Losers is a continuing series of stories based on failed presidential campaigns, examining the ideas worth exploring from the candidates who almost made it to the White House and even those who never stood a chance.
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA
741 MILES FROM HOME
You’ve never heard of Tom Steyer and neither had most of South Carolina. That was his problem. On the morning of the primary, the press collectively cringed at their phones. Everyone was having a laugh at a presidential candidate who was dancing to a live performance of Back That Azz Up by Juvenile in what was called a half-assed and half-racist attempt to win the black vote. I laughed it off, along with the rest of the press, on the way to Joe Biden’s victory party.
More seasoned reporters might have known his name for years, but the first time I heard of Tom Steyer I was writing about a 2018 midterm Senate campaign in California. The candidate I interviewed at the time called Steyer a good friend or a good man or some other kind words that never made the final edit of an article that was mostly about legalizing weed. I never imagined that I would one day be standing in a micro-brewery in Iowa, with Tom as one of 25 presidential candidates; close enough to see the stitching on the same plaid tie he wore to every event. His shoes were worn out at the toes, his sleeves rolled up. Every part of Tom’s public appearance, including the free beer, kept the audience from remembering that he was not one of them. He was a billionaire and despite his best effort or perhaps because of it, he lost.
Biden had locked down the nomination in South Carolina because many in the national press and in his own campaign believed that they were owed the black vote. That sounds like a rather blunt thing to say, so it’s worth noting that the former vice president was losing badly at this point and holding out for the support of the people he called his “firewall” in South Carolina. Joe Biden owned South Carolina and that meant that Joe Biden owned the black vote. That was the feeling among everyone who is paid to know something about this sort of thing on the night of the 2020 Democratic primary.
So, when Lance — the photographer who took these fine photos — suggested we check out Tom Steyer’s event that night, I thought “what good is it to watch him lose in person?”
Lance thought the idea of going to the winning candidate’s victory party was pointless. “We’re going to be seeing a lot more of Joe from now until November,” he reminded me on the two-hour drive form Charleston to Columbia. “I want to see what Steyer’s all about.”
As we prepared for our last night in South Carolina, I thought we ought to stick with the winner. No one ever doubted it was going to be Joe and that’s where I thought we ought to be. With the winner on the night that he wins.
Joe was set to stump about his victory from a volleyball court at the University of South Carolina on the same night that Post Malone was playing the Colonial Life Arena two blocks away where a horde of twenty thousands college students were blissfully unaware of who their state had just chosen to lead the Democratic party.
As the crowd at USC shuffled past a massive pen of journalists and camera men that jutted half-way into the court, reporters from The Japan Times were swarming a group of women who were trying to decide whether to sit or stand. One of them leaned into the microphone and I could hear the faint hum of her voice through the din of the press pen behind me. “I can’t wait for Super Tuesday to see him win it all!”
Black voters made up 60 percent of Democrats in South Carolina and every reporter that night was duty-bound to distill their mood down to fifteen quotable seconds of footage that might air in between shots of the speech from the winners podium. Some reporters never bothered to leave their hard-wired fortress at the back of the room. The week’s reporting was done. Election night was for tying up loose ends not combing a largely white crowd for black voters, just to ask what black voters think of the idea that black voters were expected to cast their votes for Joe Biden.
Congressman Jim Clyburn had given the press the only quote they needed. It was a simple statement, repeated over and over for that week’s news cycle: “Joe knows us and we know Joe.”
Earlier in the week, those exact words were repeated to me in a church hall by a Biden supporter named Tony Bradley. An older southern gentleman, Bradley spoke to me about restoring America’s place in the world. About honest leadership and about living in what he called the most politically divided time since the Civil War. For Bradly, Biden was the most realistic choice.
“See, now, South Carolina is a great state,” he said. “It’s a great state. We may have our differences, but I can go to my white brother and we can talk it out. We are not going to divide ourselves over things like race.”
He felt real progress had been made in his lifetime and could be unmade by misplaced anger. But, mostly, he was reluctant to speak for anyone he hadn’t met and he certainly hadn’t met the president. “I don’t like calling anyone a racist,” Bradley said. “Those folks out there who feel that way about someone who doesn’t look like them, they are expressing their anger because they believe they’ve been treated unfairly.”
