Hillary Clinton’sroad to redemption among black voters begins Wednesday in South Carolina.
Rita Outen remembers everything that happened here the last time Clinton made her case for the presidency, slogging through a bitter and racially charged primary contest against Barack Obama in 2008.
Standing in the aisle of Reid Chapel A.M.E. church one recent afternoon, the retired nurse ticked off the lowlights: the “Jesse Jackson thing,” when Bill Clinton seemed to dismiss Obama’s victory in the state by noting the reverend won South Carolina twice without making it to the White House. And the time when Hillary Clinton accused Obama of working closely with a slumlord.
“There was also that fairy tale comment,” Outen said, recalling yet another Bill Clinton gaffe from the campaign that was interpreted as an effort to diminish the man who would become the first African-American president.
Obama routed Clinton 55% to 27% in the 2008 primary, when she won just one of South Carolina’s 46 counties — a drubbing that sparked shouting matches between old friends and fears of a permanently fractured party. It left many African-Americans feeling disenchanted about the Clintons, a political couple adored by many minorities during their years in the White House.
The Southern test for Clinton now centers on whether she can move past the wounds of that campaign. In the past few months, Clinton’s team has moved aggressively — if quietly at times — to heal lingering damage from 2008 and solidify black support in early states and among prominent African-Americans.
For now, Clinton is enjoying some goodwill. Outen, for instance, voted for Obama in 2008 and despite what she called the “nastiness” of that race, she now says she’s a Hillary Clinton supporter.
“When you run for political office, everybody makes statements you shouldn’t make and some of the statements back then were derogatory,” recalled Outen. “At first, my support was a little wavering, but you get over it. She now has a chance to redeem herself.”
Shortly after Clinton lost in 2008, Rep. Jim Clyburn got an angry phone call from Bill Clinton, who blamed him for the defeat in part because he didn’t endorse the former first lady. Seven years later, tensions have calmed and the divisions that were feared haven’t come to pass, Clyburn said.
“Emotionally, people are attached to Hillary Clinton on many different levels,” said Clyburn, who is the highest ranking African-American in Congress. “There are people who want to see the glass ceiling smashed and there are people who want to see our party lay out a progressive agenda.”
Clinton is set to deliver the keynote address to the South Carolina House Democratic Women’s Caucus and the South Carolina Democratic Women’s Council. But the event that will most recall Clinton’s 2008 challenges — and her 2016 opportunities — will come when she sits down with a group of minority women who own small businesses.
“This is Hillary Clinton’s reintroduction to African-American voters,” said former state representative Bakari Sellers, who co-chaired Obama’s 2008 state steering committee and now backs Clinton. “I don’t care how you couch it. It just is.”
There is some skepticism about her ability to turn out African-Americans at the same rate as Obama. Former state party head, Dick Harpootlian, a Biden supporter who was one of Obama’s earliest supporters and frequent Clinton antagonist in 2008, looks at the base and sees the same type of challenge for Clinton as she faced in 2008.
“I see no enthusiasm among rank and file Democrats for Hillary Clinton and there are still some harsh feelings about what happened in 2008,” Harpootlian said. “People have come up to me saying we remember ’08, who are you for and is Biden going to get in.”
Biden will likely stay on the sidelines as long as Clinton remains in the race. By the time primary day rolls around, Clinton will have company — Bernie Sanders has already announced and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is likely to announce his candidacy this week.
While Sanders recently electrified a state party gathering with his populist rhetoric, the Vermont senator does not have deep ties to African-Americans. And O’Malley, former Mayor of Baltimore, could be hurt as much as he is helped by his tough on crime tenure in light of the recent unrest in that city.
Clinton, meanwhile, is also reaching out to African-Americans elsewhere. In Iowa, she met with local members of the NAACP. She has reached out to Al Sharpton and told him to expect further engagement. She has also filled the top ranks of her campaign with African-Americans like Marlon Marshall, Maya Harris and Karen Finney.
In one of her first major speeches after leaving the State Department, Clinton appeared before the American Bar Association in 2013 to press for voting rights. And in April, she gave a major speech on criminal justice reform, an issue that has spawned the seeds of a new civil rights movement. She also talked about the “missing black men” in African-American neighborhoods and distanced herself from her husband’s approach to crime.
