South Carolina Democrats elect first black party chairman


By Adam Beam —Published: May 4, 2013

COLUMBIA — Jaime Harrison says he will raise $1 million for the state Democratic Party by the end of the year, and if he doesn’t, everyone will know it.

State Democrats elected the Orangeburg native and attorney as their new chairman Saturday in an uncontested race. Harrison succeeds Dick Harpootlian, known for his “pithy and pungent comments,” as U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a video tribute.

Harrison, the first African-American to lead South Carolina’s Democratic Party, said his methods will be more subtle than Harpootlian’s. But he put Democrats on notice Saturday that “we’re not going to run this like a volunteer organization anymore. We’re going to run it like a business.”

Democrats elected Jaime Harrison, an Orangeburg attorney and former Clyburn aide, as the new chairman of the SC Democratic Party. He is the first African American head of the SC Democratic Party. Friday night he attended the Jefferson Jackson Dinner. TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com

Democrats elected Jaime Harrison, an Orangeburg attorney and former Clyburn aide, as the new chairman of the SC Democratic Party. He is the first African American head of the SC Democratic Party. Friday night he attended the Jefferson Jackson Dinner. TIM DOMINICK

“You do what you are responsible for doing, and if you can’t, well, we’re going to have to replace you,” he said. “That applies to me as well.”

And Harrison wants to start a new organization, “South Carolina Democrats Care,” to host workshops to help people save their homes and champion other community-service issues.

“When people leave, they will say it was the Democratic Party that helped save my house. It was the Democratic Party that helped buy my house,” he said. “That’s how we connect the importance of voting for Democrats.”

More than that, Harrison said he wants South Carolinians to “think about the Democratic Party in a different way.”

“There are a lot of particularly white voters in this state who think of the Democratic Party as just the black party. And my mission is to change that,” he said. “South Carolina isn’t a Republican state. It’s a conservative state. And there’s a difference. That means there is a large swath of independents who tend to vote Republican. But if we give them the right candidates and we have the right message, we can appeal to those folks and have them vote for a Democrat. And I know that is going to happen.”

Harrison, born and raised in Orangeburg, was the first member of his family to go to college. After graduating from Yale, four years that “changed my life,” Harrison returned to Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School to teach social studies for a year.

Harrison had internships with former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, which led to him becoming the executive director of the U.S. House Democratic Caucus. He is now a Democratic strategist at the Podesta Group, a government relations firm based in Washington, D.C.

Harpootlian, a Columbia attorney, ends his two-year term as state chairman having put the party back on solid financial footing. Harpootlian capped his tenure with a party fundraiser Friday night, featuring Vice President Joe Biden, that he said raised between $300,000 and $500,000.

Loathed by the GOP, Harpootlian never has been shy about calling Republicans names. Harpootlian said that he did not regret any of his barbs aimed at Gov. Nikki Haley. “When you wrestle in the mud with a pig, you are going to get up covered with mud,” Harpootlian said. “And [Haley] came down on my level. She took the bait every time.”


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