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South Carolina Democratic Chair On How Candidates Can Appeal To Black Voters


South Carolina is the next big prize in the presidential race, and it's the most diverse group of voters yet. For Democrats especially, that makes a big difference. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are fighting to win minority votes. Yesterday, we spoke with the head of South Carolina's Republican party. We're joined now by the state's Democratic chairman, Jaime Harrison. Welcome to the show.

JAIME HARRISON: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: When we talked to your Republican counterpart yesterday, he said South Carolina's airwaves are packed with TV ads. On the Democratic side, it's a less crowded field. Does it feel like you were blanketed with ads for Sanders and Clinton down there?

HARRISON: Well, not so much ads, but there are plenty of surrogates that are crawling around the state of South Carolina, particularly from the Clinton campaign. Just recently, we had a lot of celebrities - Vivica Fox, Angela Bassett. But on the Bernie Sanders side, I know Nina Turner, Ben Jealous, who I just interviewed for my web series, "Chair Chats" - he's been here in the state and is going to be back quite often. So it's tons of surrogates going all across the state of South Carolina.

SHAPIRO: No coincidence those celebrities who you mentioned are African-American.


SHAPIRO: Black voters are expected to make up roughly half the Democratic vote in the South Carolina primary. You are the first African-American to serve as chairman of South Carolina's Democratic party - very concerted effort here to appeal to black voters. What would you say are some of the biggest concerns for this group of voters?

HARRISON: I think South Carolina is so perfect to be the first in the South because many of the issues that we're dealing with are issues that all of our sister and brother states in the South are also dealing with. We have an area called the Corridor of Shame which is at the heart of Congressman Jim Clyburn's district.

SHAPIRO: Corridor of Shame.

HARRISON: Exactly. And this particular area - it's predominately rural, predominately African-American. You have schools that are crumbling. The infrastructure is old and falling apart. You have high unemployment. This is an area where there are a lot of folks who don't have health care. What we need is for the presidential candidates to talk about what their plans are for this particular area in South Carolina that is like so many other areas all across the South.

SHAPIRO: As we heard on MORNING EDITION today, there seems to be a divide between younger black voters who might have concerns about President Bill Clinton's welfare reform and tough on crime policies and they hold that against Hillary Clinton and older black voters who seem to be very strongly for Hillary Clinton. Do you see these as two separate groups?

HARRISON: Well, you know, the divisions that you're talking about, I think, are - have been playing out on issues dealing with the civil rights era. It's the difference of those folks who've lived, breathed and were apart of the Civil Rights Movement and then those folks who have only read about it and have only seen it on television. And those type of divisions are also playing out in terms of gender as well between, you know, young women - millennials - who see feminism in a different light than those who fought to make sure they were equal rights for women and were apart of that movement. And so it's interesting dynamics going on in this country, and I think a lot of it is playing in this campaign.

SHAPIRO: And yet civil rights issues are very much on the front burner in South Carolina between the Black Lives Matter movement and police shootings. Do you see that as playing a role?

HARRISON: Yeah. You know, I think that's important, and it will probably play a role with younger folks. But one of the things that I've also encouraged my young people to do is to make sure that they're looking at the entire story. I mean, one of the things that are going around today is this discussion about the 1994 crimes bill that President Clinton signed. But, you know, guess who the author of that bill was? It was Joe Biden. And guess who supported that bill? You know, Bernie Sanders also voted for that legislation along with a lot of Congressional Black Caucus members. And so we have to think about the times in which these things were passed and then adjust. There's been a lot of evolution in the party, and I think we just need to appreciate where people are today.

SHAPIRO: That's Jaime Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic party. Thanks for joining us.

HARRISON: Thank you, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.