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College of Social Work

Episode 3: A Conversation with Jaime Harrison

*The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not represent the College of Social Work or the University of South Carolina.* 

Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kirk Foster talks with Democratic National Committee Chairman and South Carolina native Jaime Harrison. The topics discussed include voter suppression, civic engagement and what it means to be a part of the American democracy.  


Kirk Foster: You're about to listen to a spirited conversation I had with the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, Jaime Harrison. We cover topics ranging from voter suppression to civic engagement and everything in between about what it means to be a part of the American democracy. Chairman Harrison is passionate about mobilizing younger generations to get involved, and I hope you get inspired. Enjoy the episode.

Well, just as an FYI, we're recording this via Zoom and our staff here at the College of Social Work will strip out the video, so we'll just have this in traditional podcast form.

Jaime Harrison: Okay.

Kirk Foster: We're budgeted for 20 minutes today, and so not terribly long, different from some of the podcasts I listen to, which tend to be 40 minutes, an hour and a half. So, if you're ready to go, I'm ready to go.

Jaime Harrison: Sounds good. Let's do it.

Kirk Foster: Great, great. Chairman Harrison, welcome to Fostering a Difference. First, I want to thank you for taking a chance on this new podcast and for joining us here to have this conversation. 

Jaime Harrison: Well thanks so much for having me, Professor Foster. I really appreciate it, and I'm looking forward to the conversation. 

Kirk Foster: I am one who loves stories, and we learn from other people's stories and hearing their life journeys, and that's why we're here today. I'm anxious to hear your story.

Part of my story that I want to share with you is my sheer love of politics. I am a political junkie, and I get this honestly. My parents have long been involved in local, county and state politics in Illinois. You ask my dad to show you his Democratic Party card, and he will gladly take it out of his wallet. I keep a photo on my desk, and I think you'll appreciate this: I keep a photo on my desk that was taken in 1977 of my brother and me behind Mel Price's desk in his D.C. office when Mel was the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. My brothers hunched over with a pen in his hand, looking as if he's signing something very important, and I'm just kind of staring off into the camera. And I think I've watched probably almost every presidential debate and vice-presidential debate since 1980, and in all transparency, I was only eight at the time. I consumed polls, all the polls and we know that polls have been wonky in the past few years. But I consumed them the way my four-year old granddaughter consumes Hershey's Kisses, right? You know, spuriously. 

Kirk Foster: So that's a little bit of my story, and I am excited that you are here to have this conversation with us, so let's jump right into it if you're ready to do that. 

Jaime Harrison: Yeah.

Kirk Foster: So, what do you say to kids in the small towns across this country, much like Orangeburg, South Carolina, where you grew up, or in Southern Illinois, where I grew up, who don't see government ensuring that they have a path that leads them to their American dream? What do you say to those kids?

Jaime Harrison: Well, those are the kids that I fight for each and every day. When I think back to my story and how I got involved in politics, I got involved because I saw that there were some folks who had backgrounds similar to my own, who grew up poor, grew up in a single parent family, grew up in communities that didn't have much - rural areas. People like Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, and I saw that they were able to rise to the top of American politics, despite things that greater society would say were black marks against them. Right? And not only were they able to rise up, but when they rose up, they were actually able to do things to help people who were living in situations similar to their own. And I saw politics as a gateway to transform the nation and to provide opportunity for the least of these in our society. 

And that's one of the reasons why I got involved, that's one of the reasons why I decided that I wanted to go to get involved in politics. Because at the end of the day, I thought that it was a mechanism by which to make a difference; to improve the lives of folks, to give people a chance to live their American dreams. So, one of the things I tell young people is that you can't look at politics as something that is just etched in stone that they can't change. And you can't just be an observer of politics, you have to roll up your sleeves and get involved. You can't sit back. Congressman (James) Clyburn, in one of his first TV ads, I think it was the first TV ad when he was running for congress, he told the story of traveling along a dirt road in South Carolina with his father and there was an old tree limb that fell and it was blocking the road and the congressman looked over to his dad and said: ‘You know someone needs to go and remove that tree limb before someone hits it.’ And his dad stopped the car and said, ‘Well son, aren't you somebody?’ And they went back, and he went with his dad, lifted the limb off the road, and moved it. That's what politics are, it's all about what we are willing to do in order to make the change that we know needs to be made. 

