COLUMBIA, S.C. — When she was a young girl, politics was everyday life for Jalisa Washington-Price. Her grandmother was one of the first black people elected to the Richland County Council, and weekends in the 1990s meant a constant flow of campaign events and community meetings.
Immersed in that world so early, she longed for a career on the big stage in the nation’s capital. After a successful run as the political director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in South Carolina in 2016, Washington-Price landed her dream job at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C.
But now, with the largest field of presidential candidates ever and South Carolina’s primary looming as a crucial early contest, the 30-year-old is back home — this time leading the campaign for California Senator Kamala Harris and running events like those she used to attend with her grandmother.
“This was not my vision,” she said. “But I knew how important South Carolina was.”
Washington-Price is part of what Democrats call an extraordinary new era in South Carolina politics.
She is one of at least seven young African-Americans — five of them women — serving as state directors for Democratic presidential candidates. All South Carolina natives ages 25 to 42, they are revitalizing the party, forging connections with young voters, and strengthening campaign infrastructure in a state where Republicans have controlled power for decades.
This new generation of political leaders, which includes other top campaign officials as well, matters not only because African-Americans make up nearly two-thirds of all Democrats in the state. Younger voters across the country are the most diverse generation in history and expected to be more than a third of all voters in the 2020 election.
At least in this corner of the country, the people running the campaigns are starting to look like the voters they’re targeting.
“There is a new generation of campaign professionals emerging here and it’s going to be extremely fascinating and extremely wonderful to watch it all take root in South Carolina,” said Trav Robertson, chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Although some things are changing, politics here is still steeped in tradition. The legendary fish fry hosted by South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn on Friday night will attract 22 Democratic presidential candidates to Columbia ahead of the state party convention on Saturday.
The state Democratic Party’s headquarters, housed temporarily in a creaky bungalow near the center of town, was bursting this week with boxes of lanyards and handouts for the fish fry and with elbow-to-elbow staff and volunteers crafting detailed schedules. State directors for the candidates rushed around town, many with multiple cellphones buzzing. They checked off long to-do lists between conference calls, working out of fledgling campaign offices, coffee shops, and their cars.
Robertson can rattle off statistics that make it clear why this new cohort of young, diverse leadership is significant.
The 2018 elections saw the highest turnout for a midterm vote in state history, with the number of black voters up by about 20 percentage points. Nearly two-thirds of all voters in South Carolina were either women or people of color.
“That’s a hell of a change in this state, and it should probably scare the hell out of the Republicans,” Robertson said.
For years, state party officials lamented the shallow bench of young people of color involved in South Carolina politics. That led past presidential campaigns to import young people from other states who were unfamiliar with the people and customs of South Carolina, a place where it is still important to say “yes ma’am” to the woman at the grocery counter.
In 2015, Jaime Harrison, then-chair of the state Democratic Party, did something about the dearth of young African-Americans on campaigns. He sought to replicate a boot camp run by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute that he had attended in Washington, D.C., by creating a fellowship for young political leaders with seed money from Clyburn. Many of the women running the 2020 presidential campaigns here are products of the Clyburn Fellowship.
“We don’t have that time to spare in these campaigns, and it’s good to have homegrown people in these communities,” Harrison said.
Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston political science professor, said these young, diverse campaign leaders reflect the changing times.
“You’ve got sort of the African-American establishment,” he said. “Then you have these . . . younger folks that are breaking away a little bit.”
Like Washington-Price, many of the other young state directors grew up in families where civics were important.
Christale Spain, 42, state director for New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, worked for 10 years in the foster care system. Alycia Albergottie, 35, leading Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, did research at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Breanna Spaulding, 25, heading the campaign of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, worked for the Brain Injury Association of South Carolina.
“We’ve been out there rallying and marching and protesting and raising our voices in so many ways and we’re finally getting a chance to hold leadership positions,” said Tiffany James, 37, deputy political director for Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind.
The biggest challenge they face is former vice president Joe Biden, who is leading the early polls. His South Carolina operation is led by Kendall Corley, 38, a well-known African-American operative from Lexington, S.C., who worked on both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary — the fourth contest after Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada — could be pivotal in the Democratic race ahead of Super Tuesday. Wins in South Carolina provided crucial momentum toward the nomination for Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016 after losses in the New Hampshire primary.
“By having so many South Carolinians at the head of these races, it’s going to be very competitive, and knowing that, on this campaign, we’re not taking any one and nothing for granted,” Corley said.
The only age group where Biden is not ahead, according to a poll released Sunday by the Charleston Post and Courier, is voters ages 18 to 34. Warren, polling second overall in the state, leads among that group.
These youthful campaign directors are important to reaching those young voters, who rely less on name recognition and are less beholden to the church, a place where some ministers have held great political sway.
“Traditional institutions are not going to have as much influence on this demographic, simply because this is the digital age, we are the millennium children and we know how to use Google,” said Lauren Harper, 25, state director for Beto O’Rourke’s campaign.
After graduating in 2016 from the University of South Carolina Columbia, she went to work for the city’s mayor and realized that few people were doing civic and political work. Even fewer were people of color.
“Where are all the black people doing the work that we are doing? Why are we so behind when we are in such an important state for this space?” she wondered when trying to hire for the O’Rourke campaign. She has asked the young women she mentors to tag along with her on the trail.
“I don’t want to be one of the first and last black woman to do this work,” Harper said she told them. “There is no reason why you can’t do this, too.”
Last week, Washington-Price and her team opened a field office here for Harris in a two-story brick building she had noticed was unoccupied. She has started to fill the rooms with staff, paid fellows, volunteers, and two puppies, Charlie and Max.
Being a millennial, Washington-Price can talk about social media and the other ways to reach young voters. But in the end, the lessons she learned from her grandmother still apply.
“That grass-roots connecting with people on their level is the way you campaign in South Carolina,” she said. “There is no other way.”