South Carolina’s Democratic Party is at a moment of crisis.
In the wake of the 2010 election, Republicans control all nine statewide office, both U.S. Senate seats and five of six U.S. House seats. Republicans also have solid majorites in the state Senate (27-19) and state House (75-48).
The only Democrat who got any national attention in 2010 was surprise Senate candidate Alvin Greene — and we all know how that turned out.
Those struggles are why Dick Harpootlian, the ever quotable and occasionally controversial operative, is running for state party chair — a post he held from 1998 to 2003.
“I’ve watched from afar for the last eight years and worried about our lack of fundraising, our lack of focus on delivering the message, and the message is very simple for the Democratic Party,” Harpootlian said in an interview with the Fix. “If you hate government, you hate the South Carolina Republican Party, because they own it.”
Harpootlian is one of three candidates running — Marion County Party Chairman Lee Walter Jenkins and South Carolina New Democrats President Phil Noble are the others — but he is the favorite heading into the party convention vote on April 30th.
“People kept making reference to certain periods in our development and all the references happened to be to that period of time when Dick was chair,” said South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the assistant minority leader in the House.. “You look for who could put you back in that place. When I heard that we might be able to get the real thing back, I became very enthusiastic about supporting him.”
Jim Hodges, who was elected governor of the Palmetto State the same year Harpootlian became party chairman, is another advocate.
“Harpootlian will be the Republican presidential candidate’s worst nightmare and the worst nightmare for Republican candidates in South Carolina,” said Hodges. “Comity is not a virtue by party chairs who serve in South.”
Harpootlian’s reputation for rhetorical combat has gotten him into trouble in the past.
In the 1990s, when he was running for Richland County Council, Hartpoolian said he didn’t want to buy the black vote; he just wanted to rent it for a day. In 2000 he was accused of using anti-gay slurs when he repeatedly referred to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) as “light in the loafers.” At one point he suggested that Hodges would nominate a Republican to finish former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s term, then he said it was just a joke to get the national party’s attention.
Not everyone is thrilled by Harpootlian’s return. “I don’t think his way of doing things is appropriate,” said McCormick County executive committeman Jerry Goldman, who says that as party chair Harpootlian rarely met with or paid attention to local parties. “He may be able to raise a lot of money, but money doesn’t vote.”
Harpootlian’s past troubles have done little to curtail his willingness to say out loud things that most people only think to themselves (if that).When Republican presidential candidates start campaigning in the state, Harpootlian can be counted on to push back.
On GOP governance over the last eight years, Harpootlian notes that “we’ve gone to 50th in education and number one in gonorrhea, and that’s the accomplishments of an all Republican government.” Of GOP Gov. Nikki Haley Harpootlian said: “She’s writing a book. If she doesn’t do something about the educational system, nobody here is going to have the skills to read it.”
Harpootlian insists he will only serve one term if elected. “My job will be to rebuild the party, get a bench, get money raised,” he said. ‘I feel like I have something to contribute, but anybody who aspires to be chairman of a party, that’s their life goal, needs to get a new life.”
For some Democrats, that’s a shame. “We might have to impose on him again to run for reelection two years from now,” said John Land John Land, the state Senate Minority leader. “Personally, I would like for him to be the permanent chairman.”