That morning I read an article by Michael Harriot, at The Root, who was trying to unravel the many reasons black Americans might support Biden. “Aside from his brief war with Corn Pop, dragging Anita Hill through the mud, writing a crime bill that disproportionately incarcerated black men, Biden has done a lot for black people,” Harriot wrote. “I can’t recall any [policies] off the top of my head, but I’m sure he has.”
What appeared to be most important to Biden’s followers was that a candidate like Joe Biden felt right. Harriot broke it down to one simple fact: “Biden worked for a black boss and, as [vice president], he was surrounded by black people who were smarter than him…This might not seem like much, but eight years listening to black people is something few white people have ever done.”
That was the stale feeling on the court for the winning team. The most realistic choice. Given to err on the side of experience, voters were willing to take from the candidate what they could realistically expect to be given. No more, no less.
We left Biden’s event while the crowd was still shuffling in through the metal detectors.
The losing side was gathered just a few blocks from the college in what looked like an old department store that had been cleared out to host a house party. The mood of the small gaggle of press crammed against the back window was rather different than the news-making buzz of the Biden HQ. No one knew that Steyer planned to drop out of the race.
Steyer had spent a bit of money to make everyone comfortable enough for his big announcement. The room had an intimate crowd of about a hundred, a DJ, a full buffet spread, an open bar and free roaming local reporters. It had what no successful campaign for the presidency would dare to have on a winning night. It had fun.
“It took about one lap around the room at Tom Steyer’s closing South Carolina rally on Friday to figure out what was going on with his entire campaign,” Slate‘s Jim Newell reported, having gathered enough information in a single lap to make deadline. Newell’s opinion might have been different had he tried the mac and cheese, but the basic idea was that this billionaire had spent his money on far too much free food and entertainment to be taken seriously.
The dance with Juvenile dominated the conversation reporters were having about Tom Steyer that week and it was the most coverage he would ever get. Benjamin Dixon, from The Progressive Army podcast, who was brought on to MSNBC to discuss the issues that really matter to black voters was, “taken aback by the fact that this is how Tom Steyer is spending his billions to try to win us over. I don’t think it’s going to work.”
In a short analysis of a short moment in a long campaign, Jezebel‘s Garrett Schlichte captured the gut feeling of every writer who skimmed the surface of the viral video to form an opinion: “The reality that this is not actually a politician but a billionaire attempting to buy his way into presidential candidacy comes washing over me and my brain starts to melt while trying to comprehend what in the actual hell our political system is in 2020, and it’s not so adorable anymore.”
Hell, even I thought I knew everything I needed to know about Tom Steyer. He was rich, real rich and in spite of all his money no one quite knew who he was. He didn’t stand a chance.
Across the room I spotted Lance, who had set his camera down for a moment to talk to a fellow member of the Army’s 101st airborne division. They happened to be seated right next to a television where a muted Wolf Blitzer interrupted CNNs election night broadcast every few moments to give us the results form county to county. Between trips to the bar and the buffet, Tom’s supporters glanced at the screen with an air of hope that can only exist between the time polls close to the moment a winner is announced. In that short, nerve-wracked interval even the most obscure name on the ballot can hope for victory before all hope is shattered against Blitzer’s announcement of Breaking News.
At the time, it wasn’t at all clear that Tom would drop out. He came in third behind Bernie Sanders, which was outstanding for a man who had to explain who he was before explaining why he was running for president. When he finally came to the stage to announce the end of his run, it was as though someone had cut the power at a carnival to announce there was a bomb in the cotton candy machine. For the next few minutes a room that was well-greased for a bronze medal victory speech gasped for air and began to cry.
A older women standing in front of the stage was broken by the news and holding back tears as she swatted at reporters, refusing to be interviewed. She didn’t want a microphone and a camera in her face, but she did want to talk. So we listened as she strained to say, “I don’t know what I’ll do now, I just don’t know.”
She paused between words to think, perhaps, of what the next four years of her life might have been like if the last twenty minutes had been different. “Tom was the only candidate for us,” she said between deep breaths.
We made our way around the room to gather more thoughts.
Paula Polk, a mother of two and a veteran, was also sad to see Tom go. “The president we put in office needs to look out for everyone,” she said of the man who had come to be known in the press as a dancing fool. “We’ve got a lot of work to do here in South Carolina,” she said. “We all need to be in a place where we can lift each other up.”
