A New Southern Strategy

Anton Gunn's e-mail promises I won't have a hard time picking him out in the Starbucks in Richland County, South Carolina.

He's right.

Easily the biggest guy in the room, the former offensive lineman looms over an older man in an American Legion baseball cap with whom he's chatting about local business. We're just northeast of Columbia, South Carolina's capital, in the heart of Gunn's state House district.

Gunn is used to standing out. An African American representative in a majority-white district, a Democrat in a Republican-dominated state, and a 36-year-old surrounded by career politicians, he makes a fitting messenger for Obama's campaign--trail message about the need for a new kind of politics that moves beyond traditional divisions.

The 2008 election may be long over, but Obama's campaign themes are still being put to the test in states like South Carolina. When Gunn became Obama's state political director during the all-important South Carolina primary, he had already made one run at public office and lost. After Obama won the primary, Gunn ran for state representative again. This time, he won. He has also maintained his Obama-campaign ties: Gunn is the state director for Organizing for America, the grass-roots group keeping a semblance of Obama's campaign presence alive nationwide.

Gunn clearly loves the campaign trail but also seems to enjoy the Legislature. He's as at home talking about everything from the digital divide and broadband access -- "the dial tone of the future," he calls it -- to tax credits for employers who provide health care to physical-education requirements in school to corruption -- -sponsoring a bill to fight "dudes getting money on the back end from their brother-in-law's government contract."

He has gotten involved in messy issues with special relevance to South Carolina -- he joined the education superintendent in pushing for public "school choice," against some in his own party as well as Republicans who want to privatize the whole system. He also signed on to a letter to Obama from young elected officials calling for a climate deal in Copenhagen and a serious investment in sustainable-energy technology.

Gunn is up for re-election this year, and state Democratic Party activists are already floating his name for higher office. But for Gunn, South Carolina isn't a stepping stone to a national political career -- it's home, one he's chosen and wants to fight for, despite the fact that Republicans are unlikely to take his hands and dance off into a bipartisan future.

Though Democrats have turned more attention to the South in recent years, the region's political alignment that solidified in the 1990s, in which conservative Democrats were replaced by conservative Republicans, is not likely to change soon. Ed Kilgore, editor of The Democratic Strategist and a South Carolina native, notes that many in the party still treat the region as a long shot. "We're just crazy if we don't look at the excitement the Obama nominating contest created in South Carolina," Kilgore says. It's not just Obama. Democrat Jim Rex became South Carolina's superintendent of education in 2006 by a slim margin and is now fighting for the governor's mansion. And while shouting "You lie!" at a Democratic president would have once been a near guarantee of political success in the state, pollsters have called Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's re-election fight, against a well-financed Democrat, former marine Rob Miller, one to watch.

But even where electoral victories are rare, organizing can thrive and win the occasional victory for the disenfranchised of the state. Gunn's journey from organizing outside electoral politics to working from within the political system in what most consider hostile territory for Democrats provides a glimpse into what Obama's army of organizers learned on the campaign trail -- and marks one path toward a future in which true progressive politics is possible -- even in South Carolina.

***

Gunn moved to South Carolina for college in 1990 and has since made it his job to understand his adopted state. He played Division I football for the University of South Carolina, in Columbia. After graduating with his bachelor's in history in 1994, he went into the nonprofit world, working on children's issues and economic development. He got his real education, however, with South Carolina Fair Share, where he was hired to help low-income South Carolinians organize for affordable health care. He credits Lenora Bush Reese, who first hired him as an organizer despite his lack of experience, with shaping him as a person as well as an advocate. Many years later, he told The State newspaper, "She broadened my world view."

Fair Share fights to empower South Carolina's low-income citizens, tracks legislative activity, and provides support for other nonprofits in the state. It is officially nonpartisan, but working on issues of poverty, racial bias in mortgage lending, and health-care reform means butting heads with the state's entrenched conservative leadership, which is adamantly opposed to public spending. Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies, notes that it is one of the only grass-roots organizations in the state. Erica Carter, who met Gunn in 1996 at South Carolina Fair Share, says he was "like a pit bull" with his energy and dedication to the cause. His job back then, she says, was to motivate people, to get them to fight for their own issues, and also to find out their biggest health-care concerns.

She adds, "Because of his height and his size, when he goes toe to toe with people, it's something to see." But like many community organizers -- and like Obama in Chicago in the 1990s -- Gunn saw electoral politics as an obstacle and politicians as simply people to put pressure on. When she first met him, Carter says, "It was 'I don't care what that politician has to say.'"

