The 3,000-strong crowd hushed when Bernie Sanders described the horrific church massacre that happened a few miles away.
Then their voices rose as the Democratic presidential candidate recited the names of dead African-Americans who inspired the “Black Lives Matter” movement, including North Charleston’s own Walter Scott, as Sanders’ eyes darted frequently to the text of a speech he has delivered across the state.
“These people died unnecessarily and wrongly at the hands of police officers or in police custody,” Sanders said, hoarsely, in his thick Brooklyn accent. “That. Must. Change.”
The faces in the boisterous crowd were still overwhelmingly white, illustrating an impediment for the third-term U.S. senator as he emerges as the chief Democratic foil to Hillary Clinton.
In South Carolina, Georgia and other Southern states, African-Americans make up the bulk of the Democratic primary electorate. While Clinton and her husband have deep relationships with the black community, Sanders represents lily-white Vermont and has made headlines in clashes with Black Lives Matter activists.
Sanders’ Friday and Saturday presidential debut in South Carolina, a key early primary state, provided a glimpse of a candidate adjusting as he seeks to prove strength beyond a white liberal base. Sanders’ crowds were large for this stage of the campaign but still a little more than one-tenth the size of the throngs he drew to stadiums on the West Coast.
Sanders hired a young African-American woman, Symone Sanders, as his national press secretary, and she introduces him at rallies with a focus on the Voting Rights Act.
Bernie Sanders now devotes a 10-minute chunk of his stump speech to racial strife, voting rights and criminal justice reform. He scheduled private meetings with African-American ministers, activists and political leaders.
After a rally in Greenville, Rosemary Wallace walked up to Symone Sanders to pledge her help. Wallace, who is black, lives in Rock Hill and helped organize for President Barack Obama in 2008. Her cannabis leaf earrings were an homage to her recent stint as a marijuana legalization activist in Colorado.
“You’ve got to reach into the churches and the barbershops,” Wallace said. “We’ve got to go and talk to them there and let them know that Bernie Sanders is about helping you get Bookie or whoever out of jail for selling that dime bag down the street.”
The Rev. Joseph Darby of Charleston, a longtime civil rights leader, said Sanders has a challenge on his hands.
“He’s energized an interesting piece of the progressive wing of the party,” Darby said, “but I don’t know of any black folks who are vigorously supporting him right now.”
‘Something to whine about’
Sanders’ rise in polls nationally and in early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire comes at a perilous moment for Clinton, who is currently besieged by questions about her private email server. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into whether Clinton’s server improperly handled classified messages while she was secretary of state, though Clinton is reportedly not a target of the probe.
Meanwhile, talk about a possible run by Vice President Joe Biden has accelerated as he meets with advisers and political leaders. Biden retains a strong following in South Carolina Democratic circles.
The Clinton campaign has tried to generate good news where it can. Last week, it rolled out an endorsement by former South Carolina Gov. Dick Riley, who was secretary of education under President Bill Clinton, even though his support had been widely reported for months.
It also debuted the endorsement of former Gov. Jim Hodges — who backed Obama in 2008. Campaign Chairman John Podesta and political strategist James Carville swept through South Carolina to rally supporters.
Asked about the email server, Carville, who was a top operative behind Bill Clinton’s campaigns, told a few dozen Democratic Party regulars at a breakfast in Columbia that it was no different from all the Republican-pursued scandals of the 1990s.
“They’ve just got to have something to do, something to whine about,” Carville said.
The Clinton campaign started organizing in South Carolina as soon as she announced her candidacy in April. It has eight paid staff in Columbia and Charleston, along with 1,400 volunteers.
But the Sanders campaign is catching up. Chris Covert, Sanders’ state director, said he is up to eight paid staff as well — with reinforcements to come in the fall — and more than 1,000 volunteers, with more on the way from sign-ups at Sanders’ rallies.
Attendees varied from skeptical to downright hostile toward Clinton.
“There’s a lot of liberals that say, ‘Oh I’m for Hillary,’ but they don’t realize the Clintons are just as much of a superinvested reptile family that, like, the Bushes are,” said Gil Semple, 23, of Columbia.
‘Everything under the sun’
On the stump, Sanders spends more than an hour hunched over a podium, flailing his arms, ticking off a liberal laundry list. He wants to expand Social Security and go to a single-payer “Medicare-for-all” health care system. He wants to break up the big banks and make all public universities tuition-free.
“Bernie promises everything under the sun,” said Starr Wright, 55, of Athens, Ga., who made the trip to Greenville to see Sanders. “Do we know we can’t get it? Yeah.”
But Wright and other Sanders fans described his appeal as that of a left-wing Donald Trump, a man whose “political revolution” is about defying a corrupt system.
It is premised most of all on exorcising the influence of big money in politics. Sanders talks about his 400,000 donors giving an average of $31.20 apiece and how he has no unlimited-donation Super PAC.
The vision of a political process captured by billionaires extends to the “corporate media” and the nation’s “grotesque” inequality.
“What does bother me — a lot — is when working-class people who struggle every day to make ends meet keep voting for people who make the rich richer and everybody else poorer,” Sanders said in Sumter, straining to shout over the cheers. “That bothers me a lot!”
For some Democrats, it’s a question of heart vs. head.
In Columbia, Austin Jackson, 25, and Marcurius Byrd, 30, attended a sweaty Sanders rally on Friday night and a breakfast with Clinton-backing Carville on Saturday morning. Both remained undecided on who would make the best president.
“She’ll get stuff done,” Byrd said of Clinton. “But she might go through an easier, backdoor way. …
“Bernie Sanders would probably go the harder route in dealing with something and be more honest about it — which is a lot less likely to happen, but you feel a hell of a lot better.”
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