In South, Democrats’ Tactics May Change Political Game
By: Wall Street Journal
By CHRISTOPHER COOPER , VALERIE BAUERLEIN AND COREY DADE
COLUMBIA, S.C. — The contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in South Carolina this Saturday is the next big test in the tight battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. In the long term, the showdown could also upend the way politics are practiced across the South.
In early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, campaigns use rallies and personal appearances to get votes. Now, the nominating races have moved to bigger states, including much of the South. Candidates here rely on endorsements from powerful politicians and preachers. It is a tradition that has evolved since the 1960s to garner support among poor blacks who look to their preachers for both spiritual and political guidance. And it is the way Mrs. Clinton, like countless Democratic politicians before her, is running her campaign in South Carolina.
Mr. Obama, in contrast, is trying something many observers say has never been done here: He is circumventing entrenched local leadership and building a political machine from scratch. His staff consists largely of community organizers — many from out of state or with no political experience — who are assembling an army of volunteers. It is a strategy often used by labor organizations and in neighborhood and town politics.
Some evidence suggests the strategy may be working. After lagging far behind Mrs. Clinton in state polls for much of last year, Mr. Obama has jumped ahead. According to an automated poll conducted Monday by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, N.C., Mr. Obama leads Mrs. Clinton 44% to 28%, with about 12% of respondents undecided. As late as October, Mrs. Clinton had a 20-percentage-point lead in many surveys. Nationally, Mrs. Clinton remains in the lead.
“If he pulls this off — and I think he will — Barack Obama’s organization will be studied and replicated in this state for many years to come,” says Inez Tenenbaum, a former South Carolina superintendent of education who has run four statewide races in the past decade. She is one of the few prominent state Democrats backing Mr. Obama.
The strategy has risks. The endorsement system of politics evolved precisely because it was locals, not outsiders, who knew where voters here lived and how to get them to the polls.
Clinton campaign officials greet the Obama strategy with skepticism. Kelly Adams, state director for the Clinton campaign and a South Carolina native, says her staff does its share of grass-roots organizing, staging fish fries, rallies and what she calls “salon outreach” in the state’s barbershops. But she says these activities aren’t enough to win an election. “We have a lot of endorsements from people who have been doing this longer than I have been alive,” says Ms. Adams. The campaign will also involve hiring scores of locals, based on the recommendations of pastors and politicians, to drive out the vote. “I think it’s a pretty fair fight — we have a political machine unmatched by any other in the state.”
The campaigns’ differing strategies have opened a split between the old hands at Southern black politics who back Mrs. Clinton, and a new generation of Obama supporters who are often more attuned to hip-hop culture than civil-rights history.
The split played out on a recent Sunday afternoon at a country club in Columbia. Bernice Scott, a respected 63-year-old councilwoman, extolled the virtues of Hillary Clinton to a social club of African-American women. “How do you know how a man or a woman is going to do?” asked Ms. Scott, the first black woman to head the Richland County Council. “It’s because of the past record.”
The next speaker was Nicole Young, a 22-year-old University of South Carolina graduate who deferred admission to law school to work as a community organizer for Barack Obama. “This is a new day,” said Ms. Young, whose support for Mr. Obama represented her first foray into politics. “Sen. Obama has the ability to reach across barriers.”
Paying the Power Broker
When Mr. Obama first started trying to organize the state earlier this year, he began in the usual way, seeking endorsements of traditional power brokers. The campaign offered a $5,000-a-month consulting contract to state Sen. Darrell Jackson of Columbia, a longtime legislator and pastor of an 11,000-member church, who also runs an ad agency.
Mr. Jackson’s ability to turn out the vote — or suppress it against rivals — is the stuff of local legend. In 2004, he helped clinch a primary win for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, even as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was coming off wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. At the time, Mr. Edwards was paying him consulting fees of roughly $15,000 a month, according to federal records.
Mr. Jackson says he seriously considered the offer from Mr. Obama, but instead became a paid consultant to Mrs. Clinton, essentially running her state operation for substantially more than what the Obama camp offered. “A lot of our hearts were torn — it wasn’t an easy choice,” Mr. Jackson said. He drew more than $135,000 from the Clinton campaign from February 2007 through September 2007, the latest figures available, according to federal election filings, and remains on the payroll.
“Winning here has a lot to do with who validates you as a candidate,” Mr. Jackson says. “I’m comfortable with what Mrs. Clinton has going here.”
But this style of politics hasn’t been effective at fostering sustained black participation in state and local politics. In South Carolina, blacks make up nearly a third of the population, but they are significantly underrepresented in elected office, even in areas where they are the majority. In the 2004 general election, turnout of nonwhite registered voters was 66%, compared with 72% among white registered voters, according to South Carolina Election Commission data.
Mr. Obama’s team says his grass-roots approach — tapping younger African-American voters who have never been engaged in elections — has the potential to permanently change the way politics are practiced here.
Steve Hildebrand, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist for early voting states, set out to build an organization that relies heavily on circumventing the established black political gentry in South Carolina. A native of South Dakota, Mr. Hildebrand is not only an outsider, he is also white — an unusual combination for someone setting out to win the black vote here. Many of the people he has hired have come from out of state or have no presidential-campaign experience, or both.
He says he has largely eschewed the local tradition of giving “walking-around money,” or “street money,” to political figures who back candidates. Such funds are used to hire van drivers, canvassers and poll watchers who turn out the black vote on election day. It’s a practice as old as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Mr. Hildebrand, 45, says he has repeatedly heard from skeptics inside and outside the Obama camp. He says he was lectured just two weeks ago by a state representative about not giving out street money. “He said, ‘You people don’t know what you’re doing — to organize my district, you need to hire my people,’ ” says Mr. Hildebrand.
