Jaime Harrison is a storyteller.
Ask the 44-year-old Democratic candidate for Senate in South Carolina just about anything and he’s likely to respond by way of a real-world example, either from his own upbringing in rural Orangeburg or from the lives of those he’s encountered throughout his career in politics. Since announcing his long-shot bid to unseat Lindsey Graham, Harrison has been regaling South Carolinians in an effort to convince them it’s time to turn the page on the three-term Senate Judiciary Committee chairman.
His approach to unseating Graham is simple. Show don’t tell.
Harrison believes Graham’s role as Trump’s most shameless sycophant in Congress has alienated the senator from the needs of his constituents, who have long lacked the kind of hands-on attention they deserve from their representatives. Though the pandemic has hampered Harrison’s plans to get into communities and demonstrate what they’re missing — which he planned to do through a tour of all 46 of the state’s counties and a public-service initiative dubbed “Harrison Helps” — his message is still resonating.
In August, Harrison raised a whopping $10 million, much of it from out of state, building on the $14 million he raised in the year’s second quarter, a total that nearly doubled the state’s previous Senate campaign fundraising record: the $7.3 million Harrison raised in the first quarter. “Lindsey Graham is a man who’s been in Washington for 25 years, a man who’s the golf buddy of the president of the United States,” Harrison says of his campaign’s improbable success. “A round-headed boy from Orangeburg, South Carolina, born to a teen mom, is out-raising that guy.”
Most polls either have Harrison virtually tied with Graham, or only trailing by a few percentage points. In August, the Cook Political Report changed its election forecast from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican,” a sign of the inroads Harrison had made into Graham’s control over the seat previously held for nearly 50 years by segregationist Strom Thurmond. If Harrison wins in November, South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, will become the first state with two African-American senators. But even if he doesn’t, his campaign — like those of Beto O’Rourke in Texas and Stacey Abrams in Georgia — is a sign that attitudes in the South are changing, and that there’s good reason for Democrats to invest in the deep-red region.
To triumph in November, Harrison going to need to win over the independents and disaffected conservatives who have grown weary of Graham’s incessant political maneuvering. He’s also going to need to turn out the vote in rural areas, where many have given up on the idea that politicians can make a difference in their lives. To help convince them, Harrison recently unveiled a Rural Hope Agenda that would strengthen access to health care, broadband, and other services that state’s less-populated communities are lacking. “You see these huge health disparities in African-American communities, in Native-American communities, and you see inequities in terms of education, particularly in rural black communities,” he says of the inspiration for the plan. “We can really address these things, and you will see that all boats in South Carolina will start to rise and it will be a transformative policy for our state.”
Rolling Stone recently spoke to Harrison about rural outreach, running against Lindsey Graham, the future of the Democratic Party, and more. Yes, he told plenty of stories.
You grew up poor to a single, teenage mother in Orangeburg, a rural area of South Carolina. How would you say political attention toward rural areas has evolved — or devolved — since you were growing up?
I would say there’s been more of a devolution than an evolution.
Constituent service back in the day, even when I was even a young intern on the Hill, was very different then than it is now. My mom was 16 when she had me, so she dropped out of school for a while in order to take care of me. She couldn’t find a job in her hometown, so someone told her to reach out to both of her senators, who at the time were Fritz Hollings and Strom Thurmond. My mom wrote to both of them and they both responded and assigned staffers that got in contact with her and set her up on interviews. Ironically, it was Strom Thurmond’s office that set my mom up for the interview that helped her eventually get her job. I remember when she told me the story for the first time, I said, “Momma, are you sure it was Strom Thurmond?” She said, “Yes, and you know what, Jaime? They never asked me what race I was or what political party I belong to. All they knew was that I was a constituent that needed help.” You can say what you want to say about Strom, and there’s a lot to say about Strom in terms of racial issues, but the one thing I can say about him and Fritz Hollings is that their constituent services were probably the best I’ve ever seen. Because at the end of the day, if you needed your Social Security, if you tried to get on disability, if you needed help on a passport, these folks would focus on doing all that they could for South Carolina.
I don’t see that these days. I want to get back to that type of service because there are some fundamental issues that people are dealing with that they don’t have the power to handle, that they can’t do by themselves. It’s our job as public servants, whether you’re in the House or the Senate or in the state legislature, to do the blocking and tackling that needs to be done so that people have a straight path to get to the goal line and live the American dream. I see with Lindsey Graham that he’s focused on Lindsey Graham. The only thing Lindsey is going to block and tackle for is whether or not he can get to a TV camera at Fox studios so he can sit next to Sean Hannity. That is not helping the people here in South Carolina who don’t have broadband, or the communities that have lost their hospitals, or the communities that have been impacted by climate change because of the rising sea level. I believe if we can get more people in Washington to focus on those things, the quality of life for people living in this country and the ability of people to actually live the American Dream increases tenfold.
