MARION — Within days of announcing she would run for president, Kamala Harris was already in South Carolina looking to connect with some of the most natural allies she could find: her sorority sisters.
Gliding across the banquet hall of Alpha Kappa Alpha’s annual Pink Ice Gala fundraiser in a dark brown ball gown, the California senator received a rapturous welcome from more than 3,000 members of the historically black sorority. Her rallies across the state have consistently drawn dozens of black women dressed in the pink and green of AKA.
That early trip served in some ways as a framework for the rest of Harris’ campaign in the critical early voting state of South Carolina.
From the sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha to the teachers who protested at the Statehouse for better school conditions, Harris has sought to harness existing networks on the ground in the Palmetto State to jump-start her campaign here.
Her endorsements range from the “Reckoning Crew,” a group of dozens of community service-oriented black women who have already begun canvassing for Harris in lower Richland County to multiple family members of victims from the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Jalisa Washington-Price, Harris’ S.C. state director, said the strategy harkens back to her own experience growing up in Gadsden outside of Columbia, where she “saw the importance of community engagement and the organic or informal way groups can form and see change.”
The use of established groups has helped Harris to overcome the early disadvantage of having less of a personal history in South Carolina than some of her primary opponents, notably former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Despite some influential endorsements and enthusiastic crowds, Harris has struggled so far to translate that early support into higher poll numbers.
Seven months after the Alpha Kappa Alpha gala and six months out from S.C.’s First in the South primary, Washington-Price argued the campaign has laid the groundwork for that to begin to change.
“She may not have the profile of some of the other candidates coming into the race, but when people meet her we’re finding a lot of interest and gaining a lot of supporters,” Washington-Price said. “So we’re making sure the infrastructure we have in place to meet her when she’s at her best and when people really start paying attention.”
Stay up-to-date on which 2020 presidential candidates are visiting the Palmetto state with The Post and Courier’s tracker. Continually updated as candidates campaign in South Carolina in the months leading up to the state’s February 2020 primary.
‘Prosecute the case’
Harris has not focused as much on her personal biography as some other candidates in the early months of the race. But in the first set of Democratic debates, the daughter of immigrants who grew up amid the heat of the civil rights movement in Oakland memorably talked about being part of the second class to integrate Berkeley public schools through busing.
“That little girl was me,” Harris said, a phrase swiftly emblazoned across both official and unofficial campaign merchandise.
Her criticism of Biden’s history on racial issues received some mixed reviews in South Carolina.
Some pointed to it as exactly the type of tenacity they want the party’s nominee to display, while others grimaced at the tense intraparty confrontation.
“I thought that was kind of a low blow to be honest,” said Margaret Delorme, 72, an undecided Columbia voter. “I don’t want nastiness. We have enough of that already in the White House. But I have seen her in situations when she was questioning nominees as a senator and she is a force to be reckoned with, so I respect that.”
A graduate of Howard University, Harris has used her status as the only candidate in the crowded primary field to have attended a historically black college to underscore her support for the institutions and has begun organizing on the eight HBCU campuses in South Carolina.
Harris entered electoral politics by defeating the incumbent district attorney in San Francisco before going on to become California’s attorney general and ultimately running for the U.S. Senate.
State Rep. Rosalyn Henderson-Myers, a Spartanburg Democrat supporting Harris, acknowledged that black prosecutors like herself can “get a bad rap” given the way the criminal justice system has historically treated minorities.
Harris chose the S.C. NAACP’s annual Freedom Fund dinner in June to confront those concerns head on, arguing that her law enforcement background gives her the experience to “prosecute the case” against four more years of President Donald Trump and that diverse prosecutors help to make the system more just.
“We have to be in those rooms even when there aren’t many like us there,” Harris said.
“And let me just tell you,” she added, “in this election, regarding my background as a prosecutor, there have been those who have questioned my motivations, my beliefs and what I’ve done. But my mother used to say, ‘Don’t let people tell you who you are. You tell them who you are’.”
Harris’ campaign has made no secret of how pivotal South Carolina will be for her chances of winning the nomination.
Juan Rodriguez, her national campaign manager, cited Harris’ nine trips to S.C. since launching her campaign as evidence of how they have prioritized the most diverse early voting state, a contest where a majority of the electorate is expected to be African American.
“Building a broad coalition has been the key to every victory she’s had,” Rodriguez said.
In a state that 12 years ago propelled a first-term African American senator to victory over a well-known establishment figure, Harris’ supporters hope S.C. voters will again opt for a barrier-breaking black woman over what many voters describe as “the safe choice.”
Susan Riordan, the co-founder of Emerge South Carolina, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, said Harris first caught her attention when she was grilling former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Senate judiciary committee hearings.
“I knew this woman was somebody who could handle these men who are going to be standing in her way,” Riordan said. “Everything that she has come out with has just confirmed to me that she is the right person and this is the right time. The women of this country have been awakened and we’re not going to go back to sleep again.”
While Riordan spoke to a packed crowd at the opening of Harris’ Greenville office this week, not everywhere in the state comes as easily.
In rural Marion County, where Harris had recently visited to much acclaim, volunteer recruitment efforts during the campaign’s statewide “Weekend of Action” earlier this month started slow.
The Rev. Marvin Hemingway, the Marion County NAACP president who lent the Harris campaign his office, cited back-to-school shopping and the lack of early attention on the presidential race as reasons for the small crowd.
But at least a few eager prospective volunteers trickled in over the course of a sweltering Saturday afternoon. Among them was Glenn Richardson, a retired bus operator who praised Harris’ performance in the debates.
“She’s articulate and she’s fearless in how she confronts issues and personalities,” said Richardson, 65. “She’s a former prosecutor, which means she knows how to handle herself under pressure and stick to her convictions.”
Brian Nolan came in dripping with sweat after hours on the tractor at his small family farm nearby.
“I’m looking at the different candidates and I’m thinking, who is it that’s going to right the wrongs that the Trump administration has done?” said Nolan, 58. “Who is finally going to stand up and say, ‘enough’? And I think she’s the one that will do it. She won’t back down.”