Tom Steyer’s South Carolina Support Isn’t Just About the Benjamins

Tom Steyer’s South Carolina Support Isn’t Just About the Benjamins

Tom Steyer’s South Carolina Support Isn’t Just About the Benjamins

He’s also put in the time. Which is more than can be said for some Democrats.


Columbia, South Carolina—This campaign season, I was attracted to the idea of supporting a progressive candidate who happened to be a woman—which meant Elizabeth Warren. Yet Warren hasn’t been much of an organized presence here in South Carolina, and being here counts with me.

I can’t say when I last had a candidate’s sign for any office in my yard or when I publicly endorsed anyone running for any office. “Walking the walk” in a more tangible way, such as engaging in community economic development, is more important to me than “talking the talk”—which many politicians do (though that’s all they do). But do I pay attention, hold my nose, and vote.

Many of the Democratic presidential aspirants set up shop within walking distance of my restaurant in the old black business district here—an area that also includes two private historically black schools (HBCUs): Baptist-supported Benedict College and AME-supported Allen University.

Deval Patrick took over the campaign HQ that had formerly been occupied by Kamala Harris. Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker also had their HQs within walking distance of my business. While these former candidates set up shop in what’s considered “the black community,” Joe Biden’s HQ is also just a few blocks away, sitting on the edge of where black inner-city residents live—which for me pretty much sums up his politics.

Tom Steyer is within walking distance on Gervais Street, once the demarcation line between blacks and whites. Gentrification is rapidly changing all that, though. The Sanders HQ is a bit closer to downtown—but still just a stone’s throw away from the bus line. Or you can drive three minutes down the street to the front gate of Benedict College. Both Amy Klobuchar’s and Elizabeth Warren’s HQs are safely tucked away in a predominately white area I call “the visitors’ part of town” known as “the Vista.” And Pete Buttigieg’s HQ is out in the middle of nowhere, far from downtown or any of the inner-city neighborhoods.

Both of Columbia’s HBCUs have had multiple visits from candidates and surrogates in this campaign season. Danny Glover, Adolph Reed, and Cornel West have made repeated visits to the state on behalf of Sanders. Donald Trump even, controversially, showed up at Benedict College back in October for what was billed as a bipartisan forum on criminal justice reform. That visit resulted in protest and derision aimed at the college’s president. Steyer and Sanders have made the most visits to the colleges in my neighborhood—with Steyer having the larger advertising presence on billboards throughout the city.

The traditional routine for candidates and surrogates coming into South Carolina has been to go to somebody’s church, a fish fry, and the black colleges. Every year at the start of Black History Month, there’s a parade that forms on the street in front of my building, then makes its way around the black colleges and through my neighborhood. This year, Tom Steyer had one of those billboard trucks with his picture on it and several paid workers following it as part of the parade. My restaurant lost a worker to the Steyer campaign, as he has been paying community canvassers over $15 dollars an hour.

Steyer probably wouldn’t know me from a hole in the ground, but I met and sat next to the man at Mason Temple during the Martin Luther King memorial in Memphis a couple of years back. The Steyer strategy seems a lot like the old Bill Clinton strategy: “Just show blacks a little attention.” He’s gone to remote corners of the state, off the beaten path, and spent enough dough to account for his current third-place polling numbers in the state. He’s hired black vendors, bought ads in our all-but-dead black newspapers, deposited $1 million in a black-owned bank, bought into black radio early on, and hired a multitude of black campaign consultants, including his national black outreach coordinator, Axel Adams of South Carolina, a former Jesse Jackson staffer and a ’88 Jackson Congressional District coordinator.

The Southern Democratic Party elites refer to Steyer’s outreach effort as a “hacks and black” campaign strategy, yet, to his credit, his money isn’t going just to white consultants and white advertising firms; he’s spending the benjamins in a way not seen since before Barack Obama. And he landed State Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, perhaps the most progressive lawmaker in the Legislature. His central theme has been investment in the black community. Many are buying into it.