Mr. Hildebrand cheerfully confesses confusion with the folkways of South Carolinians. “Everything is so racial here,” he says as an aside, just before ordering a bowl of “sea crab soup” at a Columbia eatery (the low-country delicacy is known as “she-crab soup”). He avoids the beauty parlors and barbershops that have long served as the venue for ground-level political discussions “Barbers make me nervous,” the buzzcut Mr. Hildebrand says.
Starting With the Basics
One of Mr. Hildebrand’s first hires was Jeremy Bird, another white outsider, as his top campaign coordinator in the state. A 29-year-old Midwestern labor organizer whose divinity degree from Harvard has earned him the title of “reverend” among the locals, Mr. Bird had campaign experience, but it was limited to largely white states such as New Hampshire. Mr. Bird nabbed Ms. Young and three dozen other recruits to build local Obama organizations in seven regions.
When he arrived in the state last spring, Mr. Bird began with the basics in a state where voters had little information on Mr. Obama. At a Fourth of July picnic at a church in rural Orangeburg County, for example, he says he was surprised to learn that many of the elderly parishioners didn’t know that Mr. Obama was black. He had to pull out a portable DVD player and a campaign disc to prove it.
The revelation that Mr. Obama was almost a complete unknown led the campaign to retool Mr. Obama’s image. Mr. Bird tossed out most of the rainbow-shaped, logo paraphernalia that was ubiquitous in Iowa and other white-dominated states. He opted instead for a new series of campaign buttons, push cards and issues literature, all of which showed photographs of Mr. Obama — orating at a church pulpit, shaking hands with supporters, with eyes lowered and hands laced below his chin in a pose of deep thought. These images are now stamped on virtually everything the campaign distributes to potential South Carolina supporters.
But it wasn’t just letting voters know Mr. Obama was black. In a state where skin tone is seen by many black people as a measure of social standing, the campaign frequently brought out Michelle Obama, whose darker complexion carries a special meaning when contrasted to the lighter skin tone of her husband. “It was important for people to see that Obama wasn’t putting on airs by marrying a woman lighter than him,” says Anton Gunn, South Carolina political director for the campaign. “You think a thing like that wouldn’t matter, but here it does, very much.”
Days after her graduation from the University of South Carolina in May, Ms. Young, the 22-year-old Obama organizer, began driving the expansive district assigned to her. She stopped regularly at churches, nursing homes and beauty parlors to take questions and pass out fliers. She made cold calls to potential supporters who had signed up to receive the campaign’s email alerts or attended a speech or rally. She ultimately set up more than 130 one-on-one meetings with potential volunteers, asking them to help by hosting parties and tracking precinct turnout on primary day.
Sheila Davis, a black Naval Reservist in Spartanburg, S.C., was drawn to Mr. Obama for his opposition to the Iraq War. Ms. Davis, 43, was in active duty during the Persian Gulf War and now helps seamen get their legal documents in order before deploying to Iraq. This is the first time she has worked on a political campaign. “Even though I’m in the military, I felt we could have handled Iraq differently,” she says.
One of her first stops as a volunteer was her church, Cornerstone Baptist, where the Rev. Charles J.J. Jackson III, a prominent figure in Spartanburg politics and no relation to state Sen. Jackson, had endorsed Mrs. Clinton. “I have tremendous respect for my pastor, but sometimes we don’t agree,” Ms. Davis says.
After services last fall, Ms. Davis and a church deacon discussed the election. The deacon said he planned to vote for Mrs. Clinton. “I’m like, ‘OK, that’s fine. But why don’t you look at what he’s done in the past and find out what he’s talking about,’ ” she recalls saying about Mr. Obama. “We kept talking, and I think I converted him on the spot.”
Ms. Davis estimates that she has cherry-picked about half a dozen volunteers from the church and won over 50 or 60 Obama voters at Cornerstone.
The deacon, who said he wouldn’t comment for fear of offending his pastor, phoned Ms. Davis days later to say that he wanted to volunteer for Mr. Obama. Rev. Jackson didn’t return calls for comment.
On the Sunday morning of the sorority luncheon, Ms. Young, the Obama campaign organizer, visited four churches to pass out literature on the primary before rushing to the country club. Ms. Young, slim with dark-rimmed glasses, says she was nervous about crossing Ms. Scott, the legendary councilwoman.
Ms. Scott’s Stronghold
Lower Richland County — a predominantly black area stretching from the suburbs of Columbia south through farmland, two small towns and military practice fields an hour’s drive from the city — is Ms. Scott’s stronghold.
After the meeting, Ms. Scott pulled her young rival aside and told her that African-Americans’ immediate needs are more important than making history by electing a black president. “‘Baby, I’m an old woman,’” Ms. Scott said, according to both women. “Don’t let’s say that about history. History’s not important now. Talk about issues.”‘
Earlier this month, Ms. Young and three of her Obama canvassers spent a damp afternoon on Lewis Scott Court, a cluster of public-housing units in rural Eastover, population 774. The neighborhood was named after Lewis N. Scott, a relative of Ms. Scott’s former husband and the first black mayor in Richland County. As they turned in the cul-de-sac, Ms. Young passed the Bernice G. Scott Health & Human Services Center, a clinic and ad-hoc community center named for the councilwoman — and site of Ms. Scott’s annual “wellness and fun day,” which draws about 500 people.
Ms. Scott is archly aware of Ms. Young’s incursion into her terrain. She said supporters on Lewis Scott Court repeatedly called her just minutes after the Obama campaign workers left. “They said, ‘Bernice, guess who’s been here,’ ” Ms. Scott said. She is confident African-Americans will rely on her judgment rather than the advice of Ms. Young. “They don’t know her,” Ms. Scott said. “If you knew me, and I came to your door, who are you going to trust?”
Write to Christopher Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org
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