In 2000, when Gunn was in graduate school pursuing a master of social work, his brother Cherone was one of 17 seamen killed in the U.S.S. Cole bombing. At the memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery, Gunn spoke on behalf of the family: "I'm very proud," he said. "He made his family proud. He made his country proud." Later, he told a Washington Post reporter, "Remember, they died for the country. They died defending a country we love."

His brother's death made him deepen his commitment to community service, and Gunn says he was finally pushed to run for office by his frustration with "old-school bad politicians," who made life so hard for him as an organizer. "Who are these clowns that refuse to do what people ask them to do, and why are they there, and what can we do to get rid of them?" he asked himself.

So in 2006, Gunn ran for the state House of Representatives, losing by less than 300 votes out of 14,000 in a majority-white district long held by a white moderate Republican. "I just ran out of time," Gunn later told The State. "If I had talked to 298 more people, then I would have won." South Carolina politics are notoriously top-down and loaded with quid pro quo endorsements. "Street money has been part of things for so long, people don't even question the ethics of it anymore," Kilgore says. But even though he lost, Gunn's upstart campaign surprised cynics. He took the rest of 2006 off, and in January of 2007, when much of the Democratic old guard had already been snapped up by then-presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, Gunn was one of the new crowd brought in to help elect "that skinny dude from Illinois," as Gunn jokingly calls him. He had recently stumbled across The Audacity of Hope in an airport bookstore and says he was drawn in by the message as much as the idea of an Obama presidency -- and knew he had to get involved. (He was clearly inspired by Obama: Gunn's first book, self-published last year, is called The Audacity of Leadership.) Gunn famously called Obama to say, "I may not know a whole lot about politics, but I know a lot about South Carolina." He was hired. Early on in the primary, Clinton was getting as much African American support as Obama. The post-election narrative that black voters were in the bag for the black candidate from the start -- fostered in part by Bill Clinton's comments comparing Obama's campaign to Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 primary efforts in the state -- was far from true. At times, Gunn and others on the campaign had to push Obama to court black voters. The New York Times reported that, on the night before the primary, Gunn pushed hard to get the candidate to attend a gala for the African American sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, enlisting Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett in his effort.

"We were being told at every barbershop and beauty shop we went into that this was Clinton country," says Gillian Bergeron, who was an early campaign staffer in the state. At her very first staff meeting, Gunn laid out the rules. "Under no circumstances are we going to do South Carolina politics as usual. We're not paying for a vote, we're not paying for an endorsement, and we're not going to talk about the fact that other candidates are doing that," Bergeron recalls him saying.

She continues, "Considering how much I heard from ministers or 'neighborhood leaders' saying, 'If you want the black vote you've got to pay for it,' I can't imagine what he was hearing as our political director."

Gunn stuck with the organizing strategies he'd mastered at Fair Share, talking to people in their homes, hangouts, and churches and registering new voters. In the end, more than eight out of 10 black voters went for Obama. Kilgore notes that the campaign managed to get black voters to turn out for Obama without heightening the severe racial polarization of the state. "[It was] an example of how you can use an organizing method that not only works and makes people feel empowered in a way that just giving them a ride to the polls doesn't," Kilgore says. The massive Obama victory in South Carolina -- 55 percent to Clinton's 27 percent -- was the moment that the Obama campaign proved its wider ability to win -- even without the establishment.

Carter, Gunn's former community-organizing colleague from Fair Share, says that the Obama campaign shaped Gunn as much as he shaped it. "Now he's seasoned a little bit," Carter says. "He understands that politics can be tricky and you have to finesse people. You can't make enemies out of everybody."

After the primary, many of the organizers from South Carolina packed up and state-hopped around the country, getting promoted again and again within the campaign until they landed in administration jobs. Gunn could have done the same, but Bergeron says he "stayed with his original vision." He returned to his district to run for the state House again. Excitement over Obama's candidacy and the infrastructure from the campaign were fueling voter turnout, and some Obama supporters offered financial backing as well -- Gunn drew nearly $80,000 in donations from around the nation. But he stuck with the strategy that had served the Obama campaign so well: Gunn went door to door, reaching out voter by voter in his sprawling district.

And this time, he won.

