"I'm a different type of candidate": How Jaime Harrison plans to boot Lindsey Graham from Congress

Nathan Oullette/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images
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On Wednesday, the non-partisan Cook Political Report moved the South Carolina Senate race from "lean Republican" to "toss-up," showing that turning the state blue is well within reach — somewhat of a shock to the political world. Flipping the Senate this November is a critical part of the Democratic plan to pass comprehensive legislation in the next four years. In such a turbulent election year, with fewer than 30 days to go some Republicans who looked like they were going to cruise to re-election are no longer guaranteed a return to Washington. That includes Lindsey Graham, one of President Trump's most reliable supporters in Congress, who is facing an increasingly strong challenger bid from Jaime Harrison, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

Harrison is running neck-and-neck with Graham, a three-term senator who is quickly running out of money. He is running on a platform of meeting with everyday South Carolinians, and he claims that Graham has been absent in the state.

Mic chatted with Harrison on the phone recently about his campaign and platform positions, and here's what he had to say. (This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

Mic: You’ve said that you’re running to bring hope back to South Carolina. When do you believe that there was last hope in the state?

Harrison: Some communities have been bleak for a long time. What I’m trying to do, particularly in those communities, is give opportunity back, make sure that we’re investing in communities that no one has invested in in generations. Some of them are communities like the one I grew up in, where right now they have no access to broadband, hospitals are closing, regular medical facilities and specialists that you would anticipate aren’t in those. Fourteen of our 46 counties had no OB-GYNs.

Harrison in 2008, when he was working as an aide to South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn (right). [Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images]

There are so many disparities and barriers, but despite hardship in the the community I grew up in, I always had a little glimmer of hope that things could be better. My grandparents always felt things could be better, but as I’ve traveled across the state of South Carolina I don’t see that optimism in the minds and hearts of many of the folks that I've talked to.

Mic: How has your upbringing prepared you to be a senator?

Harrison: It’s caused me to be extremely pragmatic. It’s about making progress regardless of how small the goal is. I don’t mind who I’m working with in order to get that progress done, particularly if we are trying to help communities that have been in living in despair. You got some folks that get so caught in the partisanship that they lose sense of what the goal is, which is to improve communities that they represent. When I get to Washington, D.C., I’m going to work with anybody that wants to help me help my state — it can be the most conservative Republican, it can be the most liberal Democrat, it doesn’t matter, as long as we can make progress.

I also think, growing up the way I did, it gives me a little more color on some of the more pressing issues in communities of color and in communities in economic despair. [Ed. note: Harrison was raised by his grandparents after being born to a single mom in a poor town in South Carolina.] If we’re in the Senate and we're discussing the food stamp program, public housing, or student loan reform, I don’t need to read a book or interview 10 people in order to get a good grasp of it. I’ve lived that. I know what it’s like right now when these families are in such great despair because of the coronavirus crisis — having family members long-term unemployed, on the verge of eviction from their homes, food insecurity issues increasing — I know every bit of that. I know how stressful it can be on an entire family, including the children, because I experienced that as a child.

I know what it’s like to have a family member lose their job. I know what it’s like to lose your home. I know what it’s like to not know where your next meal is coming from.

When Lindsey Graham said "over our dead bodies will we allow a federal extension of the unemployment benefit," I’m not unemployed but I felt every minute of it. I felt every bit of that because I know what it’s like to have a family member lose their job. I know what it’s like to lose your home. I know what it’s like to not know where your next meal is coming from. And what we need is a senator who is going to work for us and fight for us, not somebody who is gonna fight against us.

Mic: South Carolinians haven’t elected a Democratic senator since 1998. What makes this year different?

Harrison: Well I’m a different type of candidate. We’ve never had a campaign like this by a Democrat or a Republican. We have 13-14,000 people who have signed up to volunteer, and for a state this size, that’s amazing. The fundraising that we’ve done is just unprecedented here in South Carolina, and we’ve done it not because we’re getting these huge PAC dollars and corporations like Lindsey Graham, it’s coming from small dollars in all 46 counties. [Ed. note: The PAC, Lindsey Must Go, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to oust Graham, but Harrison has not taken donations directly from them.]

