‘They need a time out.’ Black voters in South Carolina want Democrats to calm down
Darryl Thompson furrowed his brows, wearily rested his chin on his fist and kept repeating one phrase as he watched Democratic presidential candidates battle one another for the better part of two hours Tuesday night: “Come together.”
Thompson, a 53-year-old truck driver, watched the debate with 50 other voters at a viewing party ahead of the Democratic Party’s state primary on Saturday. He wasn’t the only one worried yet somewhat optimistic about Democrats’ chances of defeating President Trump.
But Thompson could hardly stomach the contentious, and at times chaotic, atmosphere onstage half an hour away, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg fended off attacks on their past words, deeds and political records. For him, the divisiveness among the candidates made for good television but bad politics.
“Some of it got out of hand,” said Thompson, a resident of nearby Summerville who said it was the first time he’d attended a debate watch party. “I cannot stress this enough: We have to stand together.
“The Republican Party has shown us how to do it” by rallying behind Trump, said Thompson, a Democrat who’s considering voting for Sanders after his victory last week in Nevada’s caucuses. “We should follow their lead. They’re not bright, but they’re together.”
In a chaotic Democratic debate, candidates scrambled to try to blunt Bernie Sanders’ momentum. But they spent just as much time shouting at and over one another.
The watch party had the trappings of Southern backyard picnic — fried chicken and fish, red rice and beans, pink lemonade, three flavors of pudding and easy conversation. Hosted by the nonprofit group Black Votes Matter, it was designed as a forum where African Americans could talk freely with each other about the concerns affecting their communities and learn about the presidential hopefuls.
It was also a chance to indulge in the guilty pleasure of talking to the TV while others are trying to listen — another trapping of Southern culture.
“Thank you!” one woman across the room shouted when former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg pointed out that no candidates of color were onstage to talk about issues important to the state’s majority black Democratic electorate.
“Short and sweet,” another woman said sarcastically when the less-than-towering Bloomberg joked about his height when asked about misconceptions about him — “That I’m 6 feet tall” — and delivered the most concise closing remarks of the night.
But in South Carolina, as in much of the South, African Americans like Thompson and most of the people who gathered for the party at a shopping-center event space in the city of North Charleston know it’s unseemly to drag family business out into the public.
It was also Erica Cokley’s first debate watch party. Although the community organizer hadn’t picked a favorite candidate, she’d ruled out former Republican Bloomberg because of his previous support for the “stop-and-frisk” policing practice while he was New York’s mayor, an issue the other candidates have used against him.
Still, the Charleston resident and mother of three grimaced during much of the first 45 minutes as the candidates did what she feared they’d do — bicker.
Although Cokley’s a loyal Democratic voter who plans to take her 21-year-old son to the polls for Saturday’s primary, she says she hates politics because of its divisive tenor, even if she agrees with some of the criticisms.
“They need a time out,” she said during one especially heated back-and-forth that had the candidates raising their hands to speak only to talk over each other.
She left the event feeling torn between veteran politicians Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, and sensing that 38-year-old, relatively inexperienced Buttigieg has a good shot at winning the nomination — but sometime down the road, not now.
Temple Burris, an independent who lives in North Charleston, came to the watch party already leaning toward voting for Biden, and he didn’t disappoint her as he largely avoided the fighting that dominated the first hour of the debate.
The insurance agent, 44, was also impressed with billionaire California businessman Tom Steyer for managing to stay out of the fray, musing out loud that he should join forces with Biden and form a presidential ticket.
“Biden-Steyer 2020,” Burris said while flashing a mischievous grin and holding up the “V” for victory sign with her right hand.
What are black voters in South Carolina thinking as the former vice president has lost momentum in Democrats’ nominating contest?
“Hopefully,” Burris said, “they’ll start putting actions behind their words.”
Burris cited scripture when summing up the debate and her view, much like Thompson’s, that the Democrats must display more unity.
“They were talking about helping other countries, but until we fix our house, we can’t fix anybody else’s,” she said. “They’re all Democrats, but they act like they’re each other’s worst enemy. Like the Bible says, a house divided cannot stand.”
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