This is the second installment of “The Future of the DNC” series.
Current position: Chairman, South Carolina Democratic Party
Candidate for: Chairman of the Democratic National Committee
How did you get involved in Democratic politics?
I first started my involvement in Democratic politics I guess, when I was a sophomore in high school, so that was ’92? So the Clinton campaign was my first campaign, that I volunteered, worked on, did voter registration, and GOTV [Get Out The Vote] activity.
This was for the primary or for the general?
For the general. So it was an amazing thing for me. No one in my family had ever been involved in politics. I’d always followed politics, was always fascinated with the presidency, so it was an important year, ’92 was such an important year. You’ve got this guy Bill Clinton whose story sounded so much like my own: single mom in the rural south, young guy who didn’t have family involved in politics, but he really got involved. His story was an inspiration for me, and to have him win and become the president, and at the same time for the first time since Reconstruction, South Carolina elected an African American to Congress in Jim Clyburn. That happened that year as well. So it was a really pivotal year for me in terms of politics, and shortly thereafter I got an opportunity to meet with the congressman and the rest is history.
That’s really how I got involved in politics on the national level. I invited Jim Clyburn. During my junior year, I was the president of the National Honor Society for my high school and the regional president. I invited Jim Clyburn to come and talk to our regional conference, and he graciously said yes. He came to my high school. After the meeting, I went up to the congressman and said “I want to work in your office.” He said, “Well son, go to college first, and then we can have you come and intern.” And I never forgot that. My junior year of college, I had an opportunity to intern with him, and the rest is history.
You went to Yale, correct?
Yes. I was the first generation in my family to go to college. My mom was young when she had me, she was like 15 or 16 years old, and my grandparents helped to take care of me. They didn’t have a whole lot of education, but nonetheless they knew the importance of it. So I got into Yale University, in spite of a lot of people saying they didn’t think I had a chance, but I did. It was great, it transformed my life, and it was a wonderful time.
Most candidates running for DNC chair have said they will defer to the Unity Commission on the issue of superdelegates. What is your personal opinion: do the powers of the superdelegates need to be reformed or limited, or should the position be abolished altogether?
I definitely would love to see what the Unity Commission comes up with. My personal take is I think the superdelegates play a really important role. One: some of the superdelegates are members of Congress and governors and the like. I don’t think those people need to run against grassroots activists for spots to go to the convention. That’s part of the reason we also have superdelegates, because it gives those people an automatic entrance into the convention so that they don’t have to run against their constituents, which I think is smart in terms of politics. You want to give grassroots folks an opportunity to participate in the process.
Secondly, I believe that at the very least the chair and vice chair of our party should reflect the vote of their state, either in the primary or the caucus. So that was the thing that I pledged. I pledged in South Carolina that I wouldn’t come out one way or another in terms of endorsing one candidate, but I would endorse and support the person who ended up winning the South Carolina primary, because that just makes good sense on politics. You also don’t want to have a state party chair and vice chair do something that is different from what the vast majority of Democrats in the state decided in the primary process.
Would you be willing to amend or reform the primary calendar so that other, larger states like California or New York can have a bigger say early on in the nominating process?
I think those states have a big say in the process. Part of the unique part about the primaries that I think is really interesting, I think the candidates appreciate having smaller states up front because it gives them the opportunity to refine their message, to refine how they go out and do television. If you have California or New York very early on, that means you’re going to have to raise a whole lot of money very early on in the process because TV advertising is so important when you have states that are that large. But a state like South Carolina, five million people, it’s small enough that you can get around the state. You can go anywhere from Columbia in two and a half hours in the state, so you can hit multiple media markets, you can talk to people. It’s small enough where you can do all the pat-on-the-back type politics, and at the same time, allow the media to interact with voters in such a way. So I don’t know that we need to frontload it with the largest states, I think the way that the primary system works now is good in terms of having a mixture of smaller states that kick off the process, and then you ramp it up as you move along.
Historians talk about a president’s First Hundred Days in office. If you are elected DNC chair, what will you do in your First Hundred Days on the job, by order of importance?
One of the first things, I’m working on this now, is the organization of the party, the structure of the organization in the DNC and figuring out what that is. Organizational structure is a really good window into what your principles are, the things that you value. So we need to figure that out, and what’s really important. I believe there needs to be a section of the DNC that is geared toward protecting our democracy. What do I mean by that? Meaning fighting against voter suppression, fighting against gerrymandering, but also being proactive to come up with solutions to how we deal with issues that come from the Citizens United decision. Those are things that I think are fundamental threats to our democracy as we know it. As a party, we need to make sure that we educate voters about it, and that we take proactive steps to try to curb these things and reduce the harm that they have.
