Saturday night, on the eve of the DNC debate, Democratic Party leaders from all levels of government gathered in Charleston, S.C. for the annual First in the South Dinner, followed by Congressman Jim Clyburn’s famed fish fry rally. Presidential candidates Sec. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Gov. Martin O’Malley and Dr. Willie Wilson spoke to the crowds about their key policy points and the need to turn South Carolina blue again. As the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary draw near, Sanders has been closing his gap with Clinton in the polls. The event also included speeches from South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, members of South Carolina’s Senate and House delegation, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and former Speaker of the House (and current Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi.
Yes, There is a Fourth Candidate
Little known candidate Dr. Willie Wilson was first to take the stage. An entrepreneur and freshly minted politician, Wilson is not even showing up in most polls. However, he did express ideas similar to those of his fellow candidates. “I believe all student loan debt should be forgiven,” Wilson declared. “We must have free education.” Wilson also stated his refusal to take money from big corporations, his staunch support of human rights and his desire to “make sure the economic part of America reflects people of color.” Surprisingly, given the Democratic context, Wilson stated that he believes marriage to be between a man and a woman.
Gov. Martin O’Malley
Next up was Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland. O’Malley, who is polling third, whipped the crowd up with his fiery enthusiasm. He threw aside his blazer and rolled up his sleeves mid speech. O’Malley began by asserting “Mine is not a story of Democratic conversion. It’s a story of Democratic upbringing. I am a lifelong Democrat.” Although he admitted that it’s easy to be discouraged these days, O’Malley encouraged Democrats to talk to young people. “We are standing on the threshold of a new era of American progress,” said O’Malley, and the views of people “under 30” on a range of issues are indicative of a bright future. O’Malley focused on South Carolina for a moment, saying he was “all for putting the Confederate flag in a museum. But Gov. Haley, that shouldn’t cost $5 million.” He urged Haley to reallocate money toward the state’s real needs. “I’ve come here not to praise you,” he said, “but to challenge you.”
O’Malley pointed to his experiences as Governor of Maryland and as the Mayor of a Baltimore on the brink of collapse. He touted his achievements in education, addiction and criminal justice reform. “Injustice does not solve itself. We solve it.” O’Malley also spoke of his efforts on gun control and his repeal of the death penalty in Maryland. “It’s about actions, not words,” he said. O’Malley next turned to his Republican rivals. He condemned them for “openly promis[ing] to take us backwards.” O’Malley targeted the two front runners of the GOP race, joking “I’d like to say Donald Trump is the most outrageous and unqualified person to run for President. But that’s not fair to Ted Cruz, is it?” He also called out Trump for his “fascist” ideas and divisive attitude. He’s running “for President of the Divided States of America, I’m running for President of the United States of American,” he stated.
O’Malley’s policy proposals included a $15 minimum wage, equal pay legislation and a strategy to cut gun deaths in half over the next ten years. “One American life is worth more than all the gun sales in America,” he shouted. He also called for more investment in clean energy. “Climate change is the greatest opportunity” in decades, he said, and expressed his faith in American ingenuity to solve the crisis. He also mentioned the need for immigration reform. “The image of the United States isn’t a barbed wire fence,” he declared, “it’s the Statue of Liberty. O’Malley did not seem discouraged by his third place stature at all. “I’ve always been drawn to the tough fight,” he reassured the audience.
Sen. Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was next to take the podium. Sanders has taken some establishment Democrats by surprise, closing Clinton’s lead down to a virtual tie in some states. His Democratic Socialist policies are giving the heavy favorite a run for her money. “We live in a very cynical time,” Sanders began. He spoke about the Americans who have turned their back on the political process and praised active Democrats as “patriotic.” Under a Sanders administration, he promised, Democratic parties in all states, even the South, will get the resources they need to become strong and active again.
Sanders lamented the “crisis in primary health care” that persists even after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. He called for a “Medicare for all, single payer program.” He praised Congress and Senate Democrats for working to end “the obscenity of preexisting condition” costs in the insurance market. “Healthcare should be a right, not a privilege.” Sanders too was not hesitant to call out Republicans. He called them “cowardly” for attempting to suppress the vote in minority communities. “If you don’t have the guts to participate in a free and fair election,” he thundered, “get another job.”
