Jaime Harrison is used to being an underdog. The 44-year-old black man was born to a single, teenage mother and raised by his grandparents in poverty in Orangeburg.
“I came into this world as an underdog,” Harrison told the City Paper. “The odds were always long for me in terms of whether or not I could succeed and break out of the generational poverty.”
But he’s also been an uncommonly successful underdog, seen now in his competitive bid against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Graham came into 2020 one of the “safe” Republicans up for reelection in the U.S. Senate, but Harrison closed the gap on fundraising and then at the polls as the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation.
“You have hit the perfect storm is what’s happened. Jaime is an ideal kind of Democratic candidate for this moment,” Furman University politics professor Danielle Vinson said. “He understands people from South Carolina, understands working class South Carolina and he’s a more moderate Democrat by virtue of being a South Carolina Democrat.”
Camden Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen said the national “giant Democratic wave” in 2020 will help Harrison.
“Clearly, he’s capitalized on national trends but you only do that if you are the right person who’s willing to take the risk at the right time and he was,” said Sheheen, who has twice run statewide as a Democratic nominee for governor. “When he decided to run, he had no chance in winning and that takes a lot of courage.”
As the election season has worn on, speculation has grown nationally about whether Graham could fall. This month, Cook Political Report changed its election forecast for the race from “likely” Republican to “lean” Republican, meaning that Graham still has the advantage, but it is less secure than it once was.
Graham has held the seat since 2003 with no competitive general election foes, according to Vinson. South Carolina’s two U.S. Senate seats have remained Republican since 2005, after Sen. Fritz Hollings, a Democrat, decided not to run for reelection and the seat was seized by Jim DeMint.
FiveThirtyEight shows a narrow race with Graham holding a 3-point lead over Harrison in the most recent poll and a virtual tie in a poll earlier this month.
Harrison said he’s not surprised.
“I always knew I could win this. I wouldn’t have gotten in if I thought I didn’t have a shot,” Harrison said.
Political observers say a Harrison win will rely on registering voters and getting them to the polls.
“He literally has to have everybody,” Vinson said. “I won’t believe (Harrison can win) until the last vote’s counted.”
No matter the outcome of the election, Harrison said his campaign’s success shows a change coming to South Carolina.
“See, I’ve already won. Seriously, I’ve already won,” he said. “This campaign is about bringing hope back. It is about inspiring a whole new generation of leaders. Letting folks know that they can do things that they can achieve and be what they want to be.”
Harrison’s first success was catapulting himself from a high-poverty high school to getting his undergraduate education at Yale University and earning a law degree from Georgetown University. His next was breaking into Washington, D.C., first as a staffer for U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, and then as a lobbyist. Then, he became the first African American to lead the S.C. Democratic Party.
And it all started with a terrible moment in middle school, when Harrison’s grandparents lost their home in what he calls a scam. He said the loss is the reason why he went to law school and then into politics. Later, as a lobbyist, he accomplished his goal by buying his grandparents a home. He said it was one of the best days of his life.
Now, he’s set his sights on the U.S. Senate, a seat previously held by John C. Calhoun and “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, who sought to deny others opportunity and freedoms because of the color of their skin.
“What I’m trying to do and the reason why I’m running is that I don’t want to be an outlier. I don’t want my story to be an anomaly. I want it to be the typical that we expect in this country,” Harrison said. “I remember some of the kids that I grew up with who were just as smart, just as good, but because of one thing or another, they got trapped and therefore derailed and therefore the dreams that they had turned into nightmares.”
It’s difficult to separate Harrison’s political and family life.
Even on their first date in 2008, wife Marie Boyd said her future husband discussed issues and talking to people in South Carolina — 12 years before his first campaign ad aired.
“Jaime talked a lot about South Carolina and I came away from that first in-person meeting really feeling that he had a great commitment to his family, and to his friends many of whom were like family,” she said. “I knew from that initial conversation that he was just so passionate about the state and the issues.”