The second thing that I would like to do is, I fundamentally believe, Democrats are now in the minority in almost every aspect of government, from the state houses to governorships to attorneys general to Congress to the White House. We don’t control any of that at this point. We don’t have the majority in any of that. So therefore, it’s going to be particularly important that Democrats are all coordinated on one page as it relates to message, technique and strategy moving forward. So one of the first things that I want to do is call together the leaders from all of these various groups within the Democratic Party to make sure that we can actually coordinate on that level. That has not happened in recent history, and it’s something that has to happen when we’re going up against Donald Trump and this right wing Republican agenda.
After President Obama was re-elected four years ago, Republicans commissioned their famous autopsy. They commissioned it, they wrote the report, they published the findings, and basically ignored it and won the last election. If you were elected chairman, would you commission a similar postmortem?
We don’t need an autopsy report. We just had one that was done after the 2014 election, and if we had actually adhered to it, I think we’d be in a much better situation. That autopsy report said that we need to invest in our state parties more. If you asked me, “Is there one thing that has put Democrats in the situation that we’re in now?” I would say, “Yes. We forgot, we stopped investing in our state parties. We stopped moving forward with a 50-state strategy, or really a 57-state strategy when you count our territories and Democrats Abroad.” We have to once again invest in the infrastructure of the party, because it is the state party which is the foundation for the national party. It is the vehicle with which we get our message out. It is the way that we contact voters, that we interact with voters, and if they’re not strong, if they don’t have the resources they need, if they don’t have the training, if they don’t have the capacity, then they can’t do that fundamental step in order to connect with voters.
In rebuilding, there are two different dynamics depending on the state. There are states where national Democrats have traditionally had very little infrastructure or presence, or attempted to compete in states like your home state of South Carolina, Idaho, or North Dakota. Then you have states where Democrats do have a presence and they have had success in the past, but it’s diminished or atrophied in recent years, in places like Ohio, Missouri or Louisiana. Obviously no two states are alike, but how do you plan to rebuild given the challenges that you face?
We can’t cede any territory to the Republicans, and we’ve done that far too often. An example: take three states – New Jersey, blue state, right? Maryland, blue state. Massachusetts, blue state. What do they have in common?
Republican governors. That means that the Republican Party has said, “Yes, we see you’re blue on presidential, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to contest for seats in your legislature and in your governorship.” But Democrats, what have we done? We have a governor’s race in South Carolina, right? Don’t invest in it. We have a governor’s race in Kansas or Idaho or North Dakota, we don’t invest in it because it’s a red state, Democrats don’t win in those states. I’m one of those people who believe that if you don’t put your hat in the ring, you’re right. We’re not going to win. If you never invest in it, you’re right. We’re not going to win. We’ve got to start going on the offense and stop playing so much defense. Part of the answer is the investment in all those states across the board.
The second part is the DNC can play a really good role in terms of helping state parties build capacity. What I mean by capacity is we always hear about building a bench, and whether the Democratic Party has to build a bench. In order to build a bench, you have to have an operation or a process by which to do that. It’s not something that just happens organically. When I inherited the chairmanship of South Carolina, it wasn’t like I had this trove of people or a candidate tree and all I need to do is go to the backyard and pick a candidate off and all of the sudden they magically appear. That doesn’t happen. You have to build it. You have to train, you have to cultivate talent. First you have to find it, you have to cultivate it, you have to train it, and you have to give them the tools to be successful. So that’s what we’ve been trying to do in South Carolina. Again, it’s not a process like tomorrow you wake up and all of the sudden you have it, it’s something that you have to really build and pour resources in.
So we launched the Clyburn Fellowship about two years ago, and that fellowship was geared to a few things, not just building a bench of talent for candidates but also county party leadership. The average age of county party chairs in South Carolina when I became chair was 60-something years old. We’re slowly trying to change that, to bring young people into the party, give them a leadership role in the party, help them shape the party, so that the way that we communicate with voters is different because they the world in a different manner, But also in terms of campaign field staff. Again, we had to import talent from other states because we were not grooming our own talent in South Carolina, so we came up with the Clyburn Fellowship. Last year, we graduated 32. This year, we have a class of 48 that even includes a young man who was a Rhodes Scholar. It’s becoming the blueprint for how you go about building a bench that, when I explain it and talk to other states, they’re like “Can you send me the information?”
