In South Carolina, Hillary Clinton courts Democratic women and African-Americans

This article has been updated.

COLUMBIA, South Carolina -- Hillary Clinton returned to South Carolina Wednesday, hoping to boost her campaign among two key groups: Democratic women and African-Americans. 

The 2016 presidential candidate’s day began with a stop at Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in Columbia, the state capitol, where she hosted a roundtable forum with African-American women business owners. Then, she delivered a keynote speech at the third annual Day in Blue, a meeting of some 200 politically active women from across the state that was expected to attract one notable guest: Edith Childs, the black Democratic activist who inspired Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign chant, “Fired up, ready to go!”

It was Clinton’s first return to the Palmetto State since her overwhelming defeat in the 2008 Democratic primary here when she finished a distant second to Barack Obama, closing with just 26.5% to his 55.4% (and 17.6% for John Edwards). She prevailed in just one county, taking 80% of the vote in Horry County, while garnering just 19% of the black vote statewide.

Clinton’s campaign that cycle was dogged by racial controversy over remarks she and her husband Bill Clinton made in New Hampshire and South Carolina, about the history of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon Johnson and JFK, and in Bill Clinton's case, a post-primary comparison of Obama’s run to the 1980s-era presidential candidacies of Rev. Jesse Jackson.

This time, the campaign faces no African-American opposition in the primary, and a chance to start fresh with the more than 50% of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina who are black. And Don Fowler, the longtime chairman emeritus of the South Carolina Democratic party, and a member of one of the most prominent political parties in the state, says no residual tensions linger. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” Fowler says of both his involvement with the party, and his interaction with black voters. “The only time [the 2008 rancor] comes up is from people outside the state.”

Fowler points out that the most popular South Carolina politician in his estimation is Rep. Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, and the man on the receiving end of a now-infamous angry phone call from Bill Clinton at the end of the 2008 primary, as issues of race roiled the campaign. Now, Clyburn’s longtime deputy, Clay Middleton, is running Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in the state.

Still, some voters who streamed into the ballroom at the Marriott in downtown Columbia where a racially mixed crowd of veteran Democratic stalwarts prepared to listen to Hillary Cliton’s “Day in Blue” keynote speech, sounded like they could use some convincing.

‘Ask for my vote’

Among the women filing into the event was Maddie Thomas, 65, of Lake City, S.C., which she proudly declared as the home of the late Ronald McNair, the black astronaut who was among the seven crew members killed aboard the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle. 

Thomas supported Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary here. Asked if there were any lingering hard feelings toward the Clintons from that bare-knuckle fight, she demurs. “Not, really,” she says. “But I don’t want to be taken for granted, either. Don’t take us for granted. Ask for our vote. You must ask for it.”

Senior campaign spokeswoman and former MSNBC host Karen Finney says the campaign plans to do just that. “I think the most important thing black voters want to see -- and this is something Hillary has made one of the values of this campaign and the centerpiece of this campaign -- is that we’re going to work hard for every vote.” Finney says the Clinton campaign will adopt the "barbershops and beauty shops" strategy that worked so well for Obama in 2008. And she notes that Clinton got a warm reception from the predominantly black crowd at Kiki’s Barbecue Wednesday morning, where the candidate spoke to a group of about a half dozen African-American small businesswomen, chatted with patrons and even snapped a couple of selfies. “We’re not taking anything for granted,” Finney says. “That’s what voters in South Carolina, particularly African-American voters, want to know. So far the response that I’ve seen has been very positive.”

Thomas wistfully recalls the rallies the Obama campaign held in 2008, including in her small town of 6,000 people. She says she hopes Clinton will do the same. “When Obama came through, he came to Lake City with ‘fired up ready to go,’" the familiar chant of the 2008 campaign. “She’s going to have to do the same thing. We need to see that. I’m going to wait and see.”

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Phyllis Harris, 61, is more skeptical. She says she was a “huge” Obama supporter in 2008, even taking a yearlong leave of absence from her job to travel the country as a volunteer for his campaign. Harris says her skepticism has more to do with how the 2008 primary ended than with anything the Clintons said while it was still going on. “She left this state before [then Senator] Obama was declared the winner of the primary in January,” Harris says. “I saw that as a sore loser. It really stuck in my craw, that you didn’t have the courtesy to extend your hand to this gentlemen who was running, and who won a primary in a southern state hands down. He soundly smacked you; I get that. But when you walked away and you left the state you disrespected South Carolina. We weren’t important to you then so now I’m thinking maybe we’re not important to you now.”

“I think the most important thing black voters want to see ... is that we’re going to work hard for every vote.” '

Harris says she hopes to hear something from Clinton on Wednesday that will sell her on the candidacy of the potential first woman president. But she smiles, “that memory still lasts and we’re southerners, we hold those grudges for a long time. We don’t easily get over it. We put it to the back, now, and we say ‘bless your little heart,’ but we still keep it in the background.”

Forty-eight year old Joyce M. Rose Harris needs no such cajoling.

An African-American who supported Obama in 2008 primary, Harris says she has no lingering apprehensions. In fact, she is slated to share the stage with Clinton. “I can only speak for myself,” she says, “but I had no issues with her previously, I just felt that Obama fit more with the issues that were important to me.” As for the merger of the Clinton and Obama political families represented at the South Carolina event and, to look at the growing Clinton staff, in the upcoming campaign, Harris puts its simply: “Politics makes strange bedfellows,” she says, as she heads into the ballroom.

