Sanders makes people of color the center of his South Carolina campaign

Galivants Ferry
Thousands came to hear candidates at the Galivants Ferry Stump, a political tradition that dates back to 1876. Photo by Kit Norton/VTDigger

GALIVANTS FERRY, S.C. — Lynn Newsome sported a red baseball cap with the words “Make Liberals Cry Again” emblazoned on the front as he walked among the throngs of Democratic voters who had come to this small town to hear former Vice President Joe Biden and several other Democratic candidates.

The 73-year-old Newsome operates a service station that sells not only gasoline but President Donald Trump memorabilia. On Monday, he decided to drive the 30 miles to Galivants Ferry to attend the Democrats’ stump speeches.

As thousands gathered for the event that dates back to 1876 at the Pee Dee Farms General Store, a nondescript building off the main strip that cuts through the normally sleepy southern town, a group of seven Trump supporters gathered across the road, waving American flags and taking part in a “counter protest.”

Newsome however, remained among the Democrats, taking out a pack of Marlboro Reds with one hand and holding his iPhone in his other to record the festivities.  

As a Republican, Newsome said he could never support any of the Democratic candidates for president, especially Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

“Bernie?” Newsome said.

“Bernie is just a nut job. You got a bunch of these hippies who like him, but none of these people are going to make it,” he said, adding he believes that Trump will easily win South Carolina as he did in 2016.

But while some in the crowd, like Newsome, had already made up their minds about who they would and would not support, Sanders missed a chance to make his pitch to the undecideds about why he should be the next president of the United States. 

Until Saturday, Sanders had been scheduled to be one of five candidates to speak at the Galivants Ferry Stump. But then he pulled out of attending — along with two other South Carolina campaign stops — and returned to Vermont to rest a strained voice.

VTDigger’s Kit Norton reports from South Carolina for Vermont Public Radio
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He left South Carolina after a Town Hall in Charleston Sunday evening, skipping what would have been an additional two days in the key southern state, which his campaign has targeted as an important test for the Vermont senator.

South Carolina offers a progressive candidate like Sanders a unique challenge as he vies for the support of a more conservative voting base compared to New Hampshire and Iowa, as well as a population that is majority African American, a demographic he has struggled to gain support from in the past.

In 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton trounced Sanders in South Carolina, winning 73.5% of the vote while Sanders only managed 26% — a loss blamed in part on his inability to connect with older voters of color.

This election cycle, Sanders has gone out of his way to correct some of his missteps from four years ago, already visiting the state more than 30 times.

The state campaign staff, which numbers 52, is 72% people of color. Sanders has opted for a strategy that prioritizes putting his 22,000 volunteers throughout the state in rural areas with a large African American population. The campaign has also scheduled a number of breakfast events in an effort to allow voters to get to know Sanders on a more personal level. 

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders mingled with students after his town hall event at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Photo by Kit Norton/VTDigger

This has included a “Shrimp & Grits Breakfast” that took place in late August in the factory city  of Georgetown, situated on the coast between Charleston and Myrtle Beach, where the International Paper plant, the largest wood pulp and paper company in the world, sits next to an estuary to Winyah Bay, and a Liberty Steel factory, a U.K.-based company, buzzes with activity throughout the day.

“There is a huge difference from last time,” said Michael Wukela, Sanders’ South Carolina communications director, on the response the Vermont senator has received from people of color during this presidential run.

“We’ve made it a cornerstone of this campaign,” Wukela said, in a southern drawl, about strengthening ties with the African American community. 

Jordan Ragusa, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston, said he sees a major difference between Sanders’ strategy from four years ago with people of color and his current approach.

“He would say his standard points about income inequality and that it equally applies to African Americans almost implying that the experience of African Americans and white Americans is the same,” Ragusa said.

“This time he is talking more about race in a more meaningful and direct way,” he said.

While Ragusa added that he agrees Sanders seems to have learned from his mistakes in 2016 and appears poised to improve his performance with African Americans, he warned that the Vermont senator still has work to do. 

“One of the things that is a worrisome sign is, if you attend his rallies you see a disproportionate amount of a white, college educated, demographic in the crowd,” Ragusa said. “I don’t see many African Americans in his rallies.”

On Sunday, at his town hall on the College of Charleston campus, Sanders was plagued by the same issue, with white voters making up far and away the majority of the 800 in attendance, with only a few people of color in the audience. 

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During what would be his last event in South Carolina, before returning to Burlington, Sanders’ voice sounded much stronger than it had the previous Thursday during the Democratic debate in Houston, as he discussed his basic stump speech raising the minimum wage and the importance of his “Medicare for All” proposal.