And so the reason why I ran for the U.S. Senate is because I was sitting next to my wife and talking about how we really needed somebody to represent us in the Senate. And I've been recruiting candidates for years. And she looked at me and said, ‘Well, why don't you do it?’ And for me, it never dawned that I should think about it. Yeah, I thought about running for office but never thought about running for the Senate. At least I hadn't thought about running against Lindsey Graham in 2024. This man was the chair of the Senate judiciary committee. You know, he had run for president, senior senator for the state of South Carolina. I'm a little boy from Orangeburg, South Carolina. 

Jaime Harrison: So, in the end, my wife was right: ‘Why not? You have the things you believe in, and if you don't stand up for things you believe in, why do you think somebody else is going to?’ And so, I tell young folks who are sitting on the sidelines saying, ‘Well, I wonder why people won't do this.’ Then, aren't you somebody? What are you going to do to enact the change that needs to happen in this community, in this society, in general, and in this country overall? So, this is something we all have to be engaged in.

Kirk Foster: So, is that what you say to them then? Why not? Why not do this?

Jaime Harrison: Yes... It's part of the reason why I wrote my book a few years ago, it's called Climbing a Hill: How to Build a Career in Politics and Make a Difference. It's about making sure that we all are participating in this democracy and we're doing all that we can to make a difference. That we're not sitting by idly waiting for somebody else to do something for us. But that we're a roll up our sleeves and do what we know needs to be done in order to change the world for the better. 

Kirk Foster: And a lot of people would argue that the systems in American are designed to privilege the privileged. And when a lot of kids in places like where I grew up and where you grew up don't see themselves represented in the governmental system, in places where people are making decisions that are affecting their lives at the local level, how are they to go from being an observer of politics to being the one to get out of the car and pick up the branch and get it out of the road?

Jaime Harrison: Yeah, that's part of why I decided to run. Nobody in my family was ever involved in politics. My mom had dropped out of school when she was 16 in order to take care of me. My grandparents who raised me - my grandfather had a fourth-grade education; he paved roads. My grandmother had an eighth-grade education; she picked cotton. Right? So, none of them had a very formal education, none of them were interested in politics. 

But I remember sitting in 1988 watching the Democratic Convention with my grandfather. And Jesse Jackson gets up and starts to speak. Here's a man - a Black man from South Carolina, raised by a single parent household, grandparents. And there was so much in his life that was very similar. And in his speech, he was talking about young people standing up and having hope that things are going to be better and working to make things better. And that inspired me. 

And then you fast forward four years later and you've got Bill Clinton. A man who grew up in Hope, Arkansas, so much of his life was so similar to my own. And eventually he went on and he went to Georgetown (University), and he went to Yale. And I did it in reverse. I went to Yale and then Georgetown. And then I remember that picture of him meeting President Kennedy when he was in Boys State. I was in Boys State. I remember him speaking at the convention, and just inspiring me, yes, even a kid in rural South Carolina. He grew up in rural Arkansas; he ended up getting involved in politics and making a difference in the lives of people. 

Jaime Harrison: And so, for those young folks, I want them to note that the thing that is great about America. Yes, our system is one that has a lot of challenges, and there are a lot of barriers. I'm not saying that it's easy. But what's great about America is that those stories are uniquely American. I've gone to other democracies; I've gone to other nations, and I remember one of the first times when I was a young staffer on Capitol Hill, and I was running the whip operation (assistants to the floor leaders) for Jim Clyburn. I went to Australia on a delegation trip, and I was meeting with my counterparts there. And they were quizzing me about, ‘Are you sure you're not from a well-off family?’ ‘Well no, no I'm not.’ ‘Are you sure that you didn't have a family member involved in politics?’ ‘No family members involved in politics, no.’ And it was like, ‘Wow, that would rarely ever happen here in this country.

Australia's one of the rare democracies on this globe, but my story is not a unique story in this country because there are so many people who are just like me - who have grown up to do amazing and great things despite slim upbringings. That's what makes America great. But what we have to do is make sure that those opportunities still persist for generations to come. And that's why the work that I do is so important to me because I want to make sure that that ladder that was let down to me from folks like Jim Clyburn and Bill Clinton and others is not pulled up for the future generations to come. That's why we have to continue this work, that's why it's important for these young people to feel as though they have the power to shape society in the manner that it needs to be shaped. They don't have to just be casual observers to this process. 

When you look at change in this country, and I say this to young people all the time, every major change in this nation has happened because of young people. Even from the inception of the nation itself. Thomas Jefferson was in his twenties when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. You look at the Civil Rights Movement. It was driven by high schoolers and young college kids who stepped up and said, ‘Enough is enough. We don't want to live in a world like this anymore.’ And so again, for young people, I want them to understand the power that they have to transform this country into something that they want to live in, that they want to bring their kids up in. And so, that's very important to me, that empowerment, that sense that you have the power to shape and change. It's critical. 

