Jaime Harrison is the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party and a candidate for Democratic National Committee chair. He previously worked as executive director of the House Democratic Caucus, and is a regular guest lecturer at the Brookings Institute. Most recently, he worked as a principle at the Podesta Group. The Gate interviewed Harrison ahead of the third DNC Chair debate at the DNC Future Forum in Detroit, Michigan.
The Gate: To start, what would you say is the biggest difference between you and the other candidates that we have here today?
Jaime Harrison: I believe I am unique in this race because not only do I understand Washington, DC, but for the past six years, I have been building the party on the grassroots level in South Carolina. There isn’t anybody else in this race that can say they have their feet in both worlds. For a number of years, I worked on Capitol Hill. I ran the whip operation for the House Democrats when we took the majority back. I was the executive director for the House Democratic Caucus. In South Carolina, I have been the chair for the past four years, and two years prior to that, I was the vice chair.
That experience is really key in terms of being able to build a party, rebuild the party, from where it currently stands. The next chair of the DNC has to be somebody that is a builder, who understands how to build capacity in county parties and state parties and the national party. I have that experience. We need someone who is an organizer, someone who has the experience of bringing together a very diverse party—diverse in so many aspects, from ethnicity to gender identity to regional identity. I have that experience. That is what I had to do when I was in the whip’s office. We had to bring together a very diverse caucus: forty members of the Blue Dogs, who are more conservative Democrats, eighty to ninety members of the Progressive Caucus, and then everything that is in between. We only had a fifteen-seat majority at the time, so that meant we only could lose fifteen Democrats on any issue. And during that time, we never lost a party-line vote. That is because we have the respect, and I helped to build that respect, among the members of Congress. They understood that we had their best interest in mind, that we understood and appreciated the diversity that they brought to the caucus.
I think the next chair has to be a visionary, someone who has created programs and initiatives that take the party into the twenty-first century. We hear all the time from folks that we need to build a bench. Well in South Carolina, we are building a bench. We have launched the James E. Clyburn political fellowship, which is training the next generation of county party leaders, candidates, and campaign staff. It has been a very successful program that other states are asking for information about because they want to replicate it in their states. We have an initiative like South Carolina Democrats Care, where we go out into the community and help empower people. We do an annual issues conference, where we do training for our activists, but we also engage them on issue advocacy and talk about policy. So we are building a party that is elastic enough that everybody feels like they have a spot.
And then finally, I think the next DNC chair has to be someone who is a fighter. Not only who can lead the fight against Donald Trump—and coming from a red state, you have to know how to fight. But I think fighting also in terms of understanding, and having the worldview and experience of seeing roadblocks and getting over them. And I’ve had that. I grew up in rural South Carolina. My mom was a teenager when she had me. She dropped out of school, and my grandparents took care of me. They didn’t have much education. So I was first in my family to go away to college, and first in my family to get a law degree. But at the same time, I have been the first of a lot of things. First African American to serve and the youngest person to serve as executive director of the House Democratic Caucus. Same thing with the whip’s office. Same thing in terms of being party leader. So there are a lot of obstacles and barriers that I have had to overcome, and a lot of naysayers who said, “Well I don’t know if you have the experience, I don’t know if you have the intellect, I don’t know if you have the know-how to do these things.” But we got it done. That’s what we need in a DNC chair. Somebody who can relate to everybody, across the board. I can relate to young people who are struggling with student loan debt—I got $160,000 of my own. I can relate to the working-class folks who are struggling to make ends meet. That was my life growing up. But at the same time, I can relate to middle-class America, trying to make sure that you can make life better for your kids than it was for yourself. I believe I am unique in this race because of those experiences.
Gate: You just touched on the fact that you are from a state that Trump won, and you are leading the Democrats in South Carolina. What have been some of the biggest challenges in your position there? How do you think that can translate into leading the Democratic Party against a Republican administration?
Harrison: The biggest obstacle that we have in South Carolina, I would have to say, is gerrymandered districts. Redistricting is such an important thing as we go into that in 2020. It’s going to be so important for us to have a seat at the table to draw the lines in such a manner that we make the districts much more competitive. It is hard in South Carolina for a Democrat to win in some of these seats. And people say all the time, “We should run folks in all of these seats.” But when candidates look at these districts, they see how difficult it is to even get 20 or 30 percent of the districts because the districts are drawn in such a way that no Democrat, regardless of who that is, could win. In the end, I think not only is it an issue for the Democratic Party, but it’s an issue for our democracy. Gerrymandering happens in blue states as well. We need a marketplace of ideas where members of the public, the American citizens, can go and make a decision on who they want to support. I don’t believe that a candidate should draw the districts that they run in.