You worked on Inez Tenenbaum’s [unsuccessful] Senate campaign in 2004. How do the interactions you’re having with some of these more marginalized groups now compare to what you were seeing 15 years ago? When do you think South Carolinians began to lose faith that politicians can help better their lives? Or has it been more of a gradual disillusionment over decades?
I think it’s been a slow process. When I was on Inez’s race and I was the political director for the coordinated effort, one of the things I wanted to test out was a more service-oriented outreach effort. In Florence County, South Carolina, I worked with a local bank and a church to pilot a home ownership workshop. There was a woman I watched the entire time sit there and take notes. Afterwards I went up to her and I said, “So, did you enjoy it?” She was in tears and said, “I’m so grateful, because Inez Tenenbaum and the Democratic Party is going to help me realize my dream of owning a home.” That sparked something in me. That type of passion is something a TV ad, a piece of mail, or a radio spot can’t buy. I filed that away in my head and when I decided to run for the U.S. Senate I told my staff one first things I want to do is Harrison Helps, because I want people to see what my values are, not just tell them. I believe that’s a much more powerful way to persuade somebody that you are the right person. We just had our second annual Harrison Helps school supplies drive. We raised over $15,000 of school supplies, and gave them out to almost 850 kids in three regions of South Carolina. It was fabulous, and we were able to do it socially distanced.
Folks are suffering now. It’s not good enough for me to say to them, “Well, you just wait until I get elected in November.” How is that going to help them deal with the fact that they’ve lost their job? That’s what I believe that we fundamentally have to do. Get back into the community and become grassroots-connected people. Listen to the pain and the hardship and the hopes and the aspirations of people right now and try to do what you can, even as a candidate, to address those things. I think that if we can do that people will regain that faith again in that old process. It’s an old way of doing politics, but it’s a way that was particularly effective back in the day.
The pandemic has obviously hampered your ability to do a lot of this stuff. What are some of the ways you’ve been able to drive this message home while not being able to get into the actual communities as much as you envisioned when your campaign started?
It was like hitting a brick wall. We had to sit back and think about how do we turn these lemons into lemonade. We immediately turned our campaign into an almost 100 percent virtual campaign, having town halls where I was facilitating a discussion with people in the community about the issues that they were dealing with, bringing out information that they weren’t really getting in a clear fashion from some of our elected officials. I wanted them to hear directly from scientists, from medical professionals, from clinical professionals about some of the issues they were dealing with. We’ve also continued our Harrison Helps effort, even during the pandemic. We started up a grant program for community organizations that were helping families deal with Covid. We are much more robust on TV and on social media, on radio, as well. It’s with a message that not only resonates to what the good policies are, but also the values that are underpinning those policies, who I am as a man and the values that I will take with me to Washington.
South Carolina has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Where do you feel local leadership has gone wrong in responding to it? What could they have done better and what would you like to see going forward?
I think one of the big missed opportunities was just the dismissive fashion in which sometimes our leadership addressed the coronavirus. I mean, I remember seeing a number of the interviews that Lindsay had and he [treated it] like it was a car accident or something. This happens all the time, this is not to be a big issue. He kept moving the goal line for what success meant. 25,000 deaths, 50,000 deaths. Now we’re seeing hundreds of thousands of deaths across the country. Lindsey and Senator Scott had this big rally out in Myrtle Beach and they’re up on stage and nobody’s wearing a mask. This was back in May or June. When you have emergencies like this, the thing that people are looking for is for leaders to hold their hand, to say this is the path forward, this is how we address this issue, and this is what we’re going to do to protect you and your families. I don’t think there was a clarity, a message that was that crystal clear for the people of South Carolina, or the people of the nation.
Then there were some dropped balls. I mean, when Lindsey says over his dead body will he allow an extension of the unemployment benefit of $600, it shows how out of touch our senator really is. Nobody wants to be on unemployment. People like their jobs. They like working their jobs. They also get benefits from their jobs. If unemployment only pays $320 dollars a week in South Carolina, and that’s the maximum, how are you going to pay your rent? How are you gonna pay your light bill? Your kids are now home. They have to be educated from home. How are you going to pay your internet. If your Wi-Fi does not work then your kids won’t get the education that they need. The cost of commodities has increased. Eggs, bacon, meat, all of this stuff has increased, and now your kids are home 24/7, which means they’re going to eat all the time so your grocery bill is increasing. This is the part that is frustrating. We need a senator who’s going to fight for us and not fight against us.
