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If Chosen To Be DNC Chief, Jaime Harrison Pledges To Rebuild The Party


We've been chatting on this program with some of the people who want to lead the Democratic Party back. They're running for DNC chair. We heard from Howard Dean, who once held the job, seemed to want it back, but now he's dropped out. Congressman Keith Ellison from Minnesota, an early Bernie Sanders supporter, is a front-runner. This morning, we meet Jaime Harrison. He's 40 years old, grew up poor in rural South Carolina, went to Yale, then worked as a congressional aide. He's also worked as a lobbyist in Washington and now leads the Democratic Party in the red state of South Carolina. Jaime Harrison supported Hillary Clinton, who lost, he says, because the party got complacent.

JAIME HARRISON: We got spoiled because we had the political phenom of Barack Obama. And we won in '08, and we won in '12, but we lost sight of it's not just about 1600 Pennsylvania. It's about also those folks who are working and representing people on Main Street.

GREENE: Harrison said the party really needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

HARRISON: The people who are elected on local levels have just as much impact, if not more, on the day-to-day lives of citizens. And so we can't just be focused on the White House. If we do what we have to do on a state level, then the White House is gravy. And that's the focus.

GREENE: Gravy?

HARRISON: It really is because then you have strong...

GREENE: That is making it sound pretty easy, especially after a big loss. Like, it's really just gravy?

HARRISON: Yeah, it is. And let me tell you this - look at the victories in 2006 and in 2008. Howard Dean started the 50-state strategy in 2006. I don't know if folks remember. The 2004 election was probably just as sobering of election for Democrats. We lost everything. But what happened is Howard Dean came, enacted this 50-state strategy, and we won the House and the Senate back in '06. And then based on that foundation, we grew the majorities in the House and the Senate and added the president.

GREENE: So Howard Dean has been talked about as a potential candidate for this job. Why not just throw your support behind him?

HARRISON: Well, partly because I also believe I bring a different dynamic in addition to what Governor Dean, who is a friend and a mentor and, I think, a great visionary for our party. I also bring a lot of youth and the energy and creativity. We've been doing some really extra things here in South Carolina to build our party infrastructure and our organization, from the issues conference that we have that we host every year to get activists trained to talk about and discuss policy, to the South Carolina Democrats Care initiative, where we're going back into communities, helping people address the day-to-day issues that they have. So I bring that type of mentality. And listen, frankly, if I become DNC chair at the age of 40, I'll probably half the average age of Democratic leadership in Washington, D.C.

GREENE: (Laughter) You might have some older Democrats who are hearing that and grimacing a little bit. Let me just ask you - you've also spent a good portion of your career working at the Podesta Group, a lobbying firm founded by Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta. What do you say to someone who would say, you know what? I really want something different. I don't want someone who is very close to Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman after Hillary Clinton just lost the presidential election. I want a fresh face here.

HARRISON: Yeah, well, this is the thing - John Podesta has not worked at the Podesta Group since 1990 - the 1990s.

GREENE: But it's still his organization - a lot of people with close ties to him. I mean, you're in - you're in that world.

HARRISON: Well, it's not his organization because I've never worked for John. But nonetheless, this is the thing - you know, I bring a different perspective. I will probably be the - if elected chair - probably the only person that's ever been on food stamps that's been chairman of the Democrat Party, the only chair that will have over $160,000 of student loan debt. I mean, I can relate to the story of so many in this country who started behind the start line and now are trying to become successful.

GREENE: Whose idea was this for you to run for this job?

HARRISON: It was mine. Listen, my name was mentioned a few times when Secretary Clinton was possible President-elect Clinton. And so I had a few conversations with with some of her staff about it. And then, after the election and the results, I felt that I still brought a new perspective to bear.

GREENE: Jamie Harrison, Keith Ellison, congressman from Minnesota, is seen as one of, if not, the leading candidate to be DNC chair. We've had him on the program - also a compelling life story, a lot of experience in Congress. He was a supporter of Bernie Sanders. Are you sort of the - the team-Hillary-Clinton candidate who people who supported Clinton are kind of getting behind to try and challenge Congressman Ellison?

HARRISON: I know that a lot of folks want to rehash the 2016 presidential primary, but I'm not a Clinton Democrat. I'm not an Obama Democrat. I'm not a Sanders Democrat. I'm just a Democrat, one who is raising his son in ruby-red South Carolina and wants to make sure that the opportunities that I've been able to enjoy and the opportunities that so many working people are able to enjoy are ones that persist. And I know that all of those things are in danger with Donald Trump as president.

GREENE: All right. Jamie Harrison, pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much for taking the time.

HARRISON: Thanks so much for having me.

GREENE: He is chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 27, 2016 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of the Web summary for this story stated incorrectly that Jaime Harrison was an early supporter of Hillary Clinton. In fact, he was neutral throughout the primary.

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