Local Democrats face mission imponderable
July 29, 2012
Local Democrats face mission imponderable
With state solidly in red column, leaders focus on motivating base to vote
By Ron Barnett
| Staff writer
In a small office overlooking Cleveland Park, the visages of modern Democratic presidents gaze down upon a group of party leaders who have gathered around a table to discuss the task ahead of them.
FDR, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and LBJ look on, along with Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton — and the current occupant of the White House, Barack Obama.
The mission before them, if not impossible, is an imponderable one.
Here, in the heart of the reddest part of one of the reddest states on the map, they are tasked with convincing voters that their man — believed by a segment of the opposition to be a Kenyan-born, closet Muslim whose goal is to wreck the American economy and way of life and install a socialistic nanny-state — deserves a second term in office.
Short of that, they hope at least to motivate voters who believe, like they do, that the incumbent has kept the country from falling into an even more cataclysmic economic sinkhole than the one it was in when he took over from his Republican predecessor.
It ain’t easy being a Democrat in Greenville County. The tone of the political discourse, both here and across the country, is so harsh, local Democrats say, that sometimes it’s like trying to thread a camel through the eye of a needle to get your point across.
“Every one of us at this table has gotten the finger for the Obama-Biden sticker,” said Roxanne Cordonier, vice president of Greenville County Democratic Women.
Eric Graben, the Greenville Democratic Party chairman, is quick to say that he has Republican friends who are motivated by honest, good intentions. But he thinks too many on the right are being misinformed by conservative talk show pundits and columnists who have distorted the outside perception of the beliefs and goals of the Democratic Party.
“Fundamentally, at heart, I think they’re good people,” Graben said of his Republican friends. “I think they’re charitable. I think they want to do what is best for the country.”
“I think it’s unfortunate that the tea party has taken the tack of trying to polarize the country and trying to convince Republicans and conservatives that people like me are the socialist enemies of America. We’re not.”
‘Real’ Democratic Party
Who are they, then?
Graben grew up in Clemson, the son of a professor.
While in his 20s, he says, he read the Bible cover to cover three times.
“I am mindful of Jesus’ teaching that the second most important commandment after loving God is to love your neighbor as yourself,” he said. “And he told the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate that. And that is a core value of the Democratic Party.
“And while I think a lot of Republicans believe that, I don’t see a lot of policies being advanced by the Republican Party that seek to advance that.”
Graben and the others around the table chafe at the notion that liberals are intent on robbing from the rich to support a class of freeloaders.
“I’m sure there are some people who try to milk the system. There are people who try to milk every system,” he said. “Democrats ain’t interested in helping them milk the system. As a matter of fact, it is offensive to us that people would try to abuse our charity, whether it’s charity through our church or our government.
“But most people don’t want to live off the handout. And we don’t want people living off handouts long term. We want to help people get to where they can take care of themselves.”
Stephen Brown, a former Greenville County GOP chairman, said the issue is that the federal government has grown out of control.
“It has been allowed to expand far beyond the confines of the U.S. Constitution,” he said, blaming some Republicans along with Democrats for that.
“The result is that most of these social welfare programs are beyond the scope of the federal government to begin with.”
Want to really get a group of Greenville Democrats boiling? Ask why they don’t believe raising taxes on the rich would be a job-killer.
“They have the money now. Where are the jobs?” says Jessie Wofford, a party volunteer.
Graben approaches the issue from the perspective of a corporate attorney.
“I have a six-figure income and I earn it by helping people richer than me make more money,” he said.
Corporations “have money,” he said. “If they want to hire more workers, they could.”
Democrats aren’t proposing a big tax hike on the rich, Graben said.
“What the president is talking about doing is returning tax rates to what they were in the Clinton administration when the Dow Jones industrial average went from 3,000 to above 10,000,” he said. “The greatest growth in American profitability in the post-World War II era occurred with the Clinton tax rates in place.”
