Cly­burn preps for ‘World Fa­mous’ fish fry

The State (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY EMMA DUMAIN edu­[email protected]­clatchydc.com

On a nor­mal work­day, Jim Cly­burn is fig­ur­ing out how he’ll get 235 con­gres­sional Democrats to ad­vance his party’s agenda.

This week, the South Carolina con­gress­man needs to know how a cou­ple thou­sand peo­ple — not in­clud­ing 22 pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, their se­cu­rity de­tails and a fish fry­ing sta­tion — will ne­go­ti­ate an ex­pan­sive, but lim­ited, event space.

“I’ve never done a walk­through for this event be­fore,” Cly­burn said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “I’ve done one to­day, and one two weeks ago.”

The third rank­ing U.S. House Demo­crat, Cly­burn is cur­rently in full party-plan­ner mode in prepa­ra­tion for his “World Fa­mous Fish Fry” on Fri­day. The an­nual tra­di­tion is al­ways sched­uled to co­in­cide with the S.C. Demo­cratic Party’s gala din­ner and con­ven­tion week­end in Columbia, and this year is ex­pected to be the big­gest one yet.

The first fish fry was held in 1992 as a “thank you” to the cam­paign vol­un­teers who helped Cly­burn win his first con­gres­sional elec­tion. He wanted to give av­er­age South Carolini­ans the chance to min­gle up-close with politi­cians with­out hav­ing to first spend “$250 for cold chicken.”

Twenty-seven years later, it’s now con­sid­ered a must-at­tend event for cur­rent and as­pir­ing of­fice­hold­ers up and down the bal­lot, in-state and na­tion­wide.

“Ev­ery politi­cian that’s worth their salt wants to get up on the stage and get in­tro­duced by Jim Cly­burn,” said Jaime Har­ri­son, for­mer chair­man of the South Carolina Demo­cratic Party who is now run­ning for U.S. Se­nate

I’VE HAD PEO­PLE SAY TO ME THAT THEY COME BACK TO THIS FISH FRY EV­ERY YEAR BE­CAUSE IT’S AT THIS FISH FRY THEY WERE ABLE TO GET CLOSE TO SOME­ONE WHO ENDED UP BE­ING PRES­I­DENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

Rep. Jim Cly­burn

against Re­pub­li­can Lind­sey Gra­ham.

The fish fry’s sta­tus as a po­lit­i­cal king-mak­ing event is not in doubt this year: 22 of the 24 de­clared Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have con­firmed their par­tic­i­pa­tion, mak­ing this the first time this many White House con­tenders — in the most di­verse field in his­tory —will ap­pear to­gether at the same event to court vot­ers in a crit­i­cal early pri­mary state.

An­tic­i­pat­ing that the num­ber of RSVPS — now around 1,600 — will grow over in the next sev­eral days, or­ga­niz­ers have or­dered 4,400 pounds of fish and 6,400 slices of white bread. For the first time, Cly­burn has hired an event plan­ner and me­dia co­or­di­na­tor to ne­go­ti­ate mem­bers of the na­tional press corps rep­re­sent­ing at least 50 dif­fer­ent news or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“You can kind of wing it when you have a fish fry of 700, 800 peo­ple,” said Cly­burn. “If it threat­ens to be two or three thou­sand peo­ple, we’re not gonna run the risk of wing­ing it.”

This is a far cry from the early days, where Cly­burn’s staffers used to fry the fish them­selves and the whole event was held in­side a park­ing garage. Cater­ing was out­sourced in the late 1990s and re­cently the event mi­grated to Coble Plaza over­look­ing the Columbia canal.

Cly­burn’s fish fry is usu­ally con­sid­ered the “af­ter party” for the state party banquet; this year, it’s be­ing treated as the main at­trac­tion. Or­ga­niz­ers have even moved up the time of the din­ner to avoid early depar­tures for the fish fry.

“You would hate for peo­ple to walk out of the din­ner,” Cly­burn ex­plained.

Cly­burn will be go­ing to both events. But he added, with­out hes­i­ta­tion, that his event is “more fun.”

PUTTING ON A SHOW

Loyal fish fry at­ten­dees will see many of the same fea­tures as in fish fries past.

Food op­tions will still be fish and bread. There will still be an open bar. Ev­ery­thing will be free, with Cly­burn’s cam­paign pick­ing up the tab.

At­ten­dees will be in­vited to dance the Elec­tric Slide and Charleston Wob­ble. Cly­burn couldn’t say whether the can­di­dates would dance, but in the past “I’ve seen some try.”

But as his once-scrappy fish fry be­comes a po­ten­tially chaotic po­lit­i­cal spec­ta­cle, Cly­burn said he was mak­ing sure can­di­dates don’t lose sight of what this event is sup­posed to be all about.

“My whole thing is, I wanted my cam­paign work­ers to feel that they can walk up to, and shake hands with, pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates,” Cly­burn said. “I’ve had peo­ple say to me that they come back to this fish fry ev­ery year be­cause it’s at this fish fry they were able to get close to some­one who ended up be­ing pres­i­dent of the United States.

“At this fish fry, danc­ing the Elec­tric Slide, or what­ever, with Obama, and he ends up as pres­i­dent, a year later, of the United States,” Cly­burn paused. “That is some­thing that those peo­ple will never, ever, get over.”

Cly­burn said he wants the can­di­dates to work the room and talk to vot­ers. He wants them to take self­ies with South Carolini­ans — prefer­ably at the new “selfie sta­tion” or­ga­niz­ers are pro­vid­ing, though he joked that U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who is a no­to­ri­ous self­i­etaker, prob­a­bly won’t be dis­ci­plined enough to pose for pho­tos in the des­ig­nated area.