“She talked about Pookie, without mentioning Pookie,” said Clay Middleton, who will run Clinton’s campaign in South Carolina, referring to an oft-mentioned stock character from Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaign. “I was really surprised to hear parts of that speech. It was bold.”
According to a February CNN/ORC poll, black Democrats overwhelmingly favor Clinton — 64% favored the former secretary of state with 23% picking Vice President Biden, who is unlikely to run. But the question for Clinton is not whether she can get black voters to support her, but whether the outreach efforts mastered by the Obama team and the historic black turnout he generated can be so easily transferred to Clinton.
The campaign will likely announce the hiring of an African-American outreach director in the coming days. Six paid organizers are now working different parts of the state and their playbook will likely include not only outreach at churches and civic organizations, but also barber and beauty shops.
“The campaign strategy and the approach to black voters is going to resonate to a large extent across the country so it’s important to get it right,” said Rick Wade, the national black vote director and senior Obama adviser in 2008. “It’s the first contest with a sizable black population and an important place to test outreach and strategy.”
Middleton, a former aide to Clyburn and Obama 2008 alumni, will run Clinton’s campaign here. The team he assembled includes Jalisa Washington, the 26-year-old political director, who went door-to-door and church-to-church in some of the state’s most rural area for Clinton as part of a team called “The Wrecking Crew.”
“We aren’t talking about which side you were on,” said Washington, who will work with elected officials.
They were both on hand on opening day of Clinton’s downtown Columbia headquarters last week, fielding questions from reporters and volunteers.
The day had the feel of a reunion, with former Clinton supporters reminiscing about the old days and looking to the next race as a chance to fulfill the dashed hopes of 2008. Clinton stalwarts passed around old photos from the trail, as newbies on their cell phones lined the sidewalk in front of the one story house. They talked about how they saved campaign shirts and posters because they were so certain that Clinton would run again. And they remembered when the race started to slip away.
“We saw a lot of people changing their minds, we saw the drop off,” said Peggy Scipio, 54. “They saw people with Obama and thought the campaign was more organized.”
And they talked about how this time already seemed better. Their call sheets were more comprehensive and their friends who were big Obama supporters were now talking about Clinton’s shot at history.
“Hillary is a go-getter and she doesn’t quit,” said Veronica Edwards, 55, repeating the pitch she will make again and again to callers on her list. “I know a woman like her can run the country.”
Civil rights activism
Tapping into this state’s history of civil rights activism will be key to Clinton’s chances at ginning up historic support. Here, inequality and the country’s difficult racial history is never far from view. On a recent afternoon, demonstrators gathered to mark the anniversary of Brown v. Board of education, the landmark decision that included plaintiffs from this state. They gathered near a statue of Strom Thurmond on the back steps of the the Capitol, where the Confederate flag flies on the grounds.
“Every time you look around, there is another Michael Brown on the ground,” said one of the performers, referring to the unarmed black teenager killed by police last year in Ferguson, Missouri.
Up in his office nearby, state Sen. Darrell Jackson, a prominent Clinton backer in 2008, talked about the different dynamic Clinton faces in 2016. Photos of Obama and Clinton from the last campaign line Jackson’s bookshelves and side tables. Jackson’s church, the 14,000-member Bible Way, was the first place then-Sen. Obama visited.
After Clinton’s loss, Jackson fielded a primary challenger who lambasted him for picking Clinton over Obama. Jackson, who said he still has his “Hillary staffer” campaign button, won his race handily, evidence to him that most people quickly moved on from the primary battle.
“Everybody who was allegedly done with the Clintons — well they are running over each other to be in her campaign,” he said, dismissing talk of any lingering hangover. “But some people are going to say, after a black president, my life should be better and I thought it would be better and it’s not. How do you motivate people who have given up?”
Clinton has a built-in edge — evident in polls — because she ran in this state before and because the kind of black voters who saw a chance to make history with Obama, see the same chance with her candidacy.
Reached at her home in Greenwood, Edith S. Childs, the woman who coined Obama’s “Fired up, ready to go” chant said: “We have a black president and we are ready for a woman.”
Asked if she has a new chant for Clinton, Childs said, “We’ll see what happens.”
“We may just do a new one for her. By the time she gets to where she needs to be, we’ll have something and I’ll be ready.”