Well, the DNC has to become that vehicle in which we communicate that. It has to have a culture of sharing and discussion so that when states are doing something really interesting, because they really are the laboratories of democracy, when they’re doing something really interesting they feel that they can share that with folks and the DNC can be that conduit in which that information is shared, people can learn from it, and they can replicate it.
Where do you think the next generation of Democratic stars are going to come from? What will you do as chairman to find and nurture those talents as they climb the rungs of power?
They’re all over. Partly, if you look at some of our staff, they’re all superstars. Folks who are here with me this weekend, they’re all Democratic superstars with tremendous pedigree, knowledge, experience smarts, but we’ve got to give them opportunities to shine. There’s this quote that says “In the darkest night, we see the brightest stars,” and that’s really true. This is the darkest of the dark for the Democratic Party in a long time, and I think we’re going to see some of the bright stars come out, and on a national level right now there are some folks right now that I believe are superstars, but there is a lot of talent, great talent that’s in the state parties that we haven’t showcased, and as chair, I want to make sure we do that. I want to give them an opportunity.
I started a web series in South Carolina called “Chair Chats,” and part of the push for “Chair Chats” was to make sure that we showcase our local talent. We have this young mayor in Johnston, South Carolina who worked for Outkast, so he gets the hip hop stuff, but at the same time this guy is wicked smart and really good, and he’s able to work with the rural white community and the rural African American community and bridge them together to do new things in this town, in a very small rural town. We showcased him on “Chair Chats” and we’ve given him opportunities to shine in the Democratic Party. We need to do that on a national level, as well.
Democrats are really seeing the end of four eras coming to a head next week – Obama, the Clintons, Joe Biden and Harry Reid. What role do you see for them within the party now that their political careers are over?
I hope they don’t retire from helping the Democratic Party, that’s really, really important. We need all of them to go to our states, all of our states, to be ambassadors for the party. If I am chair, that’s what I’m going to ask them. I’m going to create what we call a Democratic Ambassadorship Program. Basically they are going to be the goodwill ambassadors going into our states, helping our state parties fundraise, helping us recruit folks for offices. Just think of the power of having a former President of the United States, a former Secretary of State, or a former U.S. Senator giving a candidate a call and encouraging them to run for Senate or running for the House of Representatives. That has tremendous amount of power, and being able to tap into their network to support these candidates would be tremendous. Having them come when we have training for all of these candidates that we find and that we try to groom, having them come and talk to them, tremendous things. It’s important that the Clintons and the Obamas and the Bidens don’t just step away and not do the things that are necessary to help us rebuild this party.
If elected chairman, do you foresee having to take any additional cybersecurity measures to protect the electronic infrastructure of the party?
One of the things I think we have to do, again I’m one of these people that focus on organization a lot. One of my jobs was I was COO for a non-profit and helped them build the systems and the infrastructure to grow into a more successful non-profit. That non-profit was College Summit. So I think about organizational structure and organizational behavior and culture a lot, in all aspects of the things I’ve been able to do. So thinking about the DNC and looking at the current structure, there is nobody on the senior level that is of a CTO-type level – Chief Technology Officer or Chief Innovation Officer – meaning that there is somebody who is thinking not only about “How do we keep the computers running?” but thinking about our cybersecurity and how do we keep our data secure, and not only just the proprietary data that we have on a national level, but the entities, for lack of a better word almost franchises of the DNC, the state parties, what are we doing in order to protect them as well from these attacks? Again, we can’t just be defensive.
We also have to be proactive and we have to be thinking about what are the cutting edge technologies that we need and the innovations that we need. So having somebody who can go to Silicon Valley and talk with the heads of these huge corporations and companies that are in this technology space and convene sessions and discussions about creating things that help us do our jobs better, have it be from the field side, from the communications side and how we talk to voters. The Republicans have caught up to us in terms of the technology. We no longer have the technology edge in politics that we had say, eight years ago. So we don’t have someone whose sole job it is when they get up in the morning and go to bed at night is thinking “How do we push forward on innovation in the technology space?” That’s what I want to create at the DNC.
Do you think this episode is going to change the way the party, party candidates and campaigns handle internal communications?
I think so. It has to, because listen, just because it happened we’re not going to fix this so that it never happens again, right? So I think how we communicate is going to be important. What we put in our communications are going to be very important. We definitely have to figure that out. There are a lot of people who have been, a lot of companies who have had to tackle this, so it’s not something that’s new, and I think we can get some guidance on this from folks who have had to deal with this for a long time.
If you had been DNC chair at the time, how would you and the organization have responded to the events in North Carolina where the state legislature voted to strip powers from the incoming governor and the upcoming congressional votes on repealing Obamacare?
