Democrats converge on South Carolina for fried fish, selfies and very short speeches

Twenty-one of the candidates seeking the Democratic Party presidential nomination pose together after House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn's "World Famous Fish Fry" on Friday in Columbia, S.C.
Twenty-one of the candidates seeking the Democratic Party presidential nomination pose together after House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry” on Friday in Columbia, S.C.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

The largest gathering of presidential candidates ever spent their Friday night stumping for supporters in 90-degree heat and air thick with humidity and the scent of more than two tons of frying fish.

Rep. James E. Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry, this year held on the banks of the Congaree River, has for years been an obligatory stop for Democratic contenders aiming to win over this city and state’s voters — who on Feb. 29 will be among the first in the nation to cast ballots in the primary race. This year, 21 of the 23 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination made their way here.

They mingled with voters at a political spectacle that took on carnival-like proportions as volunteers handed out plates of deep-fried fish — 4,400 pounds’ worth — with slices of white bread.

The host, as majority whip, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, then invited the contenders to the stage one by one, all of them wearing blue “Clyburn” t-shirts for their minute or two in the spotlight.

There were clear favorites among the thousands who turned out to experience the spectacle, perhaps none more surprising than long-shot Andrew Yang. His “YangGang” was in full force, shouting for the entrepreneur with so much enthusiasm that the rather tame response to many other candidates was all the more notable.


He jumped from the stage at end of his speech — after highlighting his “trickle-up” plan to give every American $1,000 to lift the economy — to hand out high-fives in the crowd.

Presidential candidate Andrew Yang high fives attendees at the fish fry in Columbia, S.C.
(Tyrone Beason / Los Angeles Times)

Yang supporters Russell and Elasa Lanham brought their 4-year-old son, Zephaniah, to the fish fry from their home near Charlotte, N.C., about two hours away.

“I voted for Trump, and she voted for Trump,” Russell said. “But all I see is division.”

Both have had a change of heart about the president.

They see in Yang the possibility of bringing the country together.

“Yang is uniting everybody — it doesn’t matter who you are,” said Russell, who’s 43. “And he’s solution-oriented.”

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren gave her own rousing speech, in which she struck a similar theme of taking control back from the nation’s corporate class and investing in working people.

Fellow Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Bernie Sanders of Vermont also drew cheers, though Harris’ speech was drowned out at points by a woman in the crowd demanding she address the issue of reparations for the African American descendants of slaves. Harris stuck to her prepared remarks.

For many black voters, 2020 isn’t about pride or making history. It’s about beating Trump »

“Amazing, unbelievable,” a man in the crowd whispered to himself as all 21 candidates filed onto the stage to close the event and pose for the most diverse presidential-contender class picture in the history of either of the nation’s two major parties.

The no-shows were Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter Buttigieg, whose campaign had announced earlier that he would cut back on his South Carolina plans to help manage the fall-out after a white police officer shot and killed a black man in that city on Sunday.

Clyburn started the fish fry in 1992 as a modest affair to thank local Democratic volunteers. There was nothing modest about this year’s edition or about the ambitions of a Democratic slate fighting to unseat an unpopular but still-formidable incumbent in the White House.

This was Clyburn’s chance to show them why South Carolina matters to any candidate who hopes to clinch the Democratic nomination next year, especially Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, both African Americans seeking to make history, or repeat it, by winning in November 2020.

In 2008, Barack Obama, then a virtual unknown to the voters here, charmed the crowd with his message of party unity when Clyburn introduced him at the fish fry that year, instantly boosting his stature and viability as a candidate in this state.

Harris, seeking to shore up her own support among African Americans and connect with women voters, made a day of it.

She spent part of the afternoon meeting with South Carolinians, rolling through a long list of policy positions at a backyard event at the home of Valerie Aiken, mother of former Miss America Kimberly Aiken, and rallying with her fans downtown.

Harris and the other candidates also attended a formal dinner held by the South Carolina Democratic Party ahead of its state convention on Saturday, where the candidates are expected to come speak.

For the Democratic faithful who braved the heat, insects and lines, Clyburn’s event offered a chance to hear candidate pitches on expanding healthcare access, making sure people with HIV get life-saving drugs, protecting water sources from pollution, and improving schools.

But it also gave them a chance to think more generally about what type of person and temperament they want in the White House.

“I’m ready to see a fresh face — somebody new,” said Allison Collins, a college sophomore majoring in political science who practically rubbed shoulders with Sanders as he stunned waiting attendees by cutting a path through the throngs before the speeches began. Collins said her favorite candidates were Buttigieg, Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden, who stayed behind for more than half an hour after the event to shake hands and pose for selfies with supporters.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren greets the crowd at the end of Rep. James Clyburn’s annual event.
(Tyrone Beason / Los Angeles Times)

As Warren worked her own crowd of fans afterward, Columbia resident Ben Royer mused on how she’d won him over with her energy and concrete proposals.

“I wasn’t a Warren person until tonight,” the 31-year-old said.

Royer used to be an avid public radio listener but has grown exhausted by the “daily barrage” of political conflicts. Now he calms his nerves with audio books.

“More than anything else, though, I just want the primaries to be positive,” Royer said. “We have too much on the line in this election.”