Jaime Harrison is walking, talking and raising money like a candidate.
But he hasn’t officially thrown his hat in the ring to run against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.
“I have formed an exploratory committee,” he said in a meeting with the Horry County Democratic Party’s Beach Dems at Friendly’s restaurant on Friday in Myrtle Beach. “I have explored out. We will be making an announcement very, very soon.”
Looking to the time when he will officially be running, he admitted there are obstacles — the state hasn’t elected a Democrat to the senate since Fritz Hollings in 1998 and raising money for a successful campaign is difficult in a Republican-heavy state.
“South Carolina is not a big donor state. We don’t have a lot of deep pockets particularly when you’re running on the Democratic side,” he said, adding that his constituents are largely working-class people from rural areas who may not be able to write checks for the maximum donation of $2,800. “So, we’re going to friends outside of the state and asking for help.”
He had told the crowd of about 45 people that he had just returned to the state from a fundraising trip in Chicago, Illinois.
Repeating “during the campaign,” Harrison said he wants to focus on three topics of making a difference in the lives of South Carolinians, rebuilding trust and giving hope to constituents.
He said he would not be talking about Graham much over the months.
“It’s not about Lindsey. It’s about the people. It’s about the people in this state that he has ignored time and time again,” he said. “It’s about people in this state that he is not fighting for.”
Sitting at the front table with her eyes stuck on Harrison, Bev Bitzegaio nodded several times while Harrison spoke.
Bitzegaio moved to Myrtle Beach from Terre Haute, Indiana, last June. She said she’s familiar with the conservative history of the state, but hopes Harrison is the candidate to unseat Graham. She said the state has many new residents from various parts of the country that may not vote for Graham.
“He’s going to dig his own grave,” she said of the incumbent, characterizing Graham’s presidential campaign talk versus recent statements as flip-flopping. “We’ll see. I do think money is going to be a problem. You have to have money to get elected, a lot of money. But, I don’t know a lot about (Harrison) and I’m hoping to learn. He does seem dynamic and I think that’s important.”
Harrison wrapped his Beach Dems speech around his background of his grandparents each dropping out of school to work, his mother dropping out of high school because she was pregnant with him and growing up poor in Orangeburg. He said he used water on his cereal because the family couldn’t afford milk; they slept with the lights out because they couldn’t afford a high utility bill and he would dig around under the couch cushions to find a dollar to give his grandfather for gas money.
But, Harrison said, he studied and was graduated from Yale University and Georgetown University Law Center.
While working for U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, late one night he talked to a woman cleaning the congressional offices. She had noticed photographs on his desk and wept when she realized she had been in school with his mother when she dropped out to give birth to him.
“It’s about hope,” he said, his voice faltering when telling the story of the “little round headed boy from Orangeburg” working on Capitol Hill.
After leaving Washington, Harrison became the first black chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
As the chairman, he said, he was making the rounds talking to people about their priorities when he met an elderly man living in a shotgun house off a dirt road. The man, he said, didn’t care which party Harrison represented because the road to his house had been dirt since the Reagan administration.
“It’s not about telling. It’s about showing,” Harrison said. “At the end of the day, all they’re hearing is words and nothing in their life is changing. It’s still a damn dirt road.”
Changing the way things are done, he said, will be a priority. And that change includes going back to the days of elected officials being responsive like when his mother was looking for a job and had written the late republican Sen. Strom Thurmond asking for help. Harrison said the senator’s office arranged for a job interview for his mother and she got the job. Years later, he said, Thurmond had sent him a congratulatory letter on being accepted to Yale.
“It’s not going to be a Democrat or Republican thing. Because if it is, we’re not going to win,” he said. “It’s about being a good person, doing good things for the good people of this great state. We’re going to give them hope.”