Booker bases SC pri­mary strat­egy on vet­eran law­maker’s model

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY EMMA DUMAIN edu­[email protected]­

Dur­ing his first visit to South Carolina last month as an of­fi­cial Demo­cratic can­di­date for pres­i­dent, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker didn’t spend all his time in the cities with the largest me­dia mar­kets.

He didn’t make pub­lic ap­pear­ances with South Carolina’s best-con­nected Demo­cratic “gate­keep­ers” – such as Columbia Mayor Steve Ben­jamin or for­mer Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee Chair­man Don Fowler – who are of­ten called upon to in­tro­duce can­di­dates to vot­ers in the “First in the South” 2020 pri­mary state.

In­stead, the New Jer­sey law­maker held fo­rums at ru­ral high schools and col­leges, tai­lor­ing a na­tional pol­icy plat­form to peo­ple in the room who were wor­ried about ac­cess to hos­pi­tals, clean drink­ing wa­ter and re­li­able Broad­band.

To long­time S.C. Demo­cratic op­er­a­tives, these strat­egy looked fa­mil­iar: They are part of a tem­plate that U.S. House Ma­jor­ity Whip Jim Cly­burn, South Carolina’s most well-known Demo­crat and party king­maker, has used suc­cess­fully for decades – from his days as a civil rights or­ga­nizer to his years run­ning a state gov­ern­ment agency and ever since his elec­tion to Congress in 1992.

That Booker is us­ing this tem­plate is no co­in­ci­dence. His South Carolina state direc­tor and se­nior po­lit­i­cal ad­viser are Christale Spain and Clay Mid­dle­ton, both for­mer Cly­burn staffers who are mak­ing a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort to ap­ply Cly­burn’s best prac­tices to Booker’s South Carolina cam­paign.

“(Spain and Mid­dle­ton) are pretty in­doc­tri­nated in terms of un­der­stand­ing what are pri­or­i­ties for Cly­burn, so it would not sur­prise me if the cam­paign is geared to­wards those pri­or­i­ties,” said Jaime Har­ri­son, a Cly­burn pro­tégé and for­mer S.C. Demo­cratic Party chair­man now mulling a 2020 chal­lenge to South Carolina’s se­nior U.S. se­na­tor, Repub­li­can Lind­sey Gra­ham.

Mid­dle­ton, who was S.C. state direc­tor for Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016 and S.C. po­lit­i­cal direc­tor for Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in 2008, con­firmed as much.

“The way I cam­paign is no se­cret. I have got­ten my po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion from a lot of peo­ple, and one of those peo­ple is Jim Cly­burn,” Mid­dle­ton told McClatchy.

There is no of­fi­cial “Cly­burn model,” but S.C. Democrats fa­mil­iar with the 78-year-old, vet­eran African-Amer­i­can law­maker de­scribe his ap­proach as com­mu­ni­ty­fo­cused.

They say that any­one at­tempt­ing to em­u­late Cly­burn would do well to go to ru­ral ar­eas, which make up much of Cly­burn’s dis­trict. Can­di­dates should talk to peo­ple in their own back­yards rather than force peo­ple to travel long dis­tances to at­tend ral­lies.

“You go where the vot- ers are,” Mid­dle­ton said. “It’s no se­cret that Charleston and Greenville and Columbia are the hubs for me­dia mar­kets and you can just reach more peo­ple. But it’s an­other thing to go out­side those ar­eas, where vot­ers can get an op­por­tu­nity for the can­di­date to be theirs. That means some­thing and peo­ple don’t for­get that.”

Cly­burn ex­perts also say can­di­dates should talk about poverty, ideally pitch­ing Cly­burn’s “10-20-30” plan to di­rect 10 per­cent of cer­tain fed­eral fund­ing to coun­ties where 20 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion has lived un­der the poverty line for 30 years or more. In­ci­den­tally, Booker is the lead Se­nate spon­sor of Cly­burn’s 10-20-30 leg­is­la­tion.

In a re­cent in­ter­view with McClatchy, Cly­burn at­trib­uted his suc­cess in South Carolina to hav­ing spent time “study­ing” the state’s cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal and so­cioe­co­nomic land­scape.