Friends and family say, politics aside, Harrison is a talent in the kitchen. Friend Clay Middleton of Charleston said Harrison could sell his red velvet cake, it’s so good. Boyd likes his macaroni and cheese. His two sons, ages 1 and 5, like his pancakes.
Middleton said Harrison’s No. 1 priority, especially as a man who grew up without his father around, is to be “the best father he can to his boys.” Harrison said he was “blessed to have father figures throughout my life,” including Clyburn, his uncles, his stepfather and others. Harrison said he has a cordial relationship with his father as an adult.
Middleton said he’s happy voters are getting to know a “genuine” character.
“People have been seeing what I and many others have known since the first day of interacting with Jaime. You can’t teach it, you can’t fake it, this is as real as it gets,” said Middleton, who met Harrison while both were in Washington in 2001 while Harrison was working in Clyburn’s office.
Sheheen used similar words to describe Harrison.
“Jaime has a very calming influence on people. He is sincere, he is calming, he is very much about uniting people and trying to bring people together,” Sheheen said.
Harrison said he is just being “the guy that my grandparents raised me to be.” He said he looks to his grandparents and to civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, and the racism they faced. Lewis died earlier this summer, and Harrison said he considered him a friend.
“(Lewis) was a man who had dogs sicced on him, was spat upon, who was beaten, his skull was fractured. But he was the most gentle and the kindest person you could ever meet. And the same thing with my grandparents,” Harrison said. “You would think after going through that, you would have a spirit that would be angry and upset with folks, holding a grudge and what have you, but none of that.”
Harrison considers his race against Graham to be what Lewis would call “good trouble,” a step toward what he calls the “new South.”
“We are seeing the closing days of the old South and I believe that this race will become one of the very first steps to move into a new chapter in our history called the new South, one that is bold, that is inclusive, that’s diverse,” Harrison said.
He said it would be quite an accomplishment not only for a black man to hold the seat of Calhoun, Strom Thurmond and Tillman, but also for South Carolina to have two African-American senators for the first time in its history. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican, has held the seat since 2013.
‘A Democrat my entire life’
Leading up to the 2014 campaign season, Sheheen saw Harrison as the future of the Democratic party. He saw a man, raised in poverty in South Carolina, who had years of experience working under Clyburn and in Washington, D.C. He said he urged Harrison to lead the state Democratic party. Harrison took the helm.
“Am I Democrat? Yes. Been a Democrat my entire life but that’s not what defines me. What defines me are the values that I hold and the experiences that I’ve had in life,” Harrison said.
In his senatorial bid, Harrison has affirmed he supports a right to abortion, the expansion of Medicaid, increasing the minimum wage, the Democratic push on climate action and legalizing marijuana. When it comes to endless wars, Harrison described himself as “a diplomacy-first type of person” — in direct contrast with Graham’s interventionist politics.
“Will (voters) always agree with me on every issue? Probably not. I don’t always agree with my wife on every issue and I love her from here to the moon,” Harrison said. “They should always know I am going to do what’s in the best interest of people, to find the good in everything and find the good in every person.”
Last week, the Graham campaign began hitting Harrison over his lobbying experience. From 2008 until 2016, Harrison worked for the Podesta Group, where he represented major corporations like Lockheed Martin, Walmart, the S.C. Ports Authority, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and the University of South Carolina, among others.
In a conversation with the City Paper, Harrison said the lobbying gig was a job that paid down student loan debts and helped him buy his grandparents a house.
“You have clients and clients have issues and you represent your clients. That doesn’t always mean that your clients’ beliefs are your personal beliefs,” Harrison said. “I will always represent the people’s needs first.”
Vinson said Harrison’s lobbying work — especially his representation of job-creating entities and helping to secure funding for dredging the Charleston Harbor — may not be a negative in business-minded South Carolina.
“In some ways, Harrison is less threatening as a Democrat to the business wing of the Republican Party,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons he can be competitive. He’s not a scary Democrat.”
Learn more about Harrison on his campaign website: jaimeharrison.com.