Another issue is just making sure that we have the resources in order to do all the things that we want to do. That means having a good partnership with the DNC. And I think so many states are like South Carolina are doing good things, but need that one last helping hand from the DNC to make sure that we are adequately training our people, that the data we are using and the technology we are using is cutting-edge and innovative, so that we can reach out to our voters. These are things that we have to get from the DNC, because on a state level, we are so small, we don’t have the capacity to create it ourselves. So I think those are two greatest challenges that we are faced with—another challenge was having the bench, but that’s something that we are addressing right now through our Clyburn Fellowship.
Gate: Another aspect of your experience that people have pointed out as you entered the race, was your experience working at the Podesta Group. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that would apply to your role as DNC Chair?
Harrison: I ended up joining the Podesta Group right after the 2008 election. I was on Capitol Hill for a while and decided that I wanted to do something very different for a little bit, go out into the private sector. At the Podesta Group, I mostly focus on transportation-related things. I led the transportation sector at Podesta, so I worked on issues and clients from Enterprise Rent-A-Car to General Motors to the Port of Charleston, which is something that has been a big passion of mine. I worked with the University of South Carolina to help them build a STEM program through the McNair Center, to get more minorities into the science, technology, engineering, and math sectors.
So it’s a great experience, but a lot of people ask about it like, “I don’t understand lobbying. What is lobbying?” And the best equivalent that I can tell you is a lawyer in a courtroom. Say you are going to court—you can represent yourself, you don’t need a lawyer to go into a courtroom. You don’t need a lobbyist in order to get things done in Washington, DC. But what you do is you seek their ideas, thoughts, opinions, and advice because those are the folks who, in the instance of the lawyer, understand the nuances and the motions that you can make in the courtroom, where the judge’s perspective may be. That’s the same thing with the folks who are in the lobbying sector: they understand who the players are in the committees, they understand the process by which the committees do certain things, they understand the rules by which legislation passes. I can walk up to somebody right now, and ask, “Do you understand what a motion to recommit is?” And most people would say, “Well I took Political Science 101!” But they don’t quite get that. Well, that’s something that I know because of my experience working on Capitol Hill.
Many times folks look at lobbyists and say that this is “undue influence.” I mean, people lobby for a variety of different issues. For example, there are a lot of teachers now who are calling in and saying, “We don’t want Betsy DeVos to be the next secretary of education”—in essence, that is lobbying. That is petitioning your government, letting your member of Congress know that that is not something you believe in, and you are asking them to go one way or the other. It has been a great experience [at Podesta]. I have decided not to continue it right now as I pursue the DNC chairmanship, but it brings a lot of perspective.
Gate: What do you view as the most important role of the DNC chair?
Harrison: I think the most important thing for the DNC chair is to rebuild state parties, to invoke the fifty-state strategy or bring back the fifty-state strategy and build upon what that was. Right now, state parties are broken—they are really, really broken. And it’s important for us because we have all of this activism that’s taking place. People are just really frustrated, and they want to do something. I don’t know if state parties can handle or have the capacity to handle the influx of volunteers that will be coming in. State parties are understaffed and under-resourced. So we have to help state parties build the capacity that they need in order to take all energy that is going on in their communities and transform that into action, transform that into votes, transform that into mobilization that takes place in 2018. The 2018 election has to become a change election. And we have to start to build a wave so that we can help to take over governorships, that we win back the House of Representatives.
Gate: How do we take this anti-Trump rhetoric and activism that we are seeing from a lot Democrats and turn it into actual action that will produce Democratic wins in 2018 or 2020?
Harrison: We know what is important. You have to register the voters. You have to educate the voters. You have to mobilize the voters. You have to get them out to vote. So all of these people who are out there, we have to use those folks as foot-soldiers to do those things. Begin with the voter registration. Have the conversations with voters, making sure that voters are educated enough so that they understand why it’s important that they have their voices heard. For some people you would think that just living in the age of Trump and seeing all of the craziness that is coming out over the past two weeks would wake a lot of people up. But some people are still in a little slumber. So it’s important for the party to make sure that we go out and educate people about what’s going on, what Trump has done, and what Trump could possibly do in the future. We also have to educate them on the rubber-stamp Congress that is basically allowing him to do all of these things.
At the same, we have to educate the voters on what Democrats want to do. It can’t just be all about anti-Trump. It has to be pro-Democrats. What are our ideas about revitalizing the economy, getting people back to work, investing in our young people? We have to share our domestic agenda, but also what our world perspective is. It’s a very stark contrast to that of Donald Trump and the rubber-stamp Republicans. So those are things that have to happen over the course of the next few months. By January of next year, it’s election time. We have a lot to do in a very short time.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
The image featured in this article has been taken courtesy of the author, Dylan Wells.