Yeah, I mean you really don’t get a sense that these kinds of kitchen-table issues are in any way factoring into Lindsey Graham’s decision making.
When when you’re only going to fancy restaurants and resorts and you get to go to the Trump Hotel for steak dinners or get invited to the the White House, then you’re not buying your own eggs and milk. You don’t have kids and you don’t have student loans and you don’t have any of these other things. This guy is just disconnected. He’s not relating to the hardships that everyday people are going through. It is what it is. But we will change that in November. The people will actually have somebody who understands the hardships that they’re going through.
I don’t think a year ago anyone would have thought a Democrat could be polling neck-and-neck with Lindsey Graham this close to the election. We’ve also seen states like Georgia and Texas turning a little more purple than people are used to. How would you define this idea of the “new South,” and what do you feel are the conditions that have led to this shift?
It’s been a long time coming. You know, I often see on the trail that we are seeing the emergence a new South that is bold, that is inclusive, and that is diverse. There are some population trends that are taking place right now. You’re getting people who are moving from the industrial Midwest and from the Northeast to South Carolina and Georgia and North Carolina because of new opportunities. They’re moving because they’re retiring in our states, as well, and they’re bringing a much more moderate political ideology with them. You’re seeing a reverse migration of African Americans whose forefathers and foremothers generations before moved to those areas for opportunity that are now coming back home with their relatives. They’re bringing their politics and the way that they look at the world. You’re also bringing a lot of these corporations that are looking to move down South. You have a younger generation that is just not as politically aligned with either party, and that is more values-based when they look at the world. All this is having an impact. We know the legacy right now, and the legacy of this seat that I’m vying for here in South Carolina. This was the seat of John C. Calhoun. This was the seat of a man called “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman. He governor or South Carolina, but he was also a U.S. senator who would go to the floor of the U.S. Senate and talk about the joy of lynching of black folks. This was the seat of Strom Thurmond. Now, Lindsey Graham is occupying the seat. But the South is changing and I believe that there’s going to be a role and a voice for all of the people that live in these regions.
The Democratic Party is also changing. You very much took the traditional route into politics and have been working from within the Democratic establishment for over 20 years. Most people would describe you as a centrist relative to some of the other rising stars in the party. What has it been like for you to see how quickly some of these forces have pulled the party to the left? Does it make you uncomfortable at all?
At the end the day, if I’m going to label myself I’m pragmatic. My job [while working for then-Majority Whip Jim Clyburn] was to get the 218 votes to pass bills on the floor of the House. You have all of these various groups and ideologies and experiences, but in the end of the day, if you’re going to make progress you have to get 218 votes. If you want to get anything done in the Senate, if you’re going to avoid the filibuster, you need to get 60-plus votes. So you can be from the far left or the far right, but you’re not going to get anything done unless you can build that coalition to get those numbers that I mentioned. A lot of folks get so caught up in saying this is not progressive enough or this is not conservative enough, but at the end of the day where are your votes? I’m about progress. I’m about making sure we get things done and we’re moving the ball further down the field and getting to the goal line where we want to be. If you can’t move the ball and all you have is your issue that you submitted a bill that you feel good about, great, I’m happy for you, here’s your participation trophy. But that is not a trophy to say that you’ve actually won the game or you made a difference in the lives of the people you claim to represent.
So, take health care, for instance. You do not support Medicare for All, and have instead advocated for expanding Medicaid, which has yet to happen in South Carolina. Does your position on this come more from a belief in incrementalism and getting things done, or do you feel fundamentally that a single-payer system isn’t the best way to provide health care to South Carolinians?
The pragmatist in me says that we have the Affordable Care Act and we haven’t let that work yet. Here in South Carolina we still haven’t even expanded Medicaid. So we don’t even know the impact that would have. I’ve talked to a number of people here in South Carolina who actually like their health care. I know that some folks can’t believe that, but some people do. I’m not about forcing people to do something just because I think it’s the, you know … I know it’s a slippery slope. But I think something as intimate as your health care and how you take care of your family is something that you have to walk on eggshells with in terms of how you do it. We don’t know if [Medicare for All] will work entirely in this country. I’m not about risking it at this point in time and saying, “Oh, we’re just pushing it all off of the table and trying something that we don’t know will work.” When people have something that they think works for them, can it be improved? Yes, and we can find ways to improve health care.
