WASHINGTON--``Yard signs.'' That is the mantra of Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina. So it soon will be the deepest conviction of his new best friends--Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and anyone else who, because he wants to be the Democrats' presidential nominee, will take everything Clyburn says (BEG ITAL)very seriously.
The road to that nomination will run through South Carolina, and especially through the 6th Congressional District. Its lines meander creatively to include most of the black neighborhoods of coastal Charleston and, 110 miles inland, those of the capital city of Columbia. The lines were drawn in 1992--and tinkered with in 1994--to create a minority-majority (61 percent black) district. That is why Clyburn is the first black congressman South Carolina has elected since 1896, when similar racial gerrymandering essentially segregated black voters.
Long before being elected to Congress in 1992, Clyburn, the son of a minister, was politically active when activism could be lethal. In 1968, state police killed three and injured 27 at a demonstration in Orangeburg where, in 1960, Clyburn and six other young people had organized South Carolina's first lunch counter sit-in.
That was long ago and in another country. In the subsequent four decades South Carolina has changed more, in terms of its race relations and its economy, than any other state, more even than Mississippi because South Carolina has done better in attracting businesses.
The current schedule is for the 2004 nominating process to begin with the Iowa caucuses Jan. 19, then the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27, then South Carolina's primary Feb. 3. Clyburn says that if Iowa is won by Gephardt or Daschle from neighboring states, or New Hampshire is won by Dean or Kerry from neighboring states, ``So what?''
So, South Carolina's importance will be magnified. And Clyburn estimates that blacks will be almost 40 percent of the state's Democratic primary turnout.
The defeat last month of Jim Hodges, South Carolina's Democratic governor, makes Clyburn all the more the man to see when Democratic presidential candidates come to the state. ``Lieberman,'' says Clyburn, ``is spending about as much time in South Carolina as I do.''
Clyburn has a no-nonsense, almost brusque tone when discussing the Democrats' difficulties nationally last month. ``I saw it coming,'' he says. He did because he did not see lawn signs.
``Jim Hodges did not have a single yard sign because he had been told it was a waste of money,'' Clyburn says. ``We got beat at the game that used to be ours''--turnout. Democrats, he says, have come to believe that ``money alone wins elections''--meaning money spent on television. But, he says, ``you are not going to turn out black voters with television.''
But street money is another matter. ``Let me tell you what street money is,'' he says. You go to a black church and say, ``We want to use your van on election day'' to get voters to the polls. ``You want it Sunday, we want it Tuesday.'' So the campaign pays the insurance for a year and hires as a driver a Deacon Jones, whose name is on the van's insurance policy.
Clyburn says of spending on turnout, ``When we do it, it's `street money.' When Republicans do it, they're `coordinating.''' He has an agreeable lack of sanctimony when discussing money in politics. To the consternation of campaign finance reformers, he thinks most of their reforms will just cause the money to be shuffled around in new ways, and he supports political action committees as instruments by which small contributors can enlarge their voices by pooling their resources.
Sending a signal to all the presidential candidates, he says there is no substitute for getting on the ground and moving around. That, he says, is how Lieberman came to understand the importance of rehabilitating historic buildings at historically black colleges. And it helps to have had, as Dean did at Yale, college roommate who is a black South Carolinian and is now a Wall Street success and is raising campaign contributions.
In his 1992 campaign Clyburn talked to a white businessman who said he opposed raising the minimum wage. But he also said, gesturing toward his employees, ``All 500 of those people are going to be for it.'' Says Clyburn, ``I will never, never try to out-Republican the Republicans.'' Clyburn's new best friends should remember that, and two words: yard signs.