He is giv­ing ev­ery can­di­date a chance to ad­dress the au­di­ence — and re­ceive one of Cly­burn’s sig­na­ture, crowd-rous­ing in­tro­duc­tions — but he’s warn­ing them to be mind­ful of the clock, since this will be an even­ing event.

Cly­burn also wants can­di­dates to put on a good show, even if they’re not tak­ing a page out of the elab­o­rate play­book of ex-u.s. Sen. John Ed­wards, D-N.C., the for­mer pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who in 2007 ac­tu­ally hired a drum­line to es­cort him into the event.

“Be­lieve it or not, I think the can­di­dates will prob­a­bly do them­selves real good by se­lect­ing the right walk-up mu­sic,” Cly­burn said. “I will never for­get — I have a last­ing im­pres­sion of Bill Clin­ton the first time I heard his walk-up song, which was, ‘Don’t Stop Think­ing About To­mor­row.’ And that ab­so­lutely is seared into my mem­ory.

“If I were a can­di­date, I would se­lect a song that I could build my two- or three-minute speech on it,” said Cly­burn. “And that’s the same thing I’d say to them: Try to make your ap­pear­ance mem­o­rable.”

Cly­burn said he has typ­i­cally used “We Are Fam­ily,” by Sis­ter Sledge, as his walk-up song, but his grand­daugh­ter is push­ing for “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X.

But that’s also the song U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, Do­hio, re­cently used as his walk-up mu­sic at ma­jor po­lit­i­cal event in Iowa, which might in­flu­ence Cly­burn’s fi­nal de­ci­sion.

COURTING CLY­BURN

In many ways, this is still Cly­burn’s show.

The host and the mas­ter of cer­e­monies, he is also the state’s most in­flu­en­tial Demo­crat whose pri­mary en­dorse­ment is the most cov­eted, and can­di­dates will be work­ing hard to make an im­pres­sion on him — or at least be seen as­so­ci­at­ing with him.

In 2016, Cly­burn didn’t en­dorse Hil­lary Clin­ton un­til just days be­fore the South Carolina Demo­cratic pri­mary. A month ear­lier, at the Cly­burn fish fry, the two long­time friends shared a warm em­brace on­stage — a mo­ment that prob­a­bly made Clin­ton’s then-com­peti­tors, for­mer Mary­land Gov. Martin O’malley and U.S. Sen. Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont, cringe in envy.

Can­di­dates at­tend­ing the 2019 fish fry will be speak­ing just as much to Cly­burn as they are to the at­ten­dees.

“South Carolina is a state that was hit re­ally hard by gun vi­o­lence — you know, Emanuel Nine,” said U.S. Rep. Eric Swal­well, D-calif., re­fer­ring to the nine black parish­ioners gunned down at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015. “I’m go­ing to be talk­ing a lot about what I’m go­ing to do with re­spect to gun vi­o­lence. This is some­thing that af­fected Whip Cly­burn’s con­stituents, and I’m go­ing to make the case that we should be bold with my so­lu­tions.”

For San­ders, who was re­jected by the ma­jor­ity of South Carolina’s Demo­cratic pri­mary vot­ers in 2016, the fish fry rep­re­sents an op­por­tu­nity to make his case to wide au­di­ence.

“Let me be very clear: I like fish,” San­ders dead­panned. He added, “I’m proud that we’re re­ceiv­ing a whole lot of sup­port from mem­bers of the leg­is­la­ture there in South Carolina, and we in­tend to be get­ting all over the state talk­ing about the need for fun­da­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion re­form, crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form and health care re­form.”

Cly­burn has made it clear he won’t be mak­ing an en­dorse­ment, at least not this early on. Fish fry at­ten­dees will, how­ever, be pay­ing spe­cial at­ten­tion to how the con­gress­man in­ter­acts with cur­rent fron­trun­ner Joe Bi­den, a long­time friend who has been to the fish fry on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions — as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date in 2007, as vice pres­i­dent in 2014 and dur­ing his time as a U.S. sen­a­tor from Delaware.

Speak­ing with re­porters in Wash­ing­ton, Cly­burn de­murred as to what mes­sage he was look­ing for from can­di­dates at the fish fry. Re­minded he’s par­tic­u­larly close with Bi­den, Cly­burn’s eyes seemed to sparkle.

“Oh, I have a long­stand­ing re­la­tion­ship with about 12 of them,” he said.

The State file

An­thony Palmer, left, and his wife Eriko, right, try out their fried fish as Mar­garet Cantrell, mid­dle, looks on dur­ing Rep. James Cly­burn’s an­nual fish fry for South Carolina Democrats in­side the South Carolina Mu­nic­i­pal As­so­ci­a­tion garage in down­town Columbia in April 2007.

The State file

Rep. James Cly­burn, left, is joined by ac­tress Al­fre Woodard, back­ground, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar at his Fish Fry in May 2008.

The State file

A group dances to the mu­sic dur­ing U.S. Rep. Jim Cly­burn’s fish fry in­side the Can­non Park­ing Garage in down­town Columbia in 2014. At­ten­dees are in­vited to try danc­ing the Elec­tric Slide and Charleston Wob­ble.

Cour­tesy of U.S. Rep. Jim Cly­burn

U.S. Rep. Jim Cly­burn talks to guests at his fish fry in Columbia in 1992.

AP file

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Barack Obama is swarmed by sup­port­ers as he ar­rives for the fish fry hosted by Rep. James Cly­burn af­ter the first Demo­cratic de­bate in Columbia, S.C., in 2007.

Cour­tesy of U.S. Rep. Jim Cly­burn

U.S. Rep. Jim Cly­burn talks to guests at his an­nual fish fry, in­clud­ing Trav Robert­son, cen­ter, in 1992.

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