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The Democrats’ South Carolina strategy empowers all Black voters

biden south carolina
AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File
FILE – Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a primary night election rally in Columbia, S.C., Feb. 29, 2020, after winning the South Carolina primary, as Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., watches.

The Democratic National Committee’s recent decision to restructure the 2024 presidential nominating calendar and put South Carolina — and Black voters — at the beginning of the process is a bold and important step.  

Black voters in South Carolina account for more than 60 percent of the state’s Democratic turnout and nationally have been the backbone of the Democratic Party, yet they’ve had to wait too long to have a say in the primary process. As President Biden said ahead of the South Carolina primary, “99.9 percent of Black voters” had not had the chance to vote at that point. This calendar puts the national spotlight on South Carolina, which translates to everything from strengthening party infrastructure to stimulating the state economy and ensuring that the concerns of Black voters across South Carolina and America are heard and top of the national agenda. 

Consider what it means by starting the primary process with the Palmetto State, where over a quarter of the population is Black. Eleven percent of Black households in South Carolina own a business, and an early primary would mean an early shot at contracts and business opportunities across the political supply chain for Black and other minority-owned enterprises. 

Washington Post analysis projected that from 2005 to 2018, being early in the primary process benefited Iowa and New Hampshire by nearly $50 million. During the last presidential cycle, campaign spending in January alone brought $7 million to Iowa. No doubt a significant economic win for the state and its citizens. 

This week, we paused to celebrate Martin Luther King Day and measure the progress America has made toward the realization of his dream. It’s important to reflect on our economic progress or lack thereof. For many communities — whether minority, Appalachia, tribal, urban or rural — the dream of moving into America’s middle class is still not yet a reality. Sadly, neighborhoods with streets named after Dr. King remain highly segregated, have lower educational attainment and poverty rates are nearly double the national average, according to a study published in GeoJournal. 

Dr. King’s dream was not only about ensuring civil rights but building a more inclusive economy. Simply put, everyone who wants to work should have a decent-paying job to provide for themselves and their family. Any aspiring entrepreneur should have access to the capital needed to build a small business. Business growth translates into job and wealth creation, both sorely needed in communities left behind. 

I’ve seen this benefit firsthand and know what the impact of South Carolina being first in the nation can mean. While serving as national senior advisor and director of African American vote for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, I spent significant time on the ground in both Iowa and South Carolina. Being first defines how presidential candidates run their campaigns, the promises they make, the voters they talk to, and the issues they focus on.

It means that Black voters will be driving the conversation — and issues that impact them will be at the forefront of candidates’ platforms. Those issues may include increasing capital for Black business owners and helping them access the global marketplace, addressing health disparities, modernizing local infrastructures, ensuring equitable educational funding and advocating for second-chance hiring for the formerly incarcerated. The bottom line is the first test candidates will face under this proposed calendar is that of Black voters. The extent to which the candidate passes the test can fundamentally reshape the priorities of future presidents, the American political system and our country in general. 

It’s also going to change the makeup of decision-makers leading these campaigns and usher in a new generation of political operatives. Until recently, the senior staff running presidential campaigns seldom reflected our country’s rich diversity. We must develop a more diverse talent pipeline and create more opportunities for Black and Brown South Carolinians to work on national campaigns, get early exposure and compete for key appointments in the White House and across Cabinet agencies. 

Nearly 60 years ago, 250,000 Americans convened in our nation’s capital for the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with a heavy focus on closing the stark gaps in employment and economic opportunity between white and Black Americans. While we have made some strides, that stark gap remains, and the work to close it remains as important and urgent as ever. 

Now is the time to act with what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now” and finally deliver on his dream. Equality of opportunity shouldn’t have to wait another 60 years. 

Rick C. Wade is a former member of the Democratic National Committee and executive at Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina.

Tags 2024 presidential campaign 2024 presidential election Barack Obama Biden Black voters Iowa caucus Joe Biden Politics of the United States South Carolina South Carolina Democrats

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