Sometimes history is a good indicator, but sometimes there are things that happen that are actually making history instead of being dictated by what history is. People are hungry for change, they are hungry for hope, they are tired of the division, and they are tired of the chaos. They want someone to be honest with them, they want someone who will work for them, and I just happen to be the lucky guy to fit that mold.

Mic: You favor creating an environmental justice fund. How does that differ from the Green New Deal and why do you prefer it?

Harrison: I think we have some major environmental issues. Here in South Carolina, we got about 40 communities that have lead levels higher than the federal standards, and 20% of our septic systems are toxic. It’s about making sure that we have a partnership with the federal government and we're working with private sectors to identify some of the challenges in many of these communities and figuring out how we address it.

You think of the two legacies that we need to make sure that we don’t leave our kids: It is an environment that is destroyed, and it is a debt that they can't dig out of.

There’s such an urgency in addressing our climate issues here, and that’s why I’m so laser-focused on off-shore drilling that we need to make the ban permanent. I'm also concerned about the economic impacts. When you think about South Carolina, our No. 1 issue is tourism. Just in 2018, I think it was $24 billion that was brought into the state because of tourism; 1 in 10 jobs is tied to tourism.

Whatever we do, we need to make sure that we are doing it in such a fashion that doesn’t add to another crisis, which is a debt that we are quickly adding up. You think of the two legacies that we need to make sure that we don’t leave our kids: It is an environment that is destroyed, and it is a debt that they can't dig out of. It is not in our nation’s interest to be indebted to China or other foreign nations for forever — it’s a national security issue in essence. Part of my fear on the Green New Deal is the sheer cost.

Mic: So would you vote for the Green New Deal?

Harrison: At this point, because of the cost, no, I couldn’t do that. I fully believe that we have to dramatically reduce carbon emissions in this country, and we have to do it way before 2050, and so there's agreement there. I think the big disagreement are in the cost areas. We've got to find ways to do this in a fashion that doesn’t create another disaster, which is an economic disaster, in this country. [Ed. note: Harrison's own climate proposal, for an Environmental Justice Fund, calls to "reinvest in sustainable infrastructure in the hardest-hit communities as well as increased support for Superfund clean-up."]

Mic: You advocate for treating the sale and regulation of marijuana the same as alcohol. Would you expunge records for those incarcerated for marijuana-related charges?

Harrison: I think it’s a fundamental change. If we move to legalization and commercialization you don’t want to allow a lot of folks who did this prior to linger in jail for many more years. I think it’s a fairness issue. It would be good to have those individuals back with their families and becoming productive taxpaying citizens in our country. Part of criminal justice is about rehabilitation and giving people an opportunity to restart their lives. If we do move to a point of legalization, then that just has to be a component of it.

My family has even been impacted by this. I think a lot of families have been touched by our criminal justice system, and I think it’s something that we all should revisit. It’s good to see Republicans and Democrats come together on this.

Harrison waves to the crowd during the King Day celebration at the Dome March and rally on Jan. 20, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. [Sean Rayford/Getty Images News/Getty Images]

Mic: Of the proposals currently on Capitol Hill, what racial justice measures would you support and how would you advocate for their passage if elected?

Harrison: I applaud [South Carolina Republican] Sen. [Tim] Scott for his leadership on this issue in the Senate, as well as Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. I think the Senate needs to engage in some regular order here. I think Sen. Graham — instead of having press conferences and getting in front of the camera — should actually convene a hearing and allow this issue to be discussed and debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee. [Ed. note: Harris and Booker have cosponsored a bill that would convene a committee to discuss possible reparations for the Black community. Scott has called reparations a "non-starter," but two years ago proposed a bill that would classify lynching as a hate crime, and this year proposed a police reform bill. According to his website, Harrison wants an end to "qualified immunity, private prisons, and the cash bail system."]

This issue requires, because of the gravity of the situation, that type of diligence and thoughtful deliberation, instead of the quick, "Let’s try to rush something." Right now, this impacts the lives of people in the state of South Carolina and people all across the country. Let's be thoughtful about how we do this thing so that we do it right and we don't have to revisit this. I don’t want my sons 40 years from now to be talking about the same issue that we are dealing with right now.