COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Democrats considering running for president are already taking black women voters seriously, bringing tailored messages to South Carolina. Black women, though, have one thing they’re really looking for as presidential candidates begin to drop into the state — they want candidates who will speak to them directly.
The primary here is still over a year away, but it may be especially competitive. South Carolina will be the first Southern state in the nomination process. It’s also the first state where black voters, and particularly black women, will cast a majority of Democratic primary votes. In 2016, black voters made up about 60% of the Democratic primary vote in South Carolina’s election.
“The African American community here is extremely important. We’ll probably have between 50% and 60% of the electorate in the primary who’ll be African American and the majority of that will be African American women,” Jaime Harrison, the former Democratic state party chair and Democratic National Committee vice chair, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s important on a lot of the issues that are pertinent to them — education, health care, economic opportunity, and mobility — for candidates to be talking about those issues with them.”
“I don’t like when people sugarcoat things. I want you to be honest with me,” Nikki Ramsey, an assistant director of admissions at South University, said after a roundtable with Sen. Bernie Sanders at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina on Monday. She said she feels that politicians push black women’s concerns to the side after Election Day, or don’t explicitly talk about them. “I’d appreciate that a lot more, and I know that can be harsh for some people, but I need to hear from you. If you speak to me candidly, I can make a candid decision on who I’m voting for.”
On an abnormally cold morning across the street from Zion Baptist Church, the conversation among a group of black women bundled up in Delta Sigma Theta hats and jackets quickly turned toward the 2020 presidential race and who they would and wouldn’t support as they waited for Sanders and Sen. Cory Booker to arrive for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day prayer service.
The King holiday has brought an early burst of 2020 activity in the state. Booker and Sanders, who are both considering presidential runs, shared the spotlight over the holiday weekend, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren will appear at Columbia College on Wednesday for her first trip to the state as a candidate. Sen. Kamala Harris, who announced that she’s running for president on Monday, will appear at a fundraiser for a local chapter of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, on Friday.
Both Booker and Sanders came with messages that directly targeted issues black women face, speaking bluntly about racism in America and the trouble black women can face in trying to move up economically, and explicitly pointed out racial disparities in health care and wealth.
Inside the sanctuary on Monday, Booker and Sanders were swarmed for selfies, hugs, and embraces before they took their seats in the front pew for a series of sermons and prayers centered around King’s life and what lies ahead for black South Carolinians.
“I don’t care if you’re a Democrat,” Rev. Shawn Johnson, the superintendent of a local school district, said in a fiery sermon. “I don’t care if you’re a Republican. But if you can’t do what the people need, we ought to make you unemployed. If those folks cannot champion our causes, we ought to vote them out.”
Sanders and Booker marched in front of a crowd for an MLK Day rally, chanting “ready for 2020” and “fired up, ready to go,” to the state capitol steps where they tested their messages in front of the largely black, Southern Baptist audience.
In his first trip to the state since the midterm elections, Sanders explicitly tied his message of economic populism to problems that minority communities face.
Sanders railed against President Donald Trump in his address to the crowd at the capitol, calling him a racist. “We have a president intentionally, purposefully trying to divide us up by the color of our skin, by our gender, by the country we came from, by our religion,” Sanders told the crowd before deliberately tying his economic populist message to the struggle for racial equity and King’s Poor People’s Campaign.
Speaking on Tuesday at Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia, Sanders encouraged students to get involved in the current political movement, tying it to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
“When people stand together and are prepared to fight for change, extraordinary things happen, which is, among other things, the history of the civil rights movement,” Sanders said to applause. “If there was ever a time in American history when we need to bring our people together — black, and white, and Latino, and Native American, and Asian American — to come together, to not let this president divide us up.”
Sanders’ approach resonated with black women in the audience, who are particularly ready to hear from presidential candidates who address the inequality they’re facing.
“It’s about us having the opportunities. It’s not discussed all over, but black women are more educated, but there aren’t any opportunities for us once we graduate. I want to hear them talking about the issues we’re facing and I want them to tell us how they’re going to address it,” Doloris Thomas said on the state capitol lawn.
“What I appreciated with Sanders was that he was calling a spade a spade. He identified racism as the underlying problem in our government and I appreciate that he wasn’t fearful of using that word,” said Sherryl Henry, a retired social worker from Columbia.
“He’s saying the same things from last campaign but he’s doing it in a more pronounced way now. It’s easier to speak that way here, but I want to see if it stays that way when he’s traveling across the country,” she added.
In his own remarks at Monday’s rally, Booker repeatedly exclaimed “we are dissatisfied,” rousing the crowd to shout “hallelujah! amen,” “alright now!” and “preach, Cory!” as he lamented a federal government that drops bombs instead of taking care of its poor and vulnerable, and an economy that favors the rich over the poor.
“Look around this area,” Booker said to the crowd. “We are all our ancestors’ wildest dreams. We are the physical manifestation of their sacrifice, but I tell ya right now my brothers and sisters, we are still in a nation where too many do not experience the greatness of the dream.”
“That’s right!” someone in the crowd yelled back.
“Black women in this state are particularly paying attention to what candidates are going to be saying because the stakes are so high and there are going to be so many running,” Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the longest-serving black member in the South Carolina House, told BuzzFeed News in an interview. Trump, she said, “has left a big mess that will need to be cleaned up and, as black women, we’re used to cleaning up other folks’ mess.”