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Black South Carolina Dems propelled Biden to the top. They haven't seen him since.

Tadean Page says getting real voter engagement from Democrats means more than just showing up for rallies and photo ops. It means proving that the administration has a stake in a state that some feel only matters to progressives when it's primary time.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
Tadean Page says getting real voter engagement from Democrats means more than just showing up for rallies and photo ops. It means proving that the administration has a stake in a state that some feel only matters to progressives when it's primary time.

Before he was even in consideration to be vice president, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware talked about how much he likes South Carolina.

"I may be from a state north of here, but I love South Carolina,” he said in 2006, while teasing a 2008 presidential run. A decade and a half later, Biden repeatedly vocalized that love on a new presidential campaign trail that got him where his 2008 self couldn’t quite get.

The difference in 2020 wasn’t about Biden professing his love for the Palmetto State, however. The difference was this sentence: “South Carolina should be voting for Joe Biden.”

That sentence came from U.S. Rep Jim Clyburn (D-6th), House majority whip, elder Democratic party statesman, and arguably the most influential Democrat officeholder in the South. With Clyburn’s endorsement, South Carolina’s Democrats – led by powerful unity in the African-American community – threw their full-throated support behind Biden.

Biden walked out of South Carolina’s 2020 Democratic primary with a 30-point victory, so far ahead of the dwindling, but still-crowded pack that some of his most serious contenders for the party nomination quit the race within days.

In the two-and-a-half years since, President Joe Biden has vacationed in-person in South Carolina – this past summer on Kiawah Island – and virtually visited electric bus and battery manufacturer Proterra’s Greenville plant. But he hasn’t been back otherwise.

That’s something some African-American supporters have noticed.

“Not that he owes us, but he owes us,” says Martin Jackson, a voter from Rock Hill. Jackson supported Biden in 2020 and still thinks the president is doing a good job, but he’s frustrated that after coming by to campaign for votes in 2020, Biden “forgot about us.”

Jackson would like to see Biden drop in for a commencement speech at a college in this state (similar to September’s speech to South Carolina State University by Vice President Kamala Harris), or maybe pay a visit to the kingmaker, Jim Clyburn, himself – something, Jackson says, that would show South Carolina that the president loves this place when it’s not time to stump for votes too.

For fellow Rock Hill resident and Biden supporter Lonnie Harvey, Biden showing up “somewhere” in the state from time to time could mean a needed boost in lower-level races. Harvey says the real power lies in state and local elections, and that an occasional visit from Biden to reconnect with a major support base like South Carolina’s Black voters could energize fence-sitters and wait-and-sees to get more involved in elections ranging from governor to school board.

Tadean page, however, doesn’t care about just seeing the president’s face.

“[That] means nothing if we're not having a conversation about moving things forward,” Page says.

Page, who is intimately connected to Rock Hill’s efforts to revitalize its South Side in such a way as to preserve its (rare example of) Black generational housing wealth, says that he would welcome a meaningful conversation with the Biden administration about how the federal infrastructure bill trickles down to projects like the South Side redevelopment.

But public rallies – which he calls “sermons” meant to rile up the troops – will never go so far as the administration showing it has a real stake here long after elections are over, he says.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that Black voters who supported Biden in 2020 are still largely behind him. Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop Poll at Winthrop University, says that as of August, 74 percent of Democrats in the former Confederate states think Biden is doing a good job, and 75 percent of African-American Democrats think so.

Lonnie Harvey says, “I think he has the back of people who are in need the most.”

Martin Jackson says that the administration’s achievements, from infrastructure to – and especially – student loan relief are helping African-Americans all over the country.

“To think that I might have $20,000 canceled off of my student debt is a freedom that is so needed for a lot of people,” Jackson says. “Especially black people.”

Other supporters, like Dawn Johnson of Rock Hill, say Biden is “sincere in his desire to have the needs of the African-American community at the forefront.”

Seberina Myles of Rock Hill also thinks Biden is doing a good job, especially amid what she calls the “bad marriage” the U.S. Congress seems to be in lately.

James Thompson supports Biden too, even seeing him as “grandfatherly. I just knew my grandfather had my back” Thompson says. He believes Biden has the backs of African-Americans, but he also knows that the president is “just one man” against a sea of opposition looking for any reason to render him ineffective.

Kaala Maple, who used to work for Rep. Clyburn, also thinks Biden “is holding up his end of the bargain,” but that African-American Democrats in South Carolina aren’t aware enough of what’s working for them.

“I think the problem,” Maple says, “especially going into these midterm elections, is [that] Democrats aren't explaining well what they are doing. If I'm someone who's not as politically engaged, but I am a voter, I would only know what's going on if I just happen to turn to the news. I'm saying … let's get people involved every week; inform people of what's going on.”

But with the midterms already here, Maple fears it’s too late to motivate voters who might feel left aside, or that their votes don’t matter in a red state like this one.

“If people don't understand what you're doing to help them, then it kind of affects your poll ratings and your turnout for election,” she says – something she finds dangerous when wafer-thin control of a divided Congress is on the line.

“I'm just very worried,” she says. “I will be watching election night with my heart beating fast.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.