North Carolina is our sister state, right across the border. One of the things I think we would have done, and I think it still probably needs to be done, well not now because we have a Democratic governor who is fighting to make sure, but this is when you have to flex your economic muscle as well. I know the NAACP was calling for a boycott, but it would have been great for Democrats to stand together and say, “Listen, we are not going to support these types of efforts,” so therefore there might need to be a boycott to demonstrate to the leadership in that state that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated. You cannot, we’re not going to tolerate you walking on the rights of the American people. It doesn’t matter what state you’re in, we’re not going to tolerate that. So I would have moved forward in some type of action that way, again coalescing all of our supporters and groups to push in one direction, getting everybody all on one page is also very, very important, to come up with a strategy and technique that is cohesive and that is coordinated.
As it relates to the Affordable Care Act, we are doing some things. We’ve done some really interesting things in South Carolina. We were at the forefront in terms of, this is not about the Affordable Care Act but about the Ethics Office, in terms of applying pressure to members of Congress about the changes that they made, the attempted changes to the Ethics Office. Having our grassroots activists flood the phones with calls, sit-ins and the like, all those things are important ways that we can resist. But it’s also important, and I have an understanding of Capitol Hill and how things work there, is to make sure that our members are doing everything possible in order to thwart Republican attempts to change these types of things. I think that Senate Democrats need to pull out the cots and do an old-fashioned filibuster when it comes to to some of these things that they’re trying to do. In the Senate, they act a lot with unanimous consent. The Senate doesn’t function unless you get unanimous consent to operate in some fashion. Well, maybe instead of saying “We’ll filibuster this, but we’ll continue to move the agenda forward on other things,” just shut the whole thing down. It’s worth it. Twenty million people losing their health care is worth shutting it down, because that says to me Congress is not doing what it needs to do in the best interests of the American people.
History has shown that when President Obama was on the ballot in 2008 and 2012, the Obama coalition was a winning ticket, a winning combination. But when he was not on the ballot – 2010, 2014 and 2016 – that coalition wouldn’t necessarily turn out with the same numbers and energy in the way that was so successful for President Obama. How do you go about changing that?
President Obama in 2008 also benefited from something else that you didn’t mention in that, and that was the 50-state strategy. Take a look at the 2008 race and look at 2012. There was a drop in number of voters and all that. 2012 did not look as great as 2008. Well, in 2008 we had a 50-state strategy. Every state was getting infrastructure money. Every state had capacity in order to touch voters, talk to voters, get those voters out. That was amplified by the organization that President Obama also created. But by the 2012 election, the program that we had in every state was no longer running at the same level that it was in 2008, and as a result, we didn’t get the results that we got in 2008. So it’s really, really important.
Part of the Obama coalition, part of the effort President Obama put out there was galvanizing the grassroots. Well, if your state parties can’t assist in that effort, then you’re not going to get the results that we need, so we have to go back to that 50-state strategy that is so desperate and so needed, and it’s something the Republicans have done, they really have. Reince Priebus, when he was chair of the RNC, invested in the state parties. We got to go back to doing that on the Democratic side.
If you are chosen to be the next chairman of the Democratic Party, how do you want voters and elected officials and donors to judge your performance? What would you consider to be the metrics and benchmarks for success as chairman?
We didn’t get into this situation overnight, we’re not going to get out of it overnight. But I think if we can take a look, if we can early on in this 2018 cycle build capacity and limit any losses that we have in the Senate, and push and get some gains in terms of governorships and state house seats, I think that will be a big win for Democrats going into this ’18 cycle. So making sure that we support New Jersey and Virginia in their races here in 2017 also very, very important. But we don’t have a lot of time to do that, those races are coming up in less than a year. So we need to make sure that we ramp up our capacity to be able to assist them. I think looking at, trying to perform better in the midterm elections is going to be important, but also putting in the systems to begin building a bench in our states, to changing and reforming how we go about doing our presidential primary system. I think those are the types of things that we look at in the short term, to see whether or not we’re on track, and then in 2020, which will be very, very big for us because we have to make sure that Donald Trump does not get re-elected.
Not only the presidential election, but it’s a census year, and you have redistricting shortly after.
That’s exactly right, it’s so important. The governor’s races, and the legislative races, we always like to think about Congress as the House and the Senate, but really the most important races in the ’18 cycle are doing what we can to make sure we retain our Senate seats, but we’ve got to focus on governorships, we’ve got to focus on legislatures.
You’re playing offense on that map, whereas you’re playing defense in the Senate.