Sanders chose not to attack Democratic presidential nominee frontrunner Joe Biden, who he had lashed out at on social media just a few hours earlier for praising the pharmaceutical industry during a Saturday fundraiser. Sanders had also lambasted the former vice president on Friday during a during a stop in Carson City, Nevada.

Mike McColley
Mike McColley, who has supported Bernie Sanders since 2014, attended the candidate’s town hall at the College of Charleston. Photo by Kit Norton/VTDigger

But at the College of Charleston, Sanders was among friends, with many of those present already supporting him, and he did not feel the need to single out Biden.

After the hour long town hall, as Sanders was swarmed by college students for selfies and autographs, Mike McColley, a long haired and bearded man in a wheelchair, was off alone in a corner slowly rolling a joint.

McColley who has supported Sanders since 2014 and met his current girlfriend because of their shared admiration for the senator, said he heard what he expected from the politician, but that he was surprised by his comments on the media.

“He went a little easy on the press, I thought,” McColley said before starting to light up.

McColley was referring to a question from the audience about whether Sanders believed a free press was the “enemy of the people” to which Sanders responded he did not and that it is vital for “American democracy.”

But while Sanders was well received in Charleston, a liberal bastion in the predominantly Republican state and one of the few counties to go blue in 2016, it remains difficult for him to make headway in the rest of the state with many people preferring the more moderate Joe Biden.

“If it wasn’t Biden, I’d vote for Bernie,” said Barbara Seegars, as she waited to hear the former vice president speak on Monday. 

“I think Biden has the best shot because everybody already knows him from being with Obama, so Biden has the best shot,” Seegars added. 

Joe Biden
Joe Biden speaks at Galivants Ferry, S.C. The former vice president is the favored candidate of many Democrats in the state for his moderate stance and his role in the Obama White House. Photo by Kit Norton/VTDigger

An average of three South Carolina polls has Sanders sitting in second place with 14.7% but well behind Biden’s leading 39.3%. 

Biden enjoys a special bond with Democrats in South Carolina and is immensely popular among the state’s African American voters who praise him for being the first vice president to the first black president, Barack Obama.

Biden has also vacationed for years on Kiawa Island, an area just south of Charleston which is known for its private beach and golf resort.

What Biden has going for him is his more conservative politics in a sea of more progressive options in the field of Democratic candidates.

“Being a moderate helps in this state,” Ragusa said.

On Monday, in the sweltering 90 degree heat, at the Pee Dee Farms General Store, the moderates were on full display with Biden; South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (who ended his campaign Friday) on hand to speak and mingle with the large crowd.

It could have been a chance for Sanders, as the lone progressive of the group, to contrast himself and his policies with Biden and Buttigieg, as many in attendance were expecting him to do, until they learned the Vermont senator had canceled his speech.

Chuck Woods, an older black man who had supported Sanders in 2016, said this time around it’s a toss up between Biden and Sanders.

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind. and a Democratic presidential contender, in Galivants Ferry, S.C. Photo by Kit Norton/VTDigger

“I wish he was here,” Woods said with a laugh. “Bernie the man. I like Bernie.”

For many it was a case of liking Sanders and his policies but doubting he is as electable in the national contest as Biden.

“Well I mean I like what Bernie is saying but his chances of beating Joe are slim to none,” said Kenneth Floyd Sr. who was sporting a straw fedora and a thin white mustache. “So I’m all for Joe.”

The loyalty to former President Barack Obama and his Affordable Care Act was also on full display, with Biden remarking during his speech that he doesn’t “think we thank Obama enough for what he did as president” which drew widespread applause.

Sharon Mungo said she felt strongly that the Affordable Care Act should not be scrapped for a new health care system, like Sanders’ Medicare for all, and that this was one of the main reasons she was supporting Biden.

Mungo also said she was not convinced that Sanders’ programs, including Medicare for all, could be paid for by simply taxing the rich.

“That’s like me saying, ‘oh I’m going to go buy this big fancy house and I’m depending on the raise I’m going to get next year to pay for it,’” she said. “I want to know how it’s going to be paid for.”

“What we are paying for health insurance, it’s crazy, and I do believe that Joe Biden has a stable concrete way of rolling those prices back,” Mungo added.

But for others, like Republican Lynn Newsome, the answer to why they don’t support Sanders is much more simple. 

“I’ve never been for any socialist because I’m a hardworking man,” Newsome said.

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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