The idea that the budget deficits and national debt can be solved without increasing revenue is “ridiculous,” in Graben’s opinion.
“You’re going to have to increase revenues as well as cut spending to solve that problem. The president has the courage to do that. And the people he’s asking to step up to the plate and pay more are those who can afford it.”
The U.S. Senate last week approved a Democratic bill that would extend George W. Bush-era income tax cuts for all but the wealthiest earners, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The bill would keep tax cuts for one year for all but the highest earners, who would see the top two rates revert to 36 percent and 39.6 percent from the current 33 percent and 35 percent rates on individual income exceeding $200,000 a year, and household income above $250,000.
These are the tax changes Obama has been asking for, but the bill is not expected to pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Brown, the former GOP chairman, said “any economist worth his salt” as well as “business people who work for a living” say that “the last thing you want to do is raise taxes on anyone in a down economy.”
“The Democrats are all wrong and their economics are all wrong as well,” he said. “They just don’t get it.”
He predicts that the economy will improve when business leaders see a change in the direction the government is going.
“The economy will do much better once we change out the president and hopefully change out the Senate as well,” he said.
Convincing enough South Carolina voters to agree with the Democrats and put the state in Obama’s column in November is a task even his most ardent supporters believe is probably too tall, although some are not without hope.
Republican John McCain claimed South Carolina in 2008 with 54 percent of the vote — a nine percentage point margin above of Obama.
That’s a gap that state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian believes is not insurmountable.
South Carolina Republicans, who chose former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia in the state’s primary, are less than enthusiastic about Romney, particularly his record as governor of Massachusetts, he argues.
But he doesn’t think there are many Palmetto state voters who haven’t already made up their minds.
“It really is not about changing minds,” he said. “It’s about turnout.”
Graben isn’t betting that he can deliver Greenville County, which chose McCain with 61 percent of the vote four years ago, but he believes there are independent voters who are becoming disenchanted with the rhetoric from the far right.
“Our goal here is to show people that there is a real Democratic Party in Greenville County, that we are a lot stronger than folks think, and to inspire people to stand up for their beliefs,” he said.
Getting out the vote
Local Democrats are frustrated with trying to counteract the message from the far right, much of which they consider erroneous.
“I have been going to some fairly high level Democratic meetings for the last 10 years and we have never voted on some of the things they say we are planning to do or wanting to do,” said Allan Jenkins, a state executive committee member and Greenville County Democrat.
“We don’t want a socialistic country. We’re all capitalists in our own way.”
He blames conservative media.
“I think too many people just tune in their local talk radio and watch their TV and that’s all they get and they are fed this stuff that Democrats think this, Democrats are plotting this, and it’s the farthest thing from the truth.”
Kaye Martell, a Democratic Party volunteer, doesn’t have high hopes of a victory in South Carolina, but she has been making regular trips to North Carolina with other party activists to try to help keep that state in Obama’s column again as in 2008.
“We’re still trying to make sure everybody’s registered,” she said. “Even if we come close, (in South Carolina) I’d be happy.”
Frank Holleman, a former state party chairman, said he believes the state is moving in the Democratic direction.
“I think the changing dynamic is that the younger people are much more inclined to ether be independents or vote for Democrats for president,” he said. Newcomers from other parts of the country also tend to be more diverse in their political orientation, he believes.
Clemson University political scientist Bruce Ransom doesn’t give Obama much of a chance in South Carolina.
“My position is 2008 is probably about as good as it’s going to get for Obama and the Democrats,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to see the gap narrow.”
Mike Cubelo, an outspoken Greenville Democrat, said he doesn’t see the kind of enthusiasm for Obama here as four years ago.
“Those cylinders are not popping this time, in 2012,” he said. “You’ll have to do a lot more work to get that kind of participation.”
Harpootlian, however, isn’t conceding the state.
“I like our chances. And I like our chances in South Carolina — and North Carolina,” he said.
“The Republicans take South Carolina for granted. We may have a little surprise for them this year.”