***

Spanning parts of Richland and Kershaw counties, Gunn's district is nearly three times the size of other state House districts and is the fastest-growing in the state. It's mostly suburban, with some rural areas, and most of the population growth comes from people who relocate from the North or whom Gunn calls "half backs" -- people who moved to Florida and then came halfway back up the East Coast. People's incomes as well as their education levels are higher here than in most of the state, though still below the national average. Forty percent of the voters in 2008 were African American; the first time Gunn ran, 68 percent of the voters were white.

To stay in touch with the people in his district, Gunn has been holding town-hall meetings -- "not ginned-up town hall meetings" but regular opportunities to converse with voters. Many of the constituents he faced at the three town halls he held in August and the three in December were not supporters, to put it mildly. But, Gunn says, "I get encouraged by people who didn't vote for me who say, 'Keep speaking the truth. Don't tell us what we want to hear, tell us what we need to hear.'"

Still, he faces challenges. Gunn notes that people still come to town meetings unsure of what their state representative actually does. "I get a lot of calls that say, 'Dismantle the IRS, government is bad, don't vote for cap-and-trade' -- first of all, I'm not in Congress so I don't get to vote for those things," Gunn says. Yet he's frequently the target of critiques of the president. "'Obamacare is socialism, Obama's a communist.' I've gotten called all of those things. It's painful to hear that resentment," he says. Whether or not he agrees with the Glenn Beck fans in his district, Gunn knows he has to try to understand them. More important, he has to try to get them to understand him.

Progressives might be angry with Obama's professed commitment to bipartisanship at a time when Democrats enjoy a large majority in Congress, but to get anything done in South Carolina, possibly the most conservative and Republican state in the country, Gunn has to work with the other side and try to win over Republican voters. "There were people who had my yard sign right next to John McCain's yard sign," he notes.

Gunn says he's focused on doing what he can while he's in office -- which is why he's co-sponsored 204 pieces of legislation -- and colleagues from across the aisle vouch for his willingness to try to bridge the party gap. "He works to find common ground, which is something we need more of in politics," says state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, who sits next to Gunn in the House. Ballentine is a Republican, but he and Gunn have co-sponsored a couple of bills -- including a proposal to amend the state constitution's ballot-initiative process -- a cross-party collaborative effort he says is rare in the South Carolina Legislature. In the latest budget fight, Gunn managed to get passed an amendment focused on government transparency, a difficult feat even for Republicans.

Kromm says of Gunn, "Because of his background with Fair Share, he brings an insider/outsider perspective to politics. He definitely wants to be and is an emerging political leader, but he has one foot outside realizing that we need a movement behind it, we need organizing behind it. He's going to maintain that critical distance." As Gunn likes to say, "People don't vote rationally; they vote emotionally." But his very success might belie that observation. To get elected, he had to convince at least some people to put aside emotional reactions and actually listen to him, to talk about issues like sewer problems on one side of his district and traffic on the other. To stay in office, he'll have to keep talking about the issues he can actually do something about.

Those in his party seem pretty satisfied with Gunn's approach. As Terry Bergeron, a Democratic Party activist and mother of Gillian, said when she introduced Gunn at a rally this summer on Hilton Head Island: "Remember the name Anton Gunn. You'll be voting for him when he runs for statewide office."

***

There's a sense among some state Democrats that this could be the year when they begin to make some gains. After all, South Carolina Republicans have made all sorts of negative headlines lately. Some, like Rep. Joe Wilson and Sen. Jim DeMint (known for his obstruction of Obama's nominees and his visit to the coup government in Honduras), are still popular with their conservative base. Others, like embattled Gov. Mark Sanford, have embarrassed their party to the point of impeachment. Sanford is protected only by the fact that his would-be replacement, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, has embarrassments of his own, ranging from multiple traffic offenses to a vicious rant against people who receive public assistance.

A plurality of voters say the state is headed in the wrong direction, and Republicans seem to have lost sight of the compromise that had allowed them to govern the state for most of the last two decades. In the 1990s, South Carolina Republicans managed to temper fire-breathing conservatives who wanted to keep the Confederate flag on the state's Capitol with more moderate, business--oriented figures, like the late Gov. Carroll Campbell Jr., who want the low-wage, anti-union state to remain controversy-free and attractive to employers. "As long as the Republicans continue to mismanage -- which they will -- there are always going to be opportunities in the South," Kilgore says. In Gunn's view, issues such as poverty (15.1 percent of South Carolinians lived below the poverty line in 2007) and the economic crisis have lessened people's appetite for hyper-partisan bickering. "They're sick and tired of being laughed at by the entire nation," he says. "They're sick and tired of being ranked at the top of everything bad and at the bottom of everything good." The number of Democrats in the state is on the rise, partly due to transplants from more progressive areas of the country. Though the state doesn't track voter registration by party, a 2008 survey found 34 percent identified as Democratic and 33.5 percent identified as Republican.