Kirk Foster: And I have two nephews, one in his late twenties and one in his early thirties, and when I talk to them about these kinds of issues, it's not as if they're totally apathetic. And I hear this from other young adults that I work with. It's that they are frustrated with a system; that they see is entrenched in ideology and they get frustrated with the system where the actors fail to compromise or have a general unwillingness to compromise. How do we help young adults, or young people in general, overcome that or work to change that part of the system too? Because what I've seen from young adults is that is a barrier for them becoming engaged in the process, they just get frustrated and say, ‘Well, we don't get anything done.’ 

Jaime Harrison: You know, listen. I grew up in a very Christian household, and there's a parable from the Bible – ‘Faith without works is dead.’ Works is the action that we all have to take. We can't just hope that things get better, right? Just hoping that things get better or hoping somebody does something, in the end, things don't change because of that. You have to put in the work; you have to put in the action. Young people have the power - this is a thing I also tell young people. I tell them, What's the largest demographic block, voting bloc, in this country? It's not older Americans; it's not middle-aged Americans; it's young Americans. You have the largest block. If you get registered, if you mobilize and change, you have the power to change in and of yourself. 

So, we can't just sit back and say, ‘Oh, I wish somebody would do…’ No - you need to move the branch. Move it out of the branch, you've got the power, you've got the numbers to do just that. Don't sit by on the sidelines and say, ‘I wish somebody else would do it - you do it.’ Step up and do it because it can be done. There are people right now who know that young people won't do anything and so they are fine, and they are content to continue the policies and the practices that keep them entrenched in power.

Kirk Foster: And one of the ways they can do that is going to the ballot box. 

Jaime Harrison: As I tell people all the time here in South Carolina our motto is, While I breathe, I hope. And I tell folks, I want to change that motto because it's not. Yes, that's great. But in order to bring hope, there's only one other thing that I know that really can bring hope to communities, and that's when we go to the ballot box, and we vote. 

So, for me my motto is, While I breathe, I vote, because that is how we bring hope to the communities that is so important for them to have. And so we got the power to change the society the way that we want, and we only need to go. That is the great equalizer because my vote is worth as much as the vote from President Biden. Take the most powerful person on this globe. We have the same power; we have one vote. Donald Trump - one vote. Bill Gates - one vote. Right? It is the great equalizer, and the problem we have is that people give up that power by not exercising it. 

Kirk Foster: Would you argue that all people have equal access to the ballot box?

Jaime Harrison: No, and that's the problem. There are a lot of barriers, and we see it right now in the Republican Party. And this is one of the things, excuse my language, that just p***** me off.

Kirk Foster: Yeah, me too.

Jaime Harrison: I think our right to vote, of all of the great rights that we have as Americans, our right to vote is the most sacred right that we have. It is the foundational right on which all other rights are built upon, and when that is chipped away and that is encumbered because of all these rules and regulations, not to make voting easier, not to open it up, but to make it much more difficult because there is a certain group who wants to keep power. It's absolutely shameful. 

I remember; I think this was in 2004 or 2005. It was during the second Iraq War. And we sent our sons and daughters overseas to liberate Iraq. And you remember when they were all voting for the first time, they were dipping their fingers in purple ink and the Republicans run to the floor to give their special one-minute remarks, ‘But look at what we were able to do. For the first time, these Iraqis can vote in their nation.’ And they're all celebrating, and that's something to celebrate. But all the while here in America, what were they doing: Putting up barriers and obstacles to prohibit Americans from exercising their most sacred right. And that's fundamentally wrong. 

At the end of the day, I want 100% participation in our vote because I am confident in my side being able to make the case as to why we should be elected. But that's not the mentality on the other side of the aisle because they are hellbent on going back to an era where we have been before, where we cannot go back again. My grandparents didn't always have the opportunity to vote here in South Carolina. My grandfather told me he wasn't always considered a whole man in this state. So why in the world would I want my sons to grow up in a state that is going back to that era? It's not going to happen. We're going to do everything that we can to fight back against that because we are not going back. 

Kirk Foster: Post 2020 election, we've seen the rise of, and this is just one example, the rise of new voter ID laws in states such as Georgia and Florida. What's the takeaway here? What are we supposed to make of this renewed effort that's been explained away as, well we saw some new issues arise during the pandemic that tells us we need to strengthen our system?

Jaime Harrison: That's bull cr***.