Now, if you want to talk extreme, just talk about Lindsey Graham. Here’s a guy who’s supporting a lawsuit that would toss out the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic. How much sense does that make? Even before then, Lindsey’s idea of health care was the Graham-Cassidy Bill. Do you know how Lindsey came up with that idea? Do you think it was because he sat down with a bunch of medical professionals and came up with it? No. Lindsey Graham was in a barbershop with Rick Santorum and they came up with the idea of the Graham-Cassidy bill. I mean, it’s laughable. It would cut the amount of money that would come to states and block grant it. Some folks think the recipe for anything that ails the country is to reduce the amount of money and just send a block of money to the states and poof, all of the issues go away. We learned in the 80s that that doesn’t work. You’ve got to have some comprehensive approaches for how you address the uniqueness and the diversity of the issues that we have. He would let insurance companies deny coverage to those with preexisting conditions. In a state like South Carolina — which is the buckle of the stroke belt, the diabetes belt, the the heart attack belt — you’re going to say that health care companies should not have to cover those with preexisting conditions? It is the biggest fallacy and at the end of the day it shows that this is a guy who represents the special interest groups more so than he represents the people of his state.
I can’t think of a worse place to come up with anything than a barbershop with Rick Santorum. Speaking of your opponent, lately he’s been attacking you for even accepting the donations from a group that supports defunding the police — even though you’ve been adamant that you personally do not support it. Given everything we’ve seen over the past few months, why don’t you support defunding the police, and what do you feel in the best approach to combating what’s clearly a systemic problem in police departments across the nation?
I’ve been trying to be as clear as I possibly can: I do not support defunding the police. The police have a defined role that needs to be played in our communities. They’re there to protect and serve. But at the same time, it has become clear to me that we need to look at how force is [exercised] in this country, and we need to reinvest some resources in understanding and serving the communities. We need a national use-of-force standard. We need to address qualified immunity. We need to get rid of cash bail. Chokeholds need to be banned. There are so many inequities in our system. I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and work up on all those things because all of those things need to be addressed.
One of the things that’s really, really important and that I think sometimes people lose sight of is the role of prosecutors in in in criminal justice, and the relationship between prosecutors and the police force. Sometimes it’s a CYA [Cover Your Ass] approach. You feel like you need to cover them because they’re working on your behalf. But you can’t do that type of work if there are bad apples on the force and you’re protecting them. Another thing are these police officers who go on power trips, abuse their power, get laid off or fired from one job, and then just pick up and move. They’ll go from Chicago to rural South Carolina or rural Georgia to go to a local sheriff’s office. We need a database to really ferret out and track the bad apples. If you have done something that is unbecoming of a police officer, you should not have the luxury of being able to go from one place to another place without having that record follow you.
You recently told the Charleston City Paper that regardless of what happens in November you’ve “already won.” Can you expound a little bit on what you mean by this, and what you feel like you’ve been able to achieve since you announced your candidacy last year?
I remember my grandma told me about when she was home with her brothers and sisters and her mom just gathered them all in one room together and told them to be quiet. She saw this fear in her mom’s eyes that she’d never seen before. My grandma said she asked her mom what was it. It was the KKK marching through their street with torches. I saw the pain in her eyes when she told that story. I think about the things that I’ve seen, the stories that I’ve heard, and the sacrifices that have been made that allow a little black boy from Orangeburg, South Carolina, to be now standing here running for the United States Senate. It’s magical. I think about listening to my son talk about my race for the U.S. Senate, and how he tells me, ‘Well, Daddy, once you won the U.S. Senate, maybe I can run for office one day.’ That’s magical. I remember as a kid watching Jesse Jackson speak at the 1988 convention and hearing him talk about hope. This is the same man who grew up here in South Carolina, who was born to a young mom just like me. He encouraged me to look into politics and into my own history. I know that the road has been rocky and hard for my people in this country. It has not always been easy. But at the same time, I also know that my story is a uniquely American story, that my story could only happen in this country. What I am fighting for each and every day is to be a beacon of hope and to be an inspiration for the next generation of kids who are looking and wondering, “Can I do this? Can I be that?”
The winds of change are blowing through the South, and I know that whatever the outcome is on November 3rd, I’ve already won. When I started this race off kids in the communities [I visited] had no glimmer of hope in their eyes. There is now little flicker. That’s all the power that I need. But at the end a day, we’re still gonna win this race, and we’re going to change South Carolina. Lindsey is desperate right now, and I sort of feel bad for him in some respects, to be quite honest. He doesn’t understand that there’s so much more about being a United States senator than the title or the ability to get in front of a TV camera. There’s also the power to fundamentally transform the lives of folks, to bring opportunity into communities that don’t have it. When I’m in the U.S. Senate, I’m going to use every bit of that power, plus more, to do what I can for the least of these in this state and for all of South Carolina’s citizens.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.