Nora Kravec, a volunteer with Organizing for America, notes that the group has picked up new volunteers who weren't part of the campaign, and OFA has maintained staff in Charleston, where she lives, as well as in Columbia. "We've gotten a few people who've said, 'Boy, I wish I'd done this before,'" she says. Volunteers collect declarations of support for the health-care bill, hold rallies, and attend church events like they did on the campaign trail. Kilgore points out that just having a Democratic infrastructure in place in the state is a huge step forward. "The last successful Democratic year, in 1998, when we won the governorship and Senator Fritz Hollings managed to hang on for another term, the campaign was totally financed by the video-poker industry," he says.

The divides in the state are still vicious -- Ballentine expresses disappointment that most votes in the Legislature break down along party lines, and Gunn says that some Republicans will agree with him behind closed doors but won't vote that way when it comes to the floor. Andre Bauer's comments comparing poor people to "stray animals" and Wilson's shout heard 'round the country may be extreme examples, but Gunn points out that they come out of a particular political climate.

"If you'd have told me someone was going to scream at the president and call him a liar, he'd have been the last person on my list. Joe is an aw-shucks kind of guy," Gunn says. "When you want to breed negativity, it can infect anybody, and it can take people to a level they didn't think was possible."

Kravec calls Sheri Few, Gunn's 2010 opponent, a "tea bagger," and Gunn notes that Few uses the tea party?style anti-Obama rhetoric against him. Her support of tax credits for parents sending their children to private schools makes her a polarizing candidate in a district that actually has some of the state's best schools, and she's run several times and lost, but Gunn notes that she has always been well funded.

Still, people seem to want to hear what Gunn is saying -- Kravec says that his involvement in an event guarantees a crowd, and she thinks he could win higher office. If he has political aspirations beyond South Carolina, Gunn doesn't talk about them. "This is my home. I want to do everything in my power to make this state great. I'm invested. I have a 4-year-old girl who's going to grow up in this state," he says.

He continues, "We still do have our pockets of those folks who want to hold on to the old vestiges of South Carolina from yesteryear, and they have their influence. That's why the Confederate flag still flies, but I don't really care. ... What's more important is figuring out how we get to the nitty-gritty on issues like education, which is the great equalizer. There are people who try to hold us back, but as the days go by, there's a lot less of them and a lot more of me."

Gunn doesn't want to fight the culture wars -- he talks public--school choice and small-business tax credits, not abortion rights and marriage equality. He downplays traditionally explosive racial issues and calls the Confederate-flag issue a distraction. But as Kilgore says, it's almost impossible to ignore race in South Carolina.

"It's never going to go away," Gunn says. "The vast majority of progress has been made over the last 40 years, which is only a tenth of the time that it has been a problem." Still, he points out that race is only one piece of the messy puzzle that makes up his opposition. "You also have some people who I think are not focused on race; they're rightly focused on the debt of our country, the economy, and the only person they can see who should be doing something about that is the leader of the free world."

Kilgore thinks that the Obama campaign and people like Gunn, who both influenced and were influenced by the election, laid a path for organizing in the South that goes beyond racial polarization. Kromm notes, "You have the makings of something different, but it has to be nourished, it has to be strengthened, it has to be invested in." As the OFA state director, Gunn is tasked with maintaining some of that investment. While other state legislators also have day jobs -- Ballentine works at Wells Fargo -- Gunn's day job is keeping South Carolinians involved in progressive politics. From new-media tools (he's a frequent Twitterer) to door-to-door canvassing and visiting churches and union events, Gunn and OFA are focused on the issues -- health care, education, and jobs, jobs, jobs -- not the implications for the national Democratic Party. We've seen Democrats lose elections this year when they've lost touch with the people, and Gunn isn't likely to forget that. It's not hyperbole when he says, "We literally changed the course of American political history by what we did here in South Carolina during the primary."

Maybe the best thing about the way Obama changed campaigning is that he left people like Anton Gunn, who already knew how to organize, knowing how to win elections.

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