CHARLESTON, S.C. — Abe Jenkins is a Charleston native and a fixture in the political scene in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. His grandfather was the revered civil rights activist Esau Jenkins, a businessman and civic leader who organized the black community on the islands around Charleston. Esau and his wife, Janie, transported black students to Charleston’s public schools and black residents to their jobs in the city; in an era of literacy tests and poll taxes, the Jenkinses used the daily commute to teach friends and neighbors how to read the passage of the constitution required to register to vote. Esau, whose motto was “Love is progress; hate is expensive,” is now featured in the Smithsonian’s African American History museum.
Abe, Esau’s grandson, got hooked on presidential politics when he worked as a field organizer for Barack Obama in South Carolina in 2007 and early 2008. Obama won the primary by nearly 30 percentage points, and Abe went on to work for Obama in half a dozen more states. “(Obama) had a lot of young people that got involved in that campaign, and I was their elder statesman even 12 years ago,” Jenkins says. “I might’ve been the oldest field organizer in the country.”
Jenkins, who’s now in his mid-60s, paid attention when President Obama name-dropped former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in 2017 as part of a new generation of Democratic leaders. Last year, he met Buttigieg in Charleston and came away impressed. On his own, he started a Facebook page to galvanize support among black voters for Buttigieg. Soon afterward, the campaign asked him if he’d serve as the political director for South Carolina.
Buttigieg’s struggles with voters of colors are well-known by this point. In some polls, he’s garnered zero percent support from black voters. Black voters make up the majority of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina, and so Buttigieg has his work cut out for him here.
I caught up with Abe Jenkins on the day before the South Carolina primary. We talked about why he chose Buttigieg, what obstacles he saw to Buttigieg’s winning over black voters, and why his grandfather Esau would have supported Pete’s candidacy.
You worked on Obama’s historic 2008 campaign. What did you take away from that experience?
I saw so many young people with so much talent at their prime years of their life — that really inspired me. Personally, I just developed a passion for leadership.
As I started thinking about my grandfather, about Martin Luther King, and about all the civil rights activists during that time, all these guys were in their twenties. Doctor King was assassinated when he was 39! The years he was really passionate in the movement, he was in his twenties.
During that time, I recall that people did not think he deserved to be the leader of the movement because he didn’t have the experience. He hadn’t paid the dues. You had other people that preceded Dr. King, A. Philip Randolph and others, that had done a lot of work. But (King) had a certain aura and an oratory gift; I don’t care who you were, you had to respect that the guy was just mesmerizing when he gave a speech. So he became the leader of that movement.
I worked on Obama’s 2012 campaign in Philly. And then I remember someone asked President Obama before the end of his administration: What’s the future of the Democratic Party? And he mentioned Pete. That’s when I started saying, “Pete? Who is this guy Pete?”
How did you come to work for Pete’s campaign?
I started watching him, and then I went to a fundraiser in Charleston, probably one of the first ones. I didn’t have the money because it was a high-priced fundraiser but I got invited in just to be there. This guy was just good.
The next day, they had a meeting with community leaders, myself and Rev. Nelson Rivers from the National Action Network and some others. We all met over lunch. Pete really just listened. You could see he processes things so fast — I’ve never quite seen it like that. When he gives an answer, it’s like he’s thought everything out.
I did a Facebook page called African Americans for Pete. Then, out of the blue, I get a call asking would I consider being the political director. I said, “Hell, yeah. Sign me up, man.”
You talked about how sharp he was and that he listened to you and the others. What else drew you to Pete?
To me, he represents the future, a new era, new leadership, a new generation. Somebody who understands the technology changes that are happening, he understands the climate crisis, he understands the gun violence issue. It’s his era. He’s passionate about it.
It’s time for a fresh new approach. There’s really no question about qualifications, and you can keep that experience crap. For the life of me, I just don’t get why we come up with the excuse that “Oh, he doesn’t have the experience.” You mean to tell me we have to go with somebody who is damn near 80 to lead the country because he’s got experience?