Exactly. Twenty-five seats, 10 of the 25 are in Trump states.
Who do you consider to be your biggest political role models?
Jim Clyburn. I’ve learned everything, most things in politics from watching him. He is one of the true statesmen that we have in this country. That title is not one that I give freely, because they are becoming rare in politics, but he definitely is a role model because he’s not one to throw bombs, he’s not one to consume all the oxygen in the room, but he always takes a very thoughtful approach. He’s always thinking about how you bring people together. I learned from him that success for the Democratic Party is when we’re a party of addition and multiplication, rather than a party of subtraction and division. That’s really, really important in how I’ve conducted myself as chair, how I’ve conducted myself in other political capacities, and I will continue to do that.
Another person I would say is a role model and a mentor is Howard Dean. His 50-state strategy really was the framework by which I utilized when I first got into the chairmanship of the South Carolina Democratic Party. I have tremendous respect for him and what he was able to accomplish in his time as chair. If I am able to be elected chair, I will use a lot of what he did, bring that back and add to it.
But I would say right now, the two of them and of course, John Lewis was my neighbor. When we were in the House majority, my office was right next to Congressman Lewis’s, his leadership office in the Capitol. There were many times I went in, sat on his couch and talked to him, or just went in his office and stared at the pictures. He is a national treasure and a tremendous asset to our party and to the nation, so he’s somebody that I look up to.
What is the greatest success in your political career and the biggest disappointment? What lessons did you learn from both of them?
There are two things, I would say. The way I think about politics is I divide it up. Success as chair? Hands down, the Clyburn Fellowship. I think that is going to be my legacy that I leave for the Democratic Party of South Carolina, because we are going to build a whole new generation of leaders in that state, and that fellowship is going to be the foundation from which they spring forward.
When I was in the House and worked in the House Democratic leadership, we were able to accomplish a lot. It was a tremendous thing given the very diverse caucus that we had. But there is one bill that stands out in my mind as probably the most difficult thing to whip, and it was the greatest success that we had in that process. It was the first time that we took up the Matthew Shepard James Byrd hate crimes bill. As I told you, we had 233 seats in the House, so a 15-seat majority. When we were whipping that bill, we just could not get over 200 votes. For over a week, we whipped and we whipped and we whipped that bill, and there were some of our Democrats who just could not do it because they were scared of Motions to Recommit, sort of amendments that Republicans can put up in order to change the legislation. They were scared about the ads that they would hear, they were scared about the perception, how the LGBT community was seen, whether an attack ad would be produced against them for voting for this thing. We tried and we tried and we tried.
Nancy Pelosi came to Congressman Clyburn and said to him, “Jim, I want to put this bill up and I want to put it up on Thursday.” I think it was a Thursday. And he said, “Nancy, we just don’t have the votes at this time.” I told the boss, I said “Boss, I’ve tried. I can’t figure out how we get the votes.” Somebody came up, and I cannot remember to this day, I cannot remember who came up with this idea. I think it was in a staff brainstorming session. They said, “Why don’t we invite Matthew Shepard’s mom and the sheriff who found him to come to our whip meeting on Thursday morning?” Because we would have a whip meeting every Thursday morning, Clyburn would have the Southern breakfast and all the members would come. We were able to do that, I think Pelosi’s staff were able to get her on a plane and the sheriff to fly out to DC.
We were very fortunate that morning, because a lot of the members who were a “No” on that vote were actually in the audience. And the sheriff started off by explaining how he found Matthew’s body, and then his mom talked about what it meant to her, and what this legislation meant. I can tell you, it was the most amazing emotional thing I’ve ever seen in the House of Representatives. Because if members walked into that room with frost around their hearts, it all melted away. Not only did we pass it, but we had well over the 218 votes to do it. And it’s just a testament to me that you can never say anything is impossible, but you always have to try. If you can tell the story and if you make people feel it on a personal level, it has so much more power to really change the world. So, if there’s one vote that I’m most proud of from my time working on Capitol Hill, it’s that one, because I knew how hard it was to get it over the fence.
In terms of greatest failure, I don’t know. I don’t like to think to think of things as failures but as opportunities that I learned from. Yeah, there are moments in which I’m disappointed, and those disappointments happen all the time. But I don’t dwell on them very often, because I don’t think I have much time to do that. To be quite honest, I can’t think of any. There are things I wish would have happened a different way, but I’m also one of those guys that walks around the world and thinks things happen for a reason, even though I might not like them, even though they make me uncomfortable, but you got to learn from them and move forward. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Read other installments in the “Future of the DNC” series: