His latest available financial disclosure form, filed in August 2019, lists between $1.1 million and $3.5 million in personal assets. He's come a long way from Orangeburg.

But throughout his time in D.C., Harrison has kept one foot in South Carolina. In 2013 he became the state Democratic Party chair, and in 2016 left Podesta Group for good. He ran for DNC chair, but dropped out to endorse Tom Perez, who went on to win.

Harrison married Marie Boyd, a graduate from Harvard and Yale Law who now teaches at the University of South Carolina School of Law. She's one of the country's top experts in food and drug regulation, and, according to her university biography, her research focuses on cosmetics regulation and the regulation of insects as human food.

Salon spoke with Jaime Harrison at length and broke that conversation in two. You can read part one here, which focuses why he thinks he can beat Graham in South Carolina.

This installment addresses policy issues — most specifically health care  — along with Harrison's experience in Washington, and offers him a chance to defend his record as a lobbyist for some of the most powerful and politically influential companies and industries in the nation.

At the end of the day, Harrison views this race almost exclusively through the lens of South Carolina, a conservative state by any challenge. For a big-tent Democrat who didn't have to sweat a primary challenge, that's a smart play. But it also r raises larger questions: If the Democratic Party continues its leftward movement, how well does somebody like Jaime Harrison fit in? 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

The former president of Michelin, your client when you were a lobbyist at the Podesta Group, threw his support and his money behind you this year. Before that, he'd been a Lindsey Graham donor. People might reasonably wonder about that.

You sent out a campaign email or fundraising email, literally hours ago, that read, "South Carolina needs a senator who won't be swayed by money or power." With your history, that's a bit of a tough sell.

From the time that I worked as Jim Clyburn's congressional staffer, all the legislation we were able to pass, I've always fought for and worked for the people of South Carolina, and that has not changed since I was a little boy.

When you look at why [former Michelin chair and president Dick Wilkerson] said that he supported me, think about the context: I'm a challenger. Many companies and folks in the business community always hedge their bet, and so they're going to stick with their company. That's just sort of the nature of the beast, right? They don't rock the boat.

Dick Wilkinson was the head of one of the largest companies in South Carolina. Respected on both sides of the aisle, because he was just a pragmatic guy. He just tried to get the job done. He supported Lindsey Graham. And Dick has fundamentally gone to the point that it's not about Republicans or Democrats, it's that the people of South Carolina want some change and they want something different. And there are 24 other former Lindsey Graham donors who are now supporting me.

What he said is that, "Jaime Harrison is the future of South Carolina. And if Lindsey Graham could not stand up for the memory of his best friend, a war hero, John McCain, then what would he do for South Carolina?" I think that says it all.

Assuming you get there, do you believe Congress should hold Trump accountable what he's done, even if he loses? Would you support a possible criminal investigation, or would you let those probes drop?

Listen, we need to focus on the folks here in South Carolina. I mean, that's where I'm going to spend my energy. We got so many issues here that people in South Carolina need help on, that I don't have time to be looking back in history and say, "Well, who did this? And why did you do this?" And all kinds of things.

That's what Lindsey does, the "witch hunt," while he forgets the issues that people are dealing with here in South Carolina. I'm not going to waste my energy and time on all that stuff.

That's a trope, right? You go off to Washington and you lose touch. But you too have left home. You grew up poor, but broke out and went off to Yale and Georgetown, worked in D.C., and began traveling in these rarefied circles. You lobbied for companies like Walmart, Boeing and Lockheed. You lobbied for pharmaceuticals, you lobbied for a "clean coal" group. From a liberal perspective it's hard to reconcile that with your stated platforms and policies.

Can you square that? For instance, would you advocate for an increase in the minimum wage after working as a lobbyist for Walmart?

Yes, I would. But let's back up first.

Listen, I have lived the American dream, which is something that I am deeply proud of and something that I believe every child in South Carolina or across the country should have the opportunity to do. And I'm proud of the work that I've done to help South Carolina in the process because, despite leaving South Carolina, I've never left South Carolina. She's always been in my heart.

Even when I worked in the private sector, I fought for some of the largest companies in South Carolina. Companies like Michelin and Boeing, who have invested millions in the state, and have employed thousands of people across the state. They're the reason those people can put food on their table and clothe their kids.

I've also advocated for the improvement of the South Carolina Port Authority. The dredging of the Port of South Carolina right now — which is a huge, huge issue — is something that I directly worked on. And that supports the employment of almost one out of 10 people in South Carolina. [Fact check: This appears to be accurate.] It has a huge impact on the economy of South Carolina.

I've also worked on making sure that there are opportunities for other people to achieve the American Dream. In the private sector, I worked with the University of South Carolina, making sure that we were able to leverage better resources for some of the research that they're doing and helping students get opportunities that they probably wouldn't have, had I not worked there. So I'm pretty happy with the things that I've been able to do and the perspective that I've been able to get.

Listen, unlike Lindsey Graham, who's in the United States Senate, the only special interests that I'm going to be focused on as a South Carolina senator is helping folks across South Carolina. People like my grandparents, people like my mom. That's where my mind goes to first

On the issue of increasing the minimum wage, that's what I believe in. I believe that a minimum wage is really, really important and, yes, I will increase the minimum wage. I don't think Lindsey Graham has ever voted for a minimum wage increase in his 20 plus years on the Hill.

The only reason he's talking about it now is because I'm talking about it. The only reason he's talking about broadband internet and the impact that it's having on the health care system here in South Carolina and the education system here in South Carolina is because I'm talking about it.

Now, part of the reason why that stuff hasn't been acted on here is because some of the big companies don't want it acted on, because they don't want to move into those markets. But I don't care. I'm not working for the companies; I'm working for the people of South Carolina and you've always got to put the people first.

You don't support Medicare for All or a universal single-payer system. Could you explain your position on health care?

Listen, I believe that we need to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. Here in South Carolina, we've never had a full implementation of the ACA. We need to expand Medicaid. That's what I really want to see. Right now there are holes in the ACA, in terms of mental health, vision, dental. I want to fill those holes and make sure that folks have sufficient coverage. I think, particularly coming off the coronavirus and the stress there, mental health coverage is going to be crucial for so many people in this country. 

So that's the foundation. And yeah, once I'm in the Senate, we'll have debates and discussions about other policies. But I want to see a full implementation of the ACA and actually strengthen it. And I think, once we've looked at that, we can go from there to figure out if we need to do anything else.

Could you speak more about the expansion of Medicaid? So many states have rejected it, and it gets lost in discussions about the ACA. Do you think you can guarantee coverage to all your constituents, if South Carolina accepts the expansion along with your plan?

I think South Carolina is one of at least 13 or 14 states that have not expanded Medicaid. Most of them are Southern states, and most of those states are the states with the highest ratings of health disparity.

I'm going to bring this down to a personal level. My grandfather, one of the lights of my life, one of the hardest working people I have ever met, my grandfather would work 50- to 60-hour weeks. He did construction. He was one of those guys that sat on the motor grader in those 95-degree days — 102 with humidity — in the summer in South Carolina, and pave roads and those types of things.

My grandfather never had health care in his life until he found out he had undiagnosed diabetes. But then it was too late and he had to get part of his leg amputated, toes amputated off of his foot. It was devastating for us, but there's so many people … Now, if my grandfather was alive — he had a relatively modest, low-wage job, and probably would have qualified under the Medicaid expansion.

There's so many people like my grandfather who work hard each and every day but their jobs don't provide them health care. And as a result they don't go to a doctor when their body starts to break down. They just go and — my grandfather would get these Goody powders — and just deal with the pain. Because he knew we couldn't afford the hospital. We couldn't afford the doctor.

Eventually, the system then paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to take care of my grandfather after the years of health neglect because he didn't have health care. Changing that would lift a huge burden off our health care system. It would also lift burdens off our rural hospitals, because many of these people live in rural communities.

If you take a look at the states that have not expanded Medicaid and states where rural hospitals have closed, it's almost like hand-in-glove, a mirror image of each other. Because of the fact that they did not expand Medicaid, it puts much more pressure on rural hospitals. Some of those dollars for the Medicaid expansion were meant to go to these hospitals that are dealing with large pockets of indigent folks who can't afford health coverage and use emergency rooms at their hospitals.

That's why you see these hospitals closing. It could be a huge boon for our system just to let the ACA work as the ACA was designed to work, and then see what we need to do to fully address any additional holes in our health care system.

But don't you see some of your constituents falling through those holes?

They are falling through the holes.

Right now, [Alabama Democratic Sen.] Doug Jones has a bill that we have said that we would support, as well. For the first few years of the ACA, the federal government covered 100% of the Medicaid expansion. Then there was a four- or five-year window after that, when the feds would cover 90% and then leave it to the state to cover the other 10%. Well, Doug has a bill that will allow states to restart the clock. If you were one of the states that did not start the Medicaid expansion, it allows those states to restart a clock and get those first years of Medicaid expansion.

I've been saying, in South Carolina, dealing with this coronavirus, why don't we just expand Medicaid, even on a temporary basis, to cover those folks in the state who probably have symptoms of the coronavirus, but won't go to the doctor to get tested because they can't afford to do it? Let's just temporarily expand the Medicaid and see how that impacts. Do it for the first four or five months, see how it impacts South Carolina. And if it impacts us positively, like I know it will, then we should continue on with it. 

Listen, I'm so happy that we have such strong and vibrant businesses and corporations here that are allowed to provide our people with good jobs and all to take care of things. But, the greatest asset we have as a nation is our people. We got to make sure that we're taking care of our people. When we don't and then they drop off, then the greatness of our nation also falls off.

I really do believe that we need that type of new, visionary leadership that understands that. That understands that the status quo isn't good enough — that we need to do better and we can do better, but we got to change up some things.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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