Why is fresh leadership and a new generation such a critical piece for you?
Growing up, I lived in the era of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Cleveland Sellers, and all these civil rights leaders. Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young — they were young guys! These were young people that said we need to make a shift. JFK was in his forties when he was assassinated. Bobby was in his forties when he was killed.
You could see when change needed to happen, and it happened with a younger generation. They just see things differently. I see the same thing here with Pete and I don’t know why we’re shifting and waiting until you’re at the later stages of your life. I can see Pete, if he’s president, surround himself with some folks with wisdom and know how to get things done, but it doesn’t mean they have to be in charge.
What is the mood around the state right now, on the eve of the primary? How does it compare to 2007 and 2008?
Here’s what I know for South Carolina: Most folks in this state, the average voter, don’t have a clue what the hell is going on. Seriously. The ones who watch it like I watch MSNBC or Fox or CNN, we’re rare. The average person walking the street, they don’t know who’s running.
So Pete’s challenge has been name recognition. Biden: people know that name. Bernie just ran against Hillary — he’s still got the team on the ground. Steyer’s spending so much damn money that you can’t help but know who he is.
People will come up to me at church and say, “Abe, who should I vote for?” I say vote for Pete. Vote for Jaime (Harrison, a Democrat running to defeat Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina’s Trump-loving Republican senator). That’s an example of just the average guy in the street. They don’t pay attention to politics. They should; we need to educate our folk a lot better. They’ve gotta know that this voting thing makes a difference.
What are the specific reasons Pete has struggled with black voters in South Carolina?
Name recognition — that’s the biggest problem that he has. I won’t say that’s the only one.
The second problem I would say is the media narrative. The narrative that the pundits on CNN or MSNBC that say he just can’t get African American support, people tend to believe that garbage. People believe what they read.
What have you done to try to change that narrative?
If you look at the staff that we have, we’re at 40 to 50 percent African American. Last time I looked in the mirror, I was as black as they get.
There’s a lot of meetings. We try to promote African American businesses. And when we do these things and we put Pete in front of them, they like him.
The third thing might be the same-sex thing. I don’t know that that’s a particular problem with black folk. That’s just a problem with an older generation. I think it’s generational, conservative, religious folk. They don’t like the lifestyle. But most millennials could care less about that.
What do you think of Pete’s time as mayor as South Bend?
He did a tremendous job as mayor in terms of bringing the city back to life. As a mayor, you pretty much have hands-on experience, your phone number is out there, you have to be accessible to your constituents.
It’s good to have a fresh perspective. Pete brings a fresh perspective. To me it’s more attractive he’s not an inside Washingtonian — he’s coming from the outside with a fresh outlook.
He had a sometimes fraught relationship with the black community in South Bend. He pushed out the black police chief and later called it his “first serious mistake as mayor.” Does this come up when you talk to voters?
With the police chief, he didn’t give Pete certain information. And he got to keep his pension. The bottom line is the guy was not honest and forthright with him. Although Pete had to make some tough decisions, it’s not like he took the police chief’s pension.
That’s not the same as what gets reported in the news. That’s the reason we’ve brought a lot of South Bend people to South Carolina. We’ve had Sharon McBride, a city council member, and Pastor Rickardo Taylor, who partnered with him in South Bend to build homes and work in the community. Like my mother used to say, there’s three versions of the story: your version, my version, and the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Who do you think would you grandfather, Esau, have supported in this race?
I don’t know who he would’ve endorsed. I just know that he was the type of leader in his lifetime, and I might get this from him somewhere down the line, that always looked to raise up young people and put them in positions where they could help their community.
Who he would have endorsed I can’t say. But I do know that he would respect a young man who is trying to bring younger people together. “Love is progress; hate is expensive.” He had no problems during his time working with Jews or Greeks or whoever could help him in his community was what he was about. I know that he would respect Pete and the type of positions he’s taking. I believe he would respect the fact of here’s a young man with high religion and moral values because that was important to him as well.