Sanders spent a lot of time on criminal justice reform and the rights and rehabilitation of convicts. “If you’re 18 or older and a citizen, you can vote. End of discussion.” Sanders pointed out the connection between a broken criminal justice system and race. He described the March on Washington, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as one of the “defining moments of my life.” He stressed the need not just to honor King but to “fulfill his dream.” How is it, Sanders asked, that a young kid caught with marijuana gets a criminal record while the heads of reckless banks can make billion dollar settlements and walk away with no record? “If current trends continue,” Sanders warned, “one fourth of African American males born today can expect to spend time in prison.” Sanders also addressed the factor of police brutality. He pointed to the “seemingly endless stream of tragedies” as evidence of a system with no accountability. “The vast majority” of police are “trying to do the right thing,” said Sanders, but those who break the law must be held accountable.
Sanders next turned to what may be his most well-known crusade; income inequality. For 40 years, under both Democrats and Republicans, the middle class has been shrinking, he said. He called the fact that 58 percent of new income is going to the top 1percent of the population “beyond grotesque.” Sanders called for a $15 minimum wage, free public college tuition, paid family leave and a tax hike for big companies. Wall Street crawled to the middle class for a bailout, said Sanders, and now it’s time for them “to pay their fair share of taxes.” Although some have called Sanders’ policies unattainable or extreme, he did not seem concerned. “When we put our minds to it,” said Sanders, “there is nothing we cannot accomplish. Join the political revolution.”
Sec. Hillary Clinton
The final speaker of the evening was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton took the stage amidst the first standing ovation of the night. “A strong South makes a stronger America,” said Clinton. She agreed that she could “say Amen” to many of the points made by the previous candidates. Clinton stressed that people who vote Republican “often vote against their own interests.” Democrats must do a better job, she said, of making their case to the voters; particularly in the South. “A Democrat resurgence” is coming, she declared. She spent some time addressing the attacks made by Republicans, particularly in Thursday’s debate. Although the debate felt like “a reality TV show,” its characters have “no connection to reality.” Clinton decried their use of “mean spirited, insulting, derogatory language.” She also criticized the Republican’s comments about President Obama. She explained how often she hears Republicans talking “in coded racial language” that has no place in public discourse. She said that her name is often linked to the President’s, and “I consider that a compliment.”
Clinton put heavy emphasis on defending progress that has already been made under Obama. She praised the Affordable Care Act and the economic growth that’s occurred since 2008. “Our economy does better when we have a Democrat in the White House,” Clinton claimed. However, she also saw the need for more work. “Something is broken,” she said in reference to the criminal justice system and its effect on African American communities. “We need to end the era of mass incarceration.” She called for replacing the school to prison pipeline with a “cradle to college pipeline.” With her hand pressed to her heart, Clinton spoke about the investment and development that is needed in so many communities of color. “We have places that are so desperate,” she said. Clinton called the epidemic of gun violence “a rebuke to our nation” and reiterated her support of comprehensive background checks and more gun-industry accountability. Clinton became emotional when recalling the day of the Charleston shooting, a day when she was just miles away addressing the students at Trident Technical College. “We can’t let the killings go on.”
Clinton ended by reminding listeners of her years of experience in Washington. I “get things done,” she assured voters. She spoke of her granddaughter and said “you shouldn’t have to be the grandchild of a former President to share in” the opportunity of America. Clinton hinted that she is very aware of Sanders’ momentum and declared “I won’t let anyone outwork me.”
What Did South Carolinians Think?
After the dinner, the candidates and the guests all relocated to the Charleston Visitors Center downtown for Congressman James Clyburn’s annual fish fry rally. CisternYard News spoke to some of the attendees to hear their opinions on the candidates. Chris Covert, a Bernie Sanders campaign official, said he thought Sanders’ speech was “absolutely outstanding.” He was “strong on the issues” and related his message to the needs of South Carolinians. Covert identified those needs as “income inequality” and the $15 minimum wage. Covert also said “we need real racial justice reform here” and Sanders is the candidate to do it. Janet Earl Whims from upstate South Carolina was most excited to see Hillary Clinton. “Hillary, to me, she knows what’s going on in Washington. Whether it’s on the negative or the positive side.” She saw Clinton as the most qualified one to fill the position of President. John Chapman of Mount Pleasant, S.C. said he gravitated toward Bernie Sanders because he is someone who can be trusted. “I believe his message is consistent, it’s clear,” said Chapman. He praised Sanders ideas for the young, civil rights and people who lack health insurance. “When you hear him talk, if you’ve ever been to a rally, you believe what he says.”
This article was coauthored by Justine Hall.