The campaign team joined Steyer on stage, for one last photo. To thank him and to shock the press pen at the sight of genuine tears shed for a third-string politician — more importantly a billionaire. He spent his money on free beer, entertainment and all the frills that were somehow meant to capture votes. It only took one lap around the room to see it. But the response form Tom’s supporters was enough to make any reporter wonder weather we ought to have taken a few more laps around the room long before this particular billionaire dropped out.
“He spent his money with black businesses.,” Johnnie Cordero, chairman of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina told The Root. He climbed up on stage to throw his arms around Tom. “He’s employing black people. That, to me, is significant. You demonstrate how serious you are by how you spend the money. Some candidates have spent 20 and 30 million dollars and want to come to South Carolina and want us to volunteer for everything. Tom Steyer is not like that.”
There are hundreds of people for whom a presidential campaign becomes a way of life. The money it takes to run a two year slog around the country to become the most powerful person on the planet also feeds families and — more likely — pays the bills for recently graduated entry-level politicos. So when a campaign ends, it’s not just the candidate who has to decide where to go from here and what to do with all the lawn signs.
The candidate is almost always the least honest in their assessment of what happened because the campaign is an extension of them and to everyone who witnessed their failure it defines who they are. They are now a loser and must justify their loss or allow it to mark them forever as an ‘also-ran.’
The staffers, on the other hand, newly unemployed, will give you every grimy detail because they’re the ones who’ve spent months in the trenches trying to convince thousands of people that they truly believe in this person; all while guarding their own words and behavior closely enough to protect the candidate from troublesome headlines.
With the pressure of having to win the next state and the next and the next lifted, there isn’t enough liquor in the world to release the kind of real talk and honest reckoning that is set loose at the end of a failed campaign.
A winning campaign can breathe a short sigh of relief before the next fight. A losing campaign can use that same breath to tell a frustrated truth.
We wrapped up our interviews around midnight. There was no time to properly digest what had just happened. We would have to reflect on it during a three hour drive to Atlanta and a 5AM flight to Los Angeles before voting began for Super Tuesday. The campaign was over for Tom, but it continued to move at a break-neck pace for the rest of us.
As we left we held the door for a campaign aide who was carrying a box full of signs that read “African Americans for Tom.”
Shortly after that, a woman made her way through the double-doors to breathe a sigh of relief and despair. “I’m done y’all,” she shouted. “Done!”
Nocola Hemphill was the regional organizing director for Tom’s campaign in South Carolina. Which meant that she was responsible for managing a team of local campaign aides to get the word out about Tom. Her job was to introduce Tom to South Carolina’s voters and a third place finish for a relative unknown candidate was reason be proud. Her sudden burst of emotion pulled Lance and I away from the sidewalk and back toward the double-doors.
“We’re not done here?” Lance asked.
“Not yet.” I said.
“Come here,” Hemphill gestured to another team member who had just left the building. “Look at us with our shirts on,” she said, fighting back tears and throwing her arms around him.
She agreed to talk to us.
“It’s gloves off at this point,” Hemphill started. All the polite consideration that might have kept negative headlines at bay was out the window. She was free to speak her mind, as was her friend Dawn Alston, a reparations activist with American Descendants of Slavery.
“We need a candidate who is a true ally of our people,” Hemphill said and Biden was not that candidate. Neither was Bernie Sanders. The team had nowhere left to turn.
“The problem that we have with Biden is that he is the architect of mass incarceration which has decimated the black family,” said Alston, noting that Sanders voted for that same bill when Biden brought it to the floor in 1994.
There’s no doubt that the crime bill Joe Biden championed as his own until 2015 had significant effects on the black community, though we don’t have a catch-all statistic we can point to. What we do know is that Black children are ten times as likely to have an incarcerated parent and twice as likely to grow up in a single parent home than white children. We know that mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes and arbitrary drug sentences are just some of the reasons the law was so devastating. In many ways, the country has improved, but in many other ways some folks in America are worse off today than they were before the Civil Rights Act was passed.
“Listen, black people are over it,” Hemphill said. “We are over supporting the Democratic party for, what, 60 years? We have been loyal Democrats and nobody has a black agenda. Nobody has a plan for our communities.”
Hemphill was referring to the fact that no Republican had won more than 15 percent of black voters in a presidential race since 1964 and that’s partially why Joe Biden felt so comfortable about his ability to win their vote. After all, the first black president was a Democrat and Biden served as his vice president.
