Bernice Scott pulled her Ford truck up to her home just outside Columbia, S.C., exhausted but ecstatic after leaving an election eve rally for Hillary Clinton.
Eight years ago, Scott worked until the end on Clinton’s behalf. Even when then-Sen. Barack Obama decisively won the Democratic primary in the Palmetto State, Scott held out hope that the former first lady could still win the nomination and return to the White House as president. Scott didn’t let go of that hope until Clinton conceded.
Scott has picked up where she left off eight years ago, putting in long days and late nights, working to help Clinton win South Carolina and, she hopes, become president in November.
“It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings. I’m humming tonight. I’ll sing tomorrow,” Scott said late Friday, after returning from a rally outside of the Columbia Museum of Art.
Saturday morning, she was up and out early, heading to the small towns around Richland County, where she has lived for nearly 50 years, to help get out the vote for Clinton. As one of the first African Americans to serve on the county council, Scott is well-known and well-respected, a leader of a network of grassroots activists known as the “Reckoning Crew.”
“Because if you don’t do right, you will have to reckon with us,” Scott said.
“And we are a force to be reckoned with,” adds her friend and fellow crew member, Jackie Brown.
To the extent that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has struggled to connect with black voters in South Carolina, it is in large part because he doesn’t have political roots with people like Bernice Scott – ride or die supporters who have been with the Clintons for more than two decades.
It is true that some of them defected to Obama in 2008, moved by the chance to make history by electing the first African American president. Some of them had a falling out with the Clintons, who were accused of using racially-tinged rhetoric to disparage Obama’s candidacy.
But Hillary Clinton’s favorable ratings never slipped underwater among African Americans, and polls have consistently shown that most have been happy to support her second bid for president. They say Clinton is the best qualified candidate, is an ally of Obama who will continue his policies and that she and her husband have history with black voters. These voters provided Clinton with a solid base of support that Sanders has been unable to crack.
In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of South Carolina votes released last week showed Clinton led Sanders 68 percent to 21 percent among black voters, who account for more than half of the Democratic primary electorate in the state. The former secretary of state also holds big leads in several Super Tuesday states with significant percentages of black voters.
During the weeks leading up to Saturday’s primary, Scott, 71, and other members of the Reckoning Crew have knocked on doors, staffed phone banks urging their neighbors to vote. They often ride around on a golf cart that Scott bought because houses in the country are spaced far apart.
One day last week, she and a three friends went to Eastover, a small town in Richland County to knock on doors. Scott unloaded the golf cart from a trailer hitched to her Ford F-150 and headed down Main Street. Brown joined Scott in the golf cart, and they picked up Dennis Macon. “He knows everybody around here,” Scott said. Ollie Reese and Gwen Kirkland followed along in Reese’s car.
In the middle of the day, Main Street was mostly empty of cars and people, but once they turned off into the residential neighborhoods, the group spread out to knock on doors and Scott buttonholed every potential voter she encountered.
“We need you to go for Hillary!” she said to one man.
“Okay,” he said. “The election is Tuesday?”
“Saturday! Satur-day!” she admonished him. “Do I need to come get you?”
No one turned down her request to plant a Clinton campaign sign in their yards and everyone promised to vote for Clinton, except a young man with braids who said he was leaning toward Sanders.
“What? Oh, I need to talk to you!” The young man said he was joking.
She gently scolded a young mother who had moved to the area a year ago, but had not registered to vote. “You have to vote, get involved to change the system so you can help her,” she said, pointing to the woman’s toddler who seemed much more engaged, grinning and waving as her mother told Scott she had to go to pick up her other two children from school.
The golf cart cruised down Clarkson Street, past the Bernice G. Scott Health and Human Services Center. Scott, who lives in Hopkins, a small town about a half hour south of Columbia, was one of the first African Americans elected to the Richland County Council, after the NAACP successfully sued to create single-member districts in the late 1980s. Before joining the council in 1989, Scott worked as the county ombudsman. She believes that her work in that position helped her win her seat with more than 53 percent of the vote against four other candidates.
“The people wanted me and they got me,” she said. “I ran because I wanted to make a difference, to help people.”
Scott decided not to seek reelection in 2008, in order to take care of her husband, who died the following year. She has continued her activism through the Reckoning Crew, whose work is not restricted to politics. Scott counts about 32 active members, most of them women.
After last year’s deadly floods in South Carolina, the crew took water and other supplies to families whose homes had been damaged. They also collected information to pass along to officials about conditions in the county. On Wednesday, Scott drove over a section of a road where water was rising and potholes were gaping. She whipped out her cellphone and called county officials.
“Water is running across the road and there are big potholes. I’m worried that at night someone could get hurt,” she said.
As they head back toward Hopkins, Brown gets a frantic call that a group of Sanders canvassers have descended on a neighborhood in the area. Scott says there’s no need to panic or race to the area of stare them down. “We’ll just go behind them tomorrow,” she said.
She is similarly dismissive of a renewed push by some Sanders supporters and activists sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement to call attention to Clinton's past support for anti-crime laws and welfare reform that some argue have disproportionately harmed black communities.
“You find me a person who has not made an error. That’s how we grow – from our mistakes -- and she has said over and over again that some of the things we worked on she didn’t understand at the time the whole impact it would have. But now she sees that and she’s been doing is trying to correct it."
Scott pulls her truck up to her house, a red brick rambler with a cozy sun porch on two acres surrounded by undeveloped land, except for a neighbor who raises horses. Scott shares her home with Jack, a small, short-legged brown and white dog that she adopted – “They think he’s part Chihuahua and part Jack Russell” – and several goats in a pen out back. “They say goats keep away the snakes. If that doesn’t work, I have a shotgun,” she said.
Back at home, Scott shows off a photo of her and Clinton from the 2008 campaign.(She also has a life-size cutout of Clinton.) “I thought the world had lost a great opportunity not just put a female in but someone really understood policy and the process,” Scott said. “But I wasn’t angry. I was a little bit sad but then when I got the email from her, it lifted my spirit.” Scott said Clinton’s email encouraged her volunteers to work to elect Obama.
Scott didn’t wait for an email to get involved in the Clinton campaign this year. And she is not the only member of her family who is a loyal Clinton supporter. Her granddaughter, Jalisa Washington, is political director for Clinton’s South Carolina campaign.
After polls close on Saturday, Scott said she is not sure she will go Columbia to await the results. “I might come home and go to bed,” she said.
Besides, the Friday night rally felt like a victory party compared to eight years ago. “Everything was great. Bill was there, too. There was a lot of togetherness – black and whites and Hispanics – and everybody was singing from the same hymn book.”