“Politi­cians make a big mis­take when they try to get peo­ple to un­der­stand them,” he added. “If they spend more time try­ing to un­der­stand the peo­ple they want to rep­re­sent … they’ll be much bet­ter off.”

Mid­dle­ton said Booker won’t “talk about an is­sue at the na­tional level” with­out ap­ply­ing it to the peo­ple on the ground.


Still, Booker is not rel­e­gat­ing his en­tire cam­paign to only small-scale events in re­mote parts of South Carolina.

Though he was at a church in a ru­ral area of Simp­sonville on Fri­day, on Sat­ur­day he’ll par­tic­i­pate at a town hall in Charleston. Then, he’ll ap­pear at the Dorch­ester County Demo­cratic Party oys­ter roast, a ma­jor func­tion.

He is not the only Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date to hold lis­ten­ing ses­sions on lo­cal is­sues in­stead of de­liv­er­ing stump speeches.

U.S. Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, D-Calif., widely seen as Booker’s ri­val in South Carolina as the only other black can­di­date cur­rently in the field, has ag­gres­sively courted S.C. grass­roots or­ga­ni­za­tions and pub­licly weighed in on ma­jor is­sues up for de­bate at the S.C. State House, from gun laws to ed­u­ca­tion re­form.

Booker is not even the only can­di­date to talk about Cly­burn’s 10-20-30 poverty plan: Dur­ing a re­cent CNN town hall, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., brought up Cly­burn’s pro­posal as some­thing he’d pro­mote as pres­i­dent.

But Booker is aim­ing to present him­self as the can­di­date who is in­her­ently most like Cly­burn. He has pitched him­self as some­one who, as the for­mer mayor of Ne­wark, N.J., also rep­re­sented a mostly mi­nor­ity, largely poor com­mu­nity strug­gling for ac­cess to ba­sic ser­vices and to be heard by elected of­fi­cials.

The Cly­burn model is about “fo­cus­ing on per­sonal re­la­tion­ships (and) spend­ing time early build- ing a net­work that can spread the gospel later down the road for you,” said Booker’s deputy na­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor, Michael Tyler. “This also hap­pens to be true to who Cory Booker is and how he has cam­paigned through­out his ca­reer. You look at Ne­wark, when he was run­ning for mayor. He did that block by block.”

There are ob­vi­ous advantages to cam­paign­ing like Cly­burn, who must be do­ing some­thing right: Though his easy re-elec­tions every two years are due in large part to his ger­ry­man­dered dis­trict, the third rank­ing Demo­crat in the U.S. House en­joys celebrity sta­tus in Demo­cratic cir­cles through­out a deeply con­ser­va­tive state.

There are also advantages to do­ing things the Cly­burn way. While Cly­burn isn’t go­ing to make an en­dorse­ment in the South Carolina Demo­cratic pri­mary, he has hinted he might say who he is vot­ing for in the im­me­di­ate lead-up to the Feb. 29, 2020, elec­tion.

Booker’s sup­port­ers say they are aware of a sce­nario in which Cly­burn could start to talk about hav­ing a wife and three daugh­ters. That was Cly­burn’s re­frain in 2016, in the days be­fore en­dors­ing Clin­ton over Sanders in the state’s pri­mary. In 2020, a sim­i­lar caveat could sig­nal his in­cli­na­tion to sup­port some­one like Har­ris.

It could send a pow­er­ful mes­sage for Booker to travel around the state talk­ing to vot­ers about is­sues Cly­burn cares about, in places Cly­burn cares about.

“Cory Booker un­der­stands the sig­nif­i­cance of not hav­ing Jim Cly­burn on your side in an en­dorse­ment,” said An­tjuan Seawright, a S.C. po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive who has done cam­paign work with Cly­burn. “Cory Booker un­der­stands the im­por­tance of Jim Cly­burn’s po­lit­i­cal net worth.”


BRIS­TOW MARCHANT [email protected]­

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jer­sey Demo­crat pho­tographed Feb. 10 in Winns­boro, S.C., has been tak­ing his cam­paign to the peo­ple.

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