By Gregg Bragg, The Island Eye News Senior Staff Writer
Jaime Harrison’s U.S. Senate campaign is nothing like he imagined when he set his sights on the job. The coronavirus was unheard of on May 19, 2019, when he filed to run, but skyrocketing COVID-19 infections have ruled out the dinners, meet and greets and public gatherings synonymous with a run at political office.
“We’re trying to turn these lemons into lemonade,” Harrison chuckled during a phone call on June 30. “Our campaign has gone almost completely virtual, which is difficult in South Carolina, given the lack of broadband across our state. We’ve done our best to connect with people to get our message out: Bring hope back to South Carolina. There is somebody in this race thinking about South Carolina families who is going to fight for them.”
A large part of that fight starts by expanding access to Wi-Fi. The pandemic makes some of South Carolina’s existing problems glaringly obvious. Harrison insists access to Wi-Fi is vital both to education and medical care in the Palmetto State.
“There are two reasons why rural hospitals are closing in South Carolina: the lack of Medicaid expansion in the state and the lack of broadband. Tele-help and Telemedicine are how they do business. Not having that infrastructure is devastating to the health care profession. [My opponent] didn’t start talking about this until recently. … Where’ve you been?” he demanded.
Resetting the clock on Medicaid expansion is the other half of the solution to health care in the state, according to Harrison.
Medicaid expansion was part of the Affordable Care Act, and the term derives from “expanding” Medicaid eligibility to those earning 138% of the federally defined poverty rate, instead of at or below it. The ACA provided 100% federal funding for the 36 states that implemented the expansion until 2020, when it was reduced to a 90% match. States are required to make up the 10% difference from this year on, unless the States Achieving Medicaid Expansion (SAME) Act passes the U.S. Senate. The legislation, which would reset the clock back to 100% funding, has Harrison’s full support.
“It is fundamentally wrong to have a state where almost 300,000 people, who work day in and day out, should have health insurance but their employers don’t provide it. And they would, but for the refusal of Republicans in the state to expand Medicaid. It makes zero sense,” said Harrison.
He then described an economic boom for rural hospitals if those 300,000 people had insurance to cover trips to the emergency room.
“And Lindsey Graham still wants to fully repeal the ACA. In the middle of a pandemic,” added an incredulous Harrison.
Harrison described his opponent as a follower who hasn’t put South Carolina first. According to Harrison, Graham allowed money earmarked for a fire station in Beaufort to be re-allocated to the wall at the border with Mexico. Also, despite broad bipartisan opposition to drilling for oil off the South Carolina coast, Graham has been “silent as a church mouse” on the president’s efforts to foist oil exploration on unwilling Palmetto State residents and legislators. Harrison said his opponent won’t stand up for anything, and he added that he isn’t the only one to make such observations.
Richard Wilkerson, the former chairman and president of Michelin North America, told the Greenville News that he supported Graham for years. The opinion piece he wrote said in part “[I] started having real misgivings about [Graham] when he failed to mount any significant defense [of McCain]. I asked myself, ‘What is the character of a man who will not defend his best friend? If he won’t defend John McCain, why would I expect him to defend any of us in South Carolina?’ My conclusion was that he was more interested in currying favor than in honoring the memory of a true American hero whom he had described as his best friend. I was extremely disappointed.”
Wilkerson’s article and subsequent financial support seem to have made a real difference to Harrison’s campaign.
Harrison brought in a total of $7.4 million in the first three months of 2020. The first quarter haul was a record for a Democrat in the state until the Harrison campaign’s second quarter numbers set another new record at $13.9 million. Making lemonade apparently requires a South Carolina work ethic.
Harrison was born in Orangeburg on Feb. 5, 1976. Raised by his mother and grandparents, he is all too familiar with the challenges of poverty. He recalled eating cereal with water because they had no money for milk, learning to read from comic books and choosing between food and rent. He credits his faith, good teachers, mentors and a public education for helping him earn a scholarship to Yale University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s in political science in 1998. Harrison worked as a teacher for a year at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School, his former high school, before being appointed CEO of College Summit, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income youth find a path to college.
Harrison continued his education, earning a degree from the Georgetown University Law Center in 2004. However, he was more interested in applying the law than opening a practice and went to work as an aide in the offices of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn D-SC. He subsequently worked for The Port of Charleston and The University of South Carolina until he was elected chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party in 2013.
Harrison’s commitment to affordable health care is personal, as noted on his website. “… [His] grandfather worked for decades paving roads in and around Orangeburg. … But for years Jaime’s grandfather didn’t have health care, so he didn’t know the pain in his legs was diabetes until it was too late. Jaime saw his grandfather go to the hospital to have his leg amputated.”
He also wants to see public education expanded and fully funded, teachers paid more, our environment protected from offshore drilling and exploration, an increase in the minimum wage and respect for our veterans.
The Island Eye News has reached out to U.S. Sen Lindsey Graham to see if he would like to be interviewed for an article in our next edition.