Jaime Harrison could go on the campaign trail and drag his GOP opponent Sen. Lindsey Graham through the mud for being a begging-on-TV, I-ain’t-got-no-money-ass-bitch.
But he won’t.
He could talk about Donald Trump being so broke that he has to put his tax payments on a layaway plan.
But he won’t.
Harrison could go all H. Rap Brown on these racist-ass white folks who sling mud on him that never seems to stick.
But he won’t. He really ain’t got time for that.
Harrison is vying to become the next senator from South Carolina and the second Black man to represent the state, along with Republican Sen. Tim Scott—a man Harrison says he can see himself having a great working relationship with. In fact, the tone and tenor of Harrison’s campaign reflects how he envisions functioning as a U.S. senator. For him, echoing the words of that then-unknown state senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, there is no Republican or Democrat nor conservatives or liberals. There are only Americans. And everyone will suffer or thrive together, so goes his thinking.
During my 30-minute phone interview with Harrison, I was looking for some clapback at the smear campaigns, some modicum of animus towards all of the naysayers. Nothing. To be sure, Harrison is a Black man from the South. He knows racism and pulls no punches when talking about it. But his rhetoric is that of a Black man who knows he’s Black but realizes that he needs to convince lots of white folks in his state that a Black man will not leave them behind. That is a vital balancing act, considering that South Carolina would be the first state in American history to have two Black U.S. senators serving at the same time in Washington, D.C.
Basically, he can’t be as radical as, say, New York’s Jamaal Bowman, who is all but assured to win his U.S. House race after defeating longtime Rep. Eliot Engel in the state primary in June.
In his stomp speeches, Harrison reminds his supporters that it was South Carolina that started the Civil War and that his seat was once held by Benjamin Tillman, who boasted about killing Black people. He tells them about how his grandparents would hide in fear as the KKK marched through Orangeburg. But he also tells them about a new South Carolina that he is ready to move past that history and its present. His optimism amid the shrapnel of racist attacks he has endured, as well as the fact that much of his state still supports Trump is admirable. When you ask Harrison why he thinks he is the one Democrat who can overcome all of that, he tells me of his grandparents who lived through the KKK.
His grandmother and grandfather were young people during the midst of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, in which three young people were shot dead by the state police on the campus of South Carolina State University.
“These are people who experienced so much pain and separation, but yet they didn’t have any bitterness,” Harrison said. “They still had hope that things could get better and would be better. And that’s just a remarkable thing for me and it’s just led to me constantly pushing to see if we can make things better. Better for the next generation, as they made things better for us. So, it’s passing the baton, which is the baton that’s been passed from generation of Black folks to generation of Black folks.”
Harrison hears the calls for “defund the police” and “Medicare for all” and other very left-leaning policy ideas from activists. He respects the spirit of their messages, but he prefers strengthening the Affordable Care Act and more moderate approaches to police reform. He also understands Trump racism is divisive and harmful. When I asked him what the greatest challenges of our generation are when it comes to race in this country, he dove into the issue of race.
“We just got to be honest about racism and tussle with it,” he said. “We’ve got to really address it at its roots and then come up with some solutions to eliminate it, to pull out the roots in our society. You see it across the board. It’s not just in criminal justice, but it’s in the economic disparities, it’s in healthcare disparities, it’s in education disparities, every aspect of society, the lineages are there. We just need to nip it in the bud.
And I don’t think it needs to be a Democrat versus Republican thing. It’s just an American thing that we are not going to tolerate that. So if we actually believe Thomas Jefferson’s words that all people are created equal, then let’s do what we have to do in order to get there because we’re not there yet. And so that’s what I’m going to push and strive for when I’m in the U.S Senate. I hope I can bring people together to really make a difference and make some progress. It’s a bit frustrating that we haven’t made progress and I acknowledge that. But the frustration for me is that we haven’t made more progress and I think we can.”
I pushed back a little.
Yeah, sure. Democrats and Republicans have contributed to racism in this country. Both parties have blood on their hands. Hell, Joe Biden authored the 1994 crime bill and its negative impacts are well-documented. But, if there were a 2020 racism olympics, Republicans would get the bronze, silver and gold. When it comes to voting rights, it is Republicans, not Democrats, who are responsible for making it harder for people to cast ballots because they know that a wider electorate and a more equitable electorate means that they would likely be pushed out. When you think about xenophobic immigration policies, that is mostly Trump and the Republicans. You have a GOP that loves to evoke Ronald Reagan when flaunting itself as hawkish foreign policy, but pretty much is letting Trump get away with being a kleptocrat and tolerating his chummy relationship with Putin.
After breaking all of this down, I asked him this: How much hope do you have of working with Republicans that have green lit Trump to do all the things that he’s done?
“There are some Republicans out there that I think we can find some common ground on,” he said. “I don’t agree with Mitt Romney on a whole lot, but I applaud him for attending some of the Black Lives Matter marches. But we need more. When I was the Democratic chair here in South Carolina, I worked with my Republican counterpart, Matt Moore, on the issues of criminal justice reform, other issues like tackling the issue of political gerrymandering. So I think that there are some folks that you can find some common ground to begin to build relationships that will help lead to the changes that we need to see in society, but we got to start that process.
“At the same time also recognize that we’ve got issues that are within our own party. Biases that are still there that are implicit and sometimes people don’t even notice in themselves. ‘Well, Black candidates can’t do this’ or just taking populations for granted. And so we got to call that the task as well. And so, I don’t think either parties’ hands are truly clean in terms of doing all that needs to be done.”
Graham has a two-point lead over Harrison going into Election Day. No time in Graham’s senate career has a candidate made him work so hard. I mean, the man is begging on Fox News. The state Republican Party, Graham himself and other groups have slung everything at Harrison from calling him a communist (which is silly because his politics are very much center-left), darkening his skin in ads, claiming he is for defunding the police (he isn’t), and trying to shame him for his student loan debt.
After the votes are counted, Harrison believes all of their efforts will have failed.
“Everything that they can to tar and feather me, they’ve tried. But I still live going into this race undeterred,” he said. “Because I’m not running for the U.S Senate for myself. I’m running for the U.S Senate for people like my grandparents. People who work hard each and every day of their lives but it’s almost never seen as enough. I’m running for folks who can’t stand up for themselves, who don’t have a voice to push back against power. So, despite whatever they throw at me, I’m still undeterred. I’m still going to run through this tape and there’s nothing that they can say or do that’ll stop me.”