One of the first flyers we got in our mailbox was of Tom Steyer with City Council member Tameika Isaac-Devine, her school board member spouse Jamie Devine, their three children, and her mother. Still, what was funny, odd—or maybe just confusing, to her constituents—is that well after the flyer hit mailboxes across the city, Devine endorsed Warren. Devine hopes to one day replace our pro-development mayor, Steve Benjamin, a Mike Bloomberg supporter. After Benjamin endorsed Bloomberg a friend stopped by my business, and as we sat outside, he said to me, “Looks like Benjamin has been pimping us out.” My reply: “You think so?” Another friend joked, “I’ve known Steve for a long time, and I always thought he wanted to grow up to be a rich white man.” Then again, without naming names, I have a feeling that many in national black leadership have held their fire on Bloomberg because they have or continue to receive money from him.

A man I’ve known for years struck up a conversation as he was installing a glass fixture at my restaurant, saying he “would never vote for a woman because a woman would be weak as a leader and she would be taken advantage of.” I told him he was a sexist. But that didn’t stop him from following up with something else really stupid: “I wouldn’t vote for a gay either,” and making a homophobic adaptation of Pete Buttigieg’s last name. I kept it together telling him he seemed insecure about his masculinity. The reality, though many deny it, is that homophobia runs rampant in the black community here and that will cost Buttigieg votes in conservative South Carolina.

For me, Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 “Rainbow” campaigns were the last time blacks and progressives had a significant policy and institutional effect on American politics. The Rainbow movement brought a diverse coalition together around an agenda predicated on universal human rights and peace. That coalition brought issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation into an analysis of class and American power. It opposed the proliferation of nuclear weapons and demanded restrictions on nuclear energy. It supported the property rights of small family farmers and black farmers as well as the rights of migrant workers and workers’ rights. It brought people into the political process and spurred a nationwide increase in black elected officials. Many of those newly appointed or elected officials carried a platform that opposed apartheid in South Africa, supported human rights for the Palestinian people, and sought peaceful relations with Cuba and Central America.

I still haven’t decided whom I’m going to vote for on Saturday. But when I look at the candidate who falls into the progressive tradition of Jackson’s ’84 and ’88 campaigns, it’s Sanders. He has spent the past four years building a broad coalition. His opposition to the death penalty, support for free public education, support of human rights protection for Palestinian people, a humane health care plan such as a universal single-payer plan, economic development in the black community in a structural way—not just cannibalization and gentrification—comes out of the Rainbow Coalition/progressive tradition. Like Jesse Jackson between elections, Sanders kept organizing between 2016 and 2020. His campaign is consciously connected to a historic progressive movement—which is what frightens people.

As for the “electability” question, when anyone mentions it to me, I remind them of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton. Those who want to pin their hopes on Joe Biden’s “electability” are going to face further disappointment.

On Wednesday, I got my first anti-Bernie flyer in the mail. The heading: “Bernie Sanders wrote a law letting Vermont dump their nuclear waste on minority communities out of state” (paid for by the Big Tent Project Fund).

Sanders is closing the gap on Biden in South Carolina. The way I see the vote breaking down, older voters who go along with Representative Jim Clyburn and the Democratic Party establishment will end up voting for Biden. Those in the middle will go with Steyer. Younger voters are going to vote with Sanders because of the institutional change and structural change that he represents, given college debt and the rising cost of health care.

The day Deval Patrick dropped out the race, a New York Times reporter ambled up the street from his shuttered campaign headquarters to the front door of my business. I was standing outside with our manager when she walked with phone in hand, looking down at it, trying to decide whom to talk to, with as little eye contact as possible. She looks at my manager, who was professionally dressed, and me, grubby as I often am, and asked my manager, “Are you the owner?” To which he responded, “Yes.”

She then asked him, “How do you feel about there not being any black candidates or people of color in the race?” That’s when the manager revealed that I was actually the owner and a writer and that she should talk to me. I responded to her question by saying that “we have a majority black city and county council, but if you go around the city and county you’ll see where the resources are and aren’t distributed,” and that for me the race or gender of the politician doesn’t matter as long as they are addressing our needs. That wasn’t the answer she was looking for. After a brief tour of the restaurant and telling me she couldn’t use my quote, she continued up the street to the two HBCUs.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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