Kirk Foster: So, what's our takeaway?

Jaime Harrison: The takeaway is that they lost an election and now they're trying to find ways to ensure that they win the future ones. They're playing politics right now with people's rights. All the time they love to talk about the Second Amendment and how sacred that is, right? It's a bunch of hypocrites on the other side. Listen, I've got a lot of Republican friends, but you got to call it like it is. There's so much hypocrisy right now - the lie after lie after lie.

They say it's about election integrity; that's bull. It's not about election integrity. We saw that there was no fraud that was done during this election. Courts, after courts, after courts said it. Even Republican secretaries of state that have said it. Yet they continue the big lie. They're even lying about whether or not there was an insurrection on January 6; not like we didn't see the people crawling all over the Capitol breaking windows, hanging nooses, asking for the vice president and the speaker of the house. And then you get the Republican congressman who was barricading himself in the House Chamber, go to a hearing and say, ‘well you know, it was just like a normal day on Capitol Hill." Do you barricade yourself in the House Chamber every d*** day? It's ridiculous. It's absolutely ridiculous that they think they can tell these lies and the American people won't care about it. 

And so, we just have to continue to call it out for what it is and battle back. And at the end of the day, these people don't deserve to be in power because they don't know what to do with it. Because it's only concentrated on them and what they get out of it. Instead of doing what you're supposed to do with power, which is help the people, the least of these in our society, make sure that everybody else can live the American dream. That's what you're sent to Washington D.C. to do. 

Kirk Foster: I will tell you that I've been on Capitol Hill a lot in my life. Starting with the first trip in 1977, and I never saw anything like what I saw on January 6. Part of my aim with this podcast is to give folks tools to use to make a difference in their own corner of the world, either locally, within their immediate family, their community, or even on a larger scale. How does a concerned citizen ensure that all folks have equal access to the ballot box? I mean we're talking about voting rights; we're talking about the very foundation of democracy. 

Jaime Harrison: One of the things that's going to be really important is that you have to keep your representatives honest. And I don't care if they're Democrats or Republicans, independents or whoever. You have to let them know that they work for you. Not the other way around because these politicians believe that they can draw the districts that they want, they can choose the voters that they want, they believe that they're all powerful. And the analogy that I love to say is that these politicians believe that they are the sun. But in actuality; they're just the moon. Because the power of the moon only reflects the power that it gets from the sun. The sun is the American people; the people in these districts, the citizens of these countries, they have the power. Representatives are only reflecting that light. 

And so, we got to pop this bubble and dispel this myth in their heads that these people are the most powerful people walking the face of the Earth. No. Because at the end of the day when the American people get fed up, they can bring you home. And it's far time for us to start exercising the power that we get. Don't be just an observer that I mentioned earlier, like the observers on the side of the road saying, ‘somebody needs to move that branch.’ No. We need to do it. If we are fed up with these people who are representing us because they're not representing us, they're only representing themselves. Then it's time to bring them home. 

There is nothing that is written that says that these are the people who have to represent us. So, it's important that we stand up. We look and see; Are people working for us? Are they working for our families? Are they doing good things for our communities? And if the answer is no, then they don't deserve to be there anymore. Again, I don't care if you're independents, Republicans or Democrats. If the people are no longer doing the work of the people, they no longer deserve to be in power. And we have to fundamentally change that. And so that's the story that I'm pushing. I'm trying to wake people up because it's important right now. Our democracy is on the line right now. And we can't afford to be just observers on the side of the road.

Kirk Foster: So, this is my last question for you. Besides voting, you just said yourself our democracies on the line. So besides voting, what would you tell young adults to get out and do that advances democracy?

Jaime Harrison: I say get involved. Get involved in something, have it be a nonprofit or your local Democratic Party. Get involved, run for office, work on Capitol Hill, work at your state legislature, understand the process so that you know how to make change externally and internally. The most important thing that you can do is understand the rules of the road. Understand how the game is played so that you can play it, and you can win. And that's the important component of all of that. 

So, learn as much as you can; pick up as many books as you can. Get involved locally to understand that process. Intern on the hill, intern in state legislature. It's important that you really just get your arms around this. So that you know that you affect change not just by protesting but also by working - working in the bodies that are making the rules that are impacting society as a whole. 

Kirk Foster: So again Chairman Harrison, thank you so much for joining me here today. It's been a delight for me, and hopefully for all those who are listening. And those who are out there listening to this conversation, go out and make a difference. Thank you so much.

Jamie Harrison: Thank you. You all take care now.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.