Hemphill was also thinking of the many ways in which America as a whole, had not moved past the legacy of slavery. The way she saw it there was still more fight to be had, but few fighters left. She had no way of knowing that in three months George Floyd would be killed in the street in Minneapolis, sparking protests across the country.
“We need white allies, we need LGBT folks, we need white women,” Hemphill said. “When they look around and they see black people by their side fighting for them, we need them there for us.”
It’s not hard to understand why reporters chose to judge Steyer based on the entertainment at his rallies rather than the substance of his campaign. Substantive conversations about what might inspire black voters to go to the polls wouldn’t share well on social — at least not before George Floyd. A video of an old white billionaire dancing to a dated rap song to pander his way to victory has more of the viral flavor we look for. It can slow your scrolling thumb long enough to guarantee you’ll smash the share button with impulsive fury. It’s why the title of this article is The White Guy for Reparations and softly implies that he’s a loser for it.
“It bothers me that when Tom came out for reparations, we did not galvanize around that,” Hemphill told us.
On some level, every American knows just how difficult it is to have this conversation. To take someone seriously when they mention reparations. Hemphill seemed to feel that frustration in her bones.
“What white people need to recognize is that we are their friends,” she told us. “But when we hear someone speak to reparations and we look around, there’s nobody there but us.”
“Both Biden and Sanders voted for reparations for Japanese Americans and Holocaust survivors,” Alston added. “It’s insulting and it’s hard to believe.”
In the case of Holocaust survivors and Japanese-American prisoners, critics of reparations will point out that the country recognized the injustices done while those who lived it were still around to receive restitution. In short, America has put off reparations for the descendants of slaves for so long it’s now become irrelevant, but “the past is the past” is more complicated than it sounds.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, America came as close to reparations as it’s ever been. Not in the form of cash, but in the form of land. As many as 40,000 newly-freed Americans were given the abandoned land of slave owners who had fled as penance for the country’s sins and that might have been the end of this uncomfortable conversation if Abraham Lincoln had lived. Instead, that land was taken back shortly after it was given and new laws were put in place to divide black and white America for another hundred years.
To revisit the issue now would require us all to confront the past and potentially come to the uneasy conclusion that it still has some affect on the present. In 2018, just over a hundred and fifty years after the abolition of slavery, Congress finally held hearings to discuss the possibility of one day disusing the possibility of reparations. Not a hearing on reparations, but a hearing on the potential need for a future hearing on reparations.
Trapped in a loop of generational can-kicking, the reluctance to confront the legacy of slavery is an awkward quirk of American culture that amplifies its discomfort the longer it’s not addressed. As Harriot suggests, it takes a willingness to listen. A willingness to heal and understand that the past might not be so not long passed in America that few remain who remember it.
The legacy of slavery is far more recent than Americans ought to be comfortable with, especially when referring to history as an example for how far the country has come. Progress is often marked by saying that slavery was abolished with the end of the Civil War and discrimination was outlawed with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Rarely are Americans given the chance to consider whether their experiences have fallen neatly in line with the passing of a law or the milestones of history.
It took two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation for every slave in the country to learn they had been freed, while freed slaves continued to work on plantations without proper compensation into the 1940s.
The last known freed slave died on October 15, 1971. Seven years after the Civil Rights Act was passed there was still at least one living man, named Sylvester Magee, who could describe what it was like to be born a slave.
The last reported lynching was in 1981. Fourteen years after racial discrimination was outlawed, nineteen year-old Michael Donald was chosen at random, abducted and hung from a tree in Mobile, Alabama. One of his murderers, Henry Hays, was the only member of the Ku Klux Klan to receive the death penalty in Alabama for the murder of a black man. He was executed in 1997.
In 2018 — the same year a political commentator named Candice Owens, a black woman with a successful career in media, told Congress that America has progressed well-past the legacy of slavery — Sumter County, Alabama got its first desegregated school, sixty years after the federal law first mandated it.
Between the milestones of history are the experiences of the people who lived it. Those experiences, carried forward, determined the way children were raised. They defined the values a community grew up with; shaped by the scars of the things they never lived to see or were spared from by a loving grandparent so that we might call it history.
“We’ve got aunties and grand-mamas who prayed forever on their knees, screaming out loud,” Hemphill confided in us. “That resonates still today. Which is why I showed up for this campaign.”
If the prevailing wisdom is that disparity is a problem of the past, there are still a few ways in which the black community is worse off today. Where segregation once forced black Americans to buy from black owned businesses, business ownership is now in decline in the black community. That’s hardly an argument to re-segregate society, but it might be a reason to ask whether banks treat black businesses differently and what might be done about it.
