Clay Middleton and Barack Obama have a number of things in common. Like the president-elect, Middleton seems to have a Blackberry glued to his palm and checks it often. And like Obama, Middleton has developed a fascination with Abraham Lincoln, a fact that becomes obvious in a brief conversation.
Obama and Middleton have each lost elections — Obama in a race for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000, Middleton in a bid for S.C. House of Representatives this past June. Both men are policy wonks, comfortable with the nuts and bolts of organizing and campaigning. Obama started his career as a community organizer in Chicago. Middleton discusses local politics, drawing district lines in the air, citing demographic and economic data. Not surprisingly, Middleton was an early volunteer for the Obama campaign in S.C.
A couple of other things about Obama and Middleton: both are black and have a boundless optimism about the future. They represent what I like to think of as the post-racial age in American politics.
Obama ran his presidential campaign as a race-neutral candidate. He presented himself, not as the black man, but as the right man for the job. He stands in sharp contrast to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, two vintage civil rights activists who have made ill-fated presidential bids. Jackson and Sharpton built their careers on racial grievance, and while there is much to be aggrieved over in America's past, playing that theme will confine any black politician to an African-American constituency.
Obama reached across racial lines by ignoring history and grievance, something that many Americans thought would be impossible for a black presidential candidate. He left it to others to talk about the significance of a black man achieving such heights.
In his recent primary campaign for state House District 111, Middleton played the Barack Obama role, focusing on public policy issues such as education and community development. His leading opponent, former Charleston City Councilman Wendell Gilliard, reminded his District 111 constituents — 58 percent of whom are black — that he is black. And he seemed to suggest that he might be blacker than Middleton.
The last two times I have heard Gilliard speak in public — on both occasions to overwhelmingly black audiences — he mentioned Jim Crow, the racially loaded terms for Southern segregation. Jim Crow laws have been dead for decades, and the issues Gilliard was supposed to be addressing had nothing to do with segregation. But he was playing to the audience, and he was playing the race card.
It worked. Gilliard won the Democratic nomination, defeating Middleton in a runoff. He had no Republican opposition, so he will warm a seat in Columbia in January. (Former City Councilman Maurice Washington — also black — was eliminated in the first round of voting.) In the runoff, the vote totals almost perfectly reflected the racial breakdown of the district, with Gilliard taking the black vote and Middleton carrying the white vote.
Speaking of that campaign, Middleton said, "The way to solve problems is through the people we elect. Substance must prevail at some point. Some people want to run on emotions ... I would not dummy down any issue."
Despite that setback, it's a sure thing that we have not seen the last of Clay Middleton. Like Barack Obama, the 27-year-old Burke High School and Citadel graduate seemed to know pretty early that he had a taste and a talent for politics. He majored in political science, taking an undergraduate semester off from the Citadel to intern in Sen. Ernest F. Hollings' Washington office.
While there, he made a point of meeting First District Congressman Jim Clyburn. This led to two years volunteering in the congressman's local office. When he graduated from the Citadel in 2003, Clyburn hired him on the spot. "That was my first real job," Middleton said.
Today, he is First District coordinator for Charleston, Colleton, Georgetown, and Berkeley counties and handles military matters throughout the district.
The military assignment was a natural choice. Middleton is a captain in the S.C. National Guard, where he is on battalion staff in Charleston. He did a one-year hitch in Iraq and received a Bronze Star for meritorious conduct during combat in Tagi.
"I enjoy all aspects of my job," he said, "the organizing, the strategizing, the numbers."
But talking to him, I got the impression he still has an itch that has not been scratched.
"I'm glad I ran," he said of the District 111 primary. "I think I'm in good company. Abraham Lincoln lost eight elections. Jim Clyburn lost three times. Even Barack Obama lost an election."
So when will he run for office again and for what? If he knows the answer, he isn't telling, but he offered this: "In the words of Abraham Lincoln, I will prepare myself and some day my chance will come."
Check out Will Moredock's blog at thegoodfight.ccpblogs.com.