Jaime Harrison, the former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, generated excitement among Democrats and shattered fundraising records in his 2020 campaign for Republican Lindsey Graham’s Senate seat.
In the end, Graham defeated Harrison by more than 10 points, but Democrats liked what they saw and in January elected Harrison to lead the Democratic National Committee. He’s now tasked with defending Democrats’ slim House and Senate majorities in 2022.
Harrison recently joined CQ Roll Call’s Equal Time podcast. An edited transcript follows.
Q. Your former opponent, Lindsey Graham, said on Fox News on April 25 that systemic racism does not exist. What is your response?
A. The issues of race in this country are pervasive. There’s an insensitivity that Lindsey Graham has on these issues of race that is really, really disturbing, particularly for a man who represents a state where almost a third of the people are folks of color. America has come a long way. We still got a long way to go.
Q. When it comes to race, is the new South the same as the old South? And what about the rest of the country?
A. I don’t think the new South is the same as the old South. I think part of what you are seeing are the relics of the old South standing up because they see the South is starting to change, that the demographics in the South are certainly changing. You look at Georgia. For the first time in Georgia’s history, they are represented in the U.S. Senate by a Black man and a Jewish man. The change is coming, regardless of whether people want to stand in the doors to try to stop it or not.
Q. What was it like to have so many people see you as the receptacle for their hopes and dreams for change?
A. For a poor kid who grew up in Orangeburg, S.C., who grew up with a teen mom, whose grandparents had a fourth grade and eighth grade education, I lived my American dream. I went to Costco the other day and I saw this woman and her kids looking at me, and I’m walking down the aisle and they continue to look at me. And then finally, I went to the register and she came up to me and she said, “Are you Jaime Harrison?” I had on my mask. I said, “Yes, I am.” And she went back to her kids. She said: “That’s him. That's him.”
Q. Do you think that your campaign can be replicated in other states?
A. I do. I fervently believe that. You look at what Raphael Warnock was able to do. You look at Stacey Abrams, how she came so close. And what we are going to see this election cycle in the South is the emergence of Black candidates. And so we may not have crossed the finish line first, but we put 1.1 million cracks in the ceiling here in South Carolina, and that’s the largest amount that any Democrat — white, Black or whatever — has ever gotten in South Carolina history. We even got more votes than Barack Obama. I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish, and now that sets the foundation and the floor.
Q. What are your plans for the midterm elections?
A. We are going to compete everywhere. The days of ceding the South to the Republicans are over under my chairmanship. The question is, “Who are these new people that are moving into these Southern states?” Most of the growth in Georgia has been in Atlanta, and most of those folks who are coming into Georgia and registering in Georgia are voting Democratic.
Q. How do you recruit candidates who can compete?
A. We are looking at how we create a much more diverse and energetic pipeline of talent across the country. I’ve talked to a number of folks who are thinking about statewide office. Charles Booker’s thinking about it again in Kentucky and has launched an exploratory [committee]. There’s so much talent. We just need to let them know that they’re going to have support.
Q. What’s your strategy for defeating GOP voting bills around the country?
A. Our strategy is to fight against these efforts from statehouses to courthouses to the houses of Congress. HR 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are so important and crucial to pushing back against these efforts to suppress the right to vote. I often tell the story about how voting for me is such a personal thing. Growing up in South Carolina, one of the traditions I had with my grandfather is that we would go and vote together. I remember sitting out on the porch with him afterwards and he said to me, “Jaime, in this state, I was not always considered a whole man. Never let anybody tell you that you don’t matter.” I’m not letting my sons grow up in a world like my grandfather grew up in.
Q. Is policing on your priority list?
A. It is a huge issue for us, and we have communities that are crying out in chronic pain. This is a historical pain that has been passed on from generation to generation, and we need to come up with a solution to it, and I don’t want a Democratic solution or a Republican solution. I want a solution that helps us solve and address this problem. I have folks in my family that come from law enforcement. My grandfather Ron was in the Detroit Police Department for almost 40 years. So we understand the sacrifices of law enforcement, but at the same time, we also know the fears that some in the law enforcement community have put into Black and brown folks over the years.
Q. It seems the country is so divided on issues of race. How can we move forward together?
A. It’s very, very sad to see these divisions because there’s a lot of people that are in extreme pain right now. Just watching the Derek Chauvin trial and the anxiety that I had that day when the verdict was going to come out. Why should we have anxiety when we saw with our own eyes this Black man lose his life? Why should there have been any question about what was going to happen? But there was.