“We are fifteen percent of the population, but fifty percent of the homeless,” says Alston, laying out the ways in which America’s racial divide is no longer as brutally obvious as slavery or as openly visible as segregation. “Because we’re already basically poor, we borrow more money, we have higher interest payments, it takes us longer to accumulate wealth, if we’re able to, and then we also face discrimination.”
According to the Urban Institute the current 30-percentage-point gap between black and white home ownership is wider than it was in 1968 when discrimination was legal. When the economy crashed in 2007, more than half of black homeowners had been financed by predatory subprime mortgages. The solutions to these remaining issues are surely complex and worthy of debate, but there is clearly still more more history left to correct.
Once, Americans of all shades fought to do away with slavery. Then, again, they fought for integration. What remains now is the most difficult fight of all because an interest rate is far easier to hide than a pair of manacles or a sign that reads: “Whites Only.” If any work is still left to be done it comes with the added effort of convincing most of America — the majority of the country that lives well enough to know there will always be food on the table — that their experience of America is entirely different from other Americans. It becomes a fight against the more subtle effects of those stubborn scars of history.
Subtle is the specialty of the clever architects of government like Lee Atwater, a former Republican political strategist for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In 1981, the same year Michael Donald was lynched in Mobile, Atwater was interviewed by political scientist Alexander Lamis about his party’s ‘Southern Strategy’. He promised Lamis a candid break down of their approach so long as he wouldn’t be quoted directly.
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”*
Atwater goes on to explain that the strategy works not because the majority of white Americans consciously want to keep black Americans down, but because the idea that anyone can succeed in America if they just work hard enough is an extremely attractive one. The policies aren’t outright racist, they disadvantage the poor and if three hundred years of lawful discrimination has ensured that many of the poor also happen to be black, so be it.
“It’s like what Bill Cosby used to do. It’s the scolding, it’s the bootstrapperism,” says Alston, referring to the famous adage of personal responsibility that urges everyone to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make their own success regardless of their circumstances. It’s the hazy belief in an American Dream that insists the descendants of slaves and the descendants of plantation owners were on equal footing the moment the Civil War ended.
“Let me tell you something,” Hemphill said. “This is a slave state and the biggest challenge, I believe, is breaking the slave mindset. That culture still exists.” It’s built into South Carolina, she explains, where the bricks of the state’s most historic sites still bare the handprints of the slave’s who built them. A state where it costs $20,000 just to appear on the ballot as a candidate.
“We are intellectuals,” says Hemphill. “We are hard working and no matter where we turn we have roadblocks, so no matter how hard we fight for the American Dream it does not exist for us. They want our vote and that’s it.”
It’s a frustration that Republicans have tried to capitalize on with the Blexit campaign encouraging black voters to flee the Democrats for the Republican party. They point out that Democrats used to be the party of slavery, that Lincoln was the first Republican. What they fail to mention is that Republican’s are also the party of Atwater. The party of the Southern Strategy that drove so many black Americans away in favor of southern whites.
In 1996, former Congressman and Republican vice presidential nominee, Jack Kemp called his own party out on the issue of race saying, “The Democrats had a terrible history and they overcame it. We had a great history and we turned aside.”
So Hemphill and Alston are not about to vote for Donald Trump. “Hello no” they said, when asked because trading one disinterested party for another is not the point. The point, instead is that they felt they had no place left to turn.
Many of the founders of America and those who followed expressed a fear that their slaves, if freed, would retaliate. History has proven them to be categorically wrong. Despite enduring the worst of their country’s history, black Americans have done the best that anyone can to hold on to the promise of America. To hold it’s institutions accountable to its own ideals. After all this time, the only thing the descendants of slaves have asked is that their country spare a bit of time to listen and to heal.
“Black Americans believe in the Declaration and the Constitution,” Alston said. She recognized how far the country has come. How far it still has to go and that the end, whatever it may be, isn’t going to be perfect. “You’re not going to change human behavior. What we want is what’s owed to us and then we want to be left alone.”
*The decision was made not to censor the racial slur uttered by political strategist Lee Atwater from his original quote because his casual use of the term illustrates the callously racist nature of the strategy he promoted among the candidates he worked with. Above all, Atwater’s request was that his statement be kept secret and we did not wish to honor that request.