Issues first

The day before the ballroom speech, Rick Wade, who ran Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in South Carolina, and who advised the president’s re-election, was at his home, deep in a pastoral, wooded recess on the outskirts of Columbia. Wade says the Clintons need to worry less about forgiveness from black voters than about passion. And he says Mrs. Clinton can only garner the latter by presenting new ideas.

“I say welcome to Hillary Clinton to South Carolina,” Wade said, sitting in the front living room of the Columbia home where six years ago, he hosted Obama’s senior campaign team. “I don’t know what’s forgiven or not forgiven in South Carolina [from 2008], but I do know that she has a tremendous opportunity, and a wide pathway to talk about who [she] is, and about the issues that matter most to the people of South Carolina as well as to the country.”

For Wade, foremost among those issues is improving the economic lot of African-Americans both in his home state and nationwide. “In as much as we’ve made tremendous progress, we’ve got a jobs issue,” Wade says. “I want her and I want all the candidates to talk about their prescriptive solutions to creating jobs, particularly in the African-American community, where the unemployment rate still is tremendously high – even double – compared to that of whites.”

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Wade is not alone in viewing black household economics as the primary, unfinished business of the Obama administration, and he’s hopeful that Clinton will devote part of her candidacy to proposing fresh solutions. Rev. Aaron Bishop, pastor of Grace Christian Church in Columbia’s Eau Claire neighborhood, is the out-going chairman of the local school board. He and his wife supported Clinton in 2008 (something for which he still gets some grief about from fellow members of his black fraternity, Omega Psi Phi). And while he remains a supporter, he too hopes to hear some specifics from the Clinton campaign on the subject of jobs.

“One of the concerns of my parishioners is the poverty level,” Bishop said, sitting in the sanctuary of his church, a large complex on the outskirts of downtown, which hosts summer programs for kids, and a working day care center. Specifically, Bishop says, he’d like to see Clinton address “the working poor; people who are employed, but are struggling to make ends meet.”

Both men say that Clinton can also reach black voters by focusing on an issue that has grabbed the nation’s attention over the past year: policing. “I went down to the funeral of Walter Scott,” says Wade, referring to the North Charleston man gunned down by a police officer in April and for which the officer, Michael Slager, has been charged with murder, “because I was troubled by it and have been troubled by all of these incidents which have been going on for years. But this one was particularly troubling, and I’ve come to accept and believe that when we say ‘black lives matter,’ we need to make sure black votes matter as well.”

Clinton indicated in a May 1 speech at Columbia University that criminal justice reform, and policing reform, will be high on her agenda. Wade says that’s a good thing, though he hopes to hear specifics, not just from Clinton, but from the presidential contenders in both parties. “This is a pivotal opportunity to make sure that not only at the presidential level but every level and position that we are electing people that are representative of the kind of change and progress that we want to see.”

‘Southern roots’

When she prepared to take the podium in the Marriott ballroom, Clinton was introduced as a woman with “southern roots,” including her time in Arkansas where as her introduction noted, she’s still called “first lady.”

Clinton recalled her time as a young lawyer in Arkansas working for the Children’s Defense Fund, founded by South Carolina native Marian Wright Edelman.

“You should be able to go to sleep at night knowing everything you worked for won’t be gone in a flash because of decisions that were made or failed to be made in Washington.”'

She sounded familiar themes from her campaign repertoire: her desire to work on behalf of ordinary Americans and their families in an economy where the deck often seems stacked against them. And she wove in themes of equal pay, noting that the pay gap is often worse for women of color.

Clinton recalled her father’s “very small printing business,” saying that she wants to restore an America filled with opportunity, but one improved with decades of strides on “equal rights and human rights.”

“You should be able to go to sleep at night knowing everything you worked for won’t be gone in a flash because of decisions that were made or failed to be made in Washington,” she said, adding, “I don’t think I’m letting you in on a secret when I say too many women earn less than men on the job and women of earn even less.” 

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The speech drew scattered applause for its mentions of raising minimum wages and pushing for paycheck fairness. And Clinton garnered a laugh when she said she doesn’t worry about her hair going gray in the White House like so many presidents before. “I’m aware I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I have one big advantage: I’ve been coloring my hair for years!” she said. “You’re not gonna see me turn white in the White House. And you’re also not gonna see me shrink from a fight. I think by now people know, I don’t quit.”

But Clinton earned the most applause and apparent appreciation when she noted the “very vigorous” 2008 race, and her loss to Obama. She recounted the walk she and Bill Clinton took at their home in New York in which she received the first of many phone calls that would lead Obama to offer her the role of secretary of state, saying he wouldn’t give up until she said yes.

And she said that her and Obama’s partnership reflected the way she hoped to see the current campaign end. “No matter how hard-fought the election … we should show more respect toward each other and we should remember why were doing this -- because we love our country and we want it to be the country of hope and potential for our children.”

For Thomas, the nod to Obama, and the focus on black women business owners and workers was a good start. “Remember I said she had to ask for our vote?” Thomas said after the speech. “Well she asked for it. I’m a little more convinced.”