South Carolina party chairs beat vitriol with friendship

AP News
Posted: Sep 18, 2016 12:51 PM
South Carolina party chairs beat vitriol with friendship

FLORENCE, S.C. (AP) — In a year of intense polarization and partisanship — and in a state known for its rough-and-tumble politics — South Carolina's top party leaders are actively working to cut through the bull.

It doesn't mean dedication for their White House candidates is any less fervent. But the state's Republican and Democratic chairmen are taking an amiable approach to helping South Carolina voters figure out how they feel about the issues, not just impress their partisan viewpoints upon them. Their public discussions are styled in a plainspoken and rhetorically minimalist way.

On a recent Thursday night, GOP Chairman Matt Moore and his Democratic counterpart, Jaime Harrison, took part in a voter education symposium in Florence, a small city in South Carolina's northeastern Pee Dee region.

When the evening's moderator asked how many times they'd shared a stage, Moore responded, "A thousand times."

Moore, his arm around Harrison's shoulders, added: "It's the Matt and Jaime traveling road show."

The men, contemporaries and, now, friends, carpooled to the night's event. Traveling without their respective spouses, they joked that they had a night off from their diets, sharing plates of barbecue at a nearby smokehouse before the forum.

Both men came of age, politically speaking, in 2013. For a time, Moore, now 34, was the youngest GOP state chairman in the country. Re-elected to a landslide second term last year, he served as the party's executive director before taking its helm and has worked as state director for U.S. Sen. Tim Scott.

Harrison, 40, is a principal with The Podesta Group, a Washington lobbying firm, and previously directed floor operations for U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's sole congressional Democrat. He's also served as executive director of the House Democratic Caucus.

The jovial nature of their relationship isn't unknown among South Carolina's party chairmen. In the late 1990s, now-Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster was GOP chair, and veteran trial lawyer Dick Harpootlian was his Democratic counterpart. The two men feuded publicly to score political points, but McMaster said he relished the barbs as "what party chairmen are supposed to do."

Disagreeing on partisan issues is expected for Moore and Harrison, but they keep it far more than just civil.

Last fall, the two teamed up in the name of education, co-teaching a class on political parties and the presidential election at the University of South Carolina. They worked on the class with Don Fowler, an adjunct professor at the university who also is a former Democratic National Committee chairman.

In November, in the run-up to South Carolina's presidential primaries, Moore and Harrison sat together for a South Carolina Chamber of Commerce panel on the race's impact.

"When people think of Democrats and Republicans, they sometimes think of cats and dogs," Chamber CEO Ted Pitts said. "I know they have a lot of respect for each other, and in South Carolina, we're lucky that our two political party leaders understand with civility that we can move the state forward, and they do that."

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A year earlier, Moore and Harrison penned a joint op-ed in favor of a ballot question to make the state's adjutant general an appointed rather than elected position and held a news conference on the measure, which passed. Earlier this year, they again co-wrote a piece, calling on candidates to lay out their plans for the future of America's global engagement and its effects on the state's workers, service members and families.

At the Florence voter forum, a crowd of a few dozen listened enrapt in a downtown auditorium as Moore and Harrison tackled a variety of issues, in one moment discussing political evolution and division that, both men said, is affecting both Republicans and Democrats. More often than not, their heads nodded in agreement, signaling that, on many issues, there's more common ground than one would think, particularly in a year with a vitriolic presidential race.

"If you lock Matt and me in a room together, I think we could get some things done," Jaime said, to laughter from the crowd - and a smile and a nod from his friend, Matt.


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