Gil­li­brand im­merses her­self in early vot­ing

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OBITUARIES - By Meg Kin­nard

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. >> Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand of New York im­mersed her­self in South Carolina over the week­end, us­ing her first trip to the state to in­tro­duce her­self as a pos­si­ble pres­i­den­tial can­di­date to the heav­ily black Demo­cratic elec­torate.

From a house party and Main Street mar­ket to “chicken and waf­fles” and wor­ship, Gil­li­brand’s stops en­com­passed a broad uni­verse of Democrats in this early vot­ing state who are cru­cial to can­di­dates seek­ing the party’s nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent.

Three days is a sig­nif­i­cant time in­vest­ment at this stage in the cam­paign, as a wide field of can­di­dates sprint among early vot­ing states to raise their pro­files and at­tempt to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves. Gil­li­brand’s visit cul­mi­nated with vis­its to sev­eral black churches in North Charleston, where she spoke about the im­por­tance of faith.

At a Satur­day lun­cheon or­ga­nized by the daugh­ter of House Ma­jor­ity Whip Jim Cly­burn, Gil­li­brand in­tro­duced her­self to about two-dozen at­ten­dees, mostly women, giv­ing her view­points on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, health care re­form and ed­u­ca­tion dis­par­i­ties.

“I think Amer­ica’s up to the chal­lenge” of ad­dress­ing those is­sues, she said, “but we just need lead­er­ship.”

Gil­li­brand, who has formed an ex­ploratory com­mit­tee but has yet to launch an of­fi­cial cam­paign, is on the fringes of en­ter­ing a di­verse field, in­clud­ing two black can­di­dates. South Carolina holds the first pres­i­den­tial vote in the South and has be­come a cru­cial prov­ing ground for can­di­dates gaug­ing how their mes­sag­ing res­onates with black vot­ers.

In 2016, non­white vot­ers com­prised about twothirds of the state’s Demo­cratic pri­mary elec­torate, ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided by the South Carolina Elec­tion Com­mis­sion.

Ahead of Satur­day’s brunch, Gil­li­brand, 52, took a turn down Columbia’s Main Street, stop­ping to ask col­lege stu­dents about the is­sues most crit­i­cal to them, such as the cost of higher ed­u­ca­tion and stu­dent loan debt.

A few feet away, fifth­grader Joe­mari El­li­son asked Gil­li­brand if she’d be will­ing to lis­ten to kids on is­sues that mat­ter to them. To 10-year-old Joe­mari, one those is lit­ter, as well as pro­grams for gifted and tal­ented stu­dents.

“My plan is to lis­ten to kids, be­cause I think kids of­ten know what’s go­ing on in your com­mu­nity,” Gil­li­brand said. “I look for­ward to work­ing for you.”

Later, at Kiki’s Chicken and Waf­fles, a mi­nor­i­ty­owned res­tau­rant that has be­come known as a musthit spot for Demo­cratic can­di­dates vis­it­ing Columbia, Gil­li­brand sat in the mid­dle of long ta­bles filled with mostly black busi­nes­sown­ers, whom she asked to share their pri­mary con­cerns. Af­ter as­sur­ance from the res­tau­rant owner that it was ac­cept­able to eat the plate of fried chicken with her fin­gers, Gil­li­brand fin­ished up her pitch as she ate.

“It’s not fair for wealthy ar­eas to have more re­sources,” Gil­li­brand said, adding that “in­sti­tu­tional racism” is to blame for some mi­nor­ity-owned busi­nesses strug­gling to ob­tain the fund­ing nec­es­sary to grow their com­pa­nies. “I will con­tinue to build on that, to make sure that there’s more ac­cess to cap­i­tal for busi­nesses of color.”

Mar­lon Wal­ters, a Bank of Amer­ica ex­ec­u­tive, said he hadn’t made up his mind about next year’s Demo­cratic pri­mary but took to heart Gil­li­brand’s com­mit­ment to work­ing to­ward so­lu­tions for some of the black com­mu­nity’s strug­gles.

“She re­ally hit a lot of my pain points, when she hit on com­pa­nies not re­ally be­ing con­cerned about the bot­tom line but re­ally pour­ing back into the people that helped them make their money,” he said, adding of Gil­li­brand: “I’m re­ally im­pressed so far.”

Af­ter Kiki’s, Gil­li­brand headed to Greenville, where she at­tended an Ur­ban League gala. Sun­day brought vis­its to sev­eral black churches in North Charleston. At Mount Mo­riah Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist, Gil­li­brand ad­dressed the con­gre­ga­tion, sum­mon­ing a fiery cadence likely un­re­lated to her own Catholic up­bring­ing, but one that spurred shouts of “Amen!” from the crowd of sev­eral hun­dred.

“I love the fact that your Bi­bles are un­der your seat,” she said. “When you go on a plane, and they say, your life pre­server is un­der your seat — OUR life pre­servers are un­der our seat!”

“Some­body out there say, Amen! Some­body out there say, Praise the Lord! Some­body out there say, Hal­lelu­jah!” Rev. By­ron Ben­ton said, as Gil­li­brand took her seat, many parish­ioners on their feet, clap­ping.

As more can­di­dates ven­ture into the state and its black churches in the com­ing months, Charleston County Demo­cratic Chair­man Brady Quirk-Gar­van said vot­ers are glad to wel­come hope­fuls but want to hear sub­stan­tive ideas.

“Just mak­ing the visit isn’t enough any­more,” Quirk-Gar­van said. “If you can’t con­nect on that per­sonal level, you’re go­ing to have a hard time con­nect­ing at all.”

MEG KIN­NARD—AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand speaks at a women’s lun­cheon Reed hosted for her in Columbia, S.C, on Satur­day, Feb. 9, 2019. The New York Demo­crat is spend­ing three days in the crit­i­cal early-vot­ing state of South Carolina as she ex­plores a 2020 run for pres­i­dent.

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