In many ways Marnie Robinson’s office in the Brookland Baptist church in Columbia, South Carolina, is just your typical office – a computer, a desk, incessant phone calls. But she also keeps some things there you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a church PR coordinator’s office, like a framed photo of the first family, featuring all four Obamas encircled by a presidential seal. And just beside them, a series of enlarged laminated pages from the local paper dated 5 November 2008, heralding the election of the first black president with headlines like: “History” and “His story”.
Robinson can still recall the first time Barack Obama entered her consciousness. It was 2004 and he was giving his speech at the Democratic National Convention . “I was just amazed,” recalls Robinson, who was home watching the speech with her family. She remembers saying aloud: “That man is going to be president.” What Robinson didn’t predict was that Obama would come to visit Brookland Baptist multiple times as he campaigned for higher office – and that on 19 May 2007, Michelle Obama, on one such visit, would invite Robinson to come work for the campaign, as Obama’s faith coordinator for the state of South Carolina. In June of that year, Robinson joined the campaign, and she still keeps the business cards memorializing her stint in her desk.
This election, though, the choice is less obvious to Robinson. Days before the Saturday primary here, she remains undecided, telling me: “We have to have someone in office who’s going to be able to carry the mantle.” Whether that person is Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, though, she can’t say – or won’t anyway. I speak with Robinson on Tuesday, just days after the church was visited by Sanders, and one day before his fellow Democratic presidential candidate is expected to stop by, and the question, to her mind, “is whether they’re going to do what they say they’re going to. They’re saying in the first 100 days they’re going to do all this,” she says of candidates generically. “That’s not how it works.”
In a state where Obama crushed Clinton in 2008, winning 44 of 46 counties , this year’s election in South Carolina is very much a question of determining who is the best heir to Obama’s legacy. And while Clinton, with her repeated promises to build on the Obama administration’s tenure, might seem like the obvious pick, in more than a dozen interviews conducted by the Guardian, many South Carolinians were attracted to the idealism of Sanders, whose message of revolution echoes Obama’s rhetoric of hope and change.
That was certainly the case for Lashonda Nesmith, 42, who can still recall what resonated for her most about Obama’s message. “It was the hope and the change because that was something we didn’t have too much of at the time. And that’s what’s happening now with Bernie,” she adds. “It’s the same momentum happening all over again.”
Gesturing at her 10-year-old son, Dreshon Jackson, she talks about looking after her child’s future, and says in particular that Sanders’ promises to end mass incarceration go beyond anything any other candidate has promised. Sanders has been criticized for such promises, and particularly for his vow to end mass incarceration by the end of his first term, with skeptics calling his policies naive or impossible.
But don’t try telling that to Nesmith, a county chair of the Democratic party in Florence, South Carolina. “What, you mean it’s hard work? I’m not scared of hard work,” she says when asked if Sanders’ grand visions are possible. Turning to her son, she asks: “Dreshon, you scared of hard work?”
He shakes his head and clutches his Bernie sign a little harder: “No.”
Nesmith was at a community center gathering in Columbia on Tuesday, headed up by a smattering of Sanders surrogates including his wife Jane and Gus Newport, the former mayor of Berkeley, California. The focus of the night was education – a natural topic for Sanders’ wife, a former college administrator and the only white person on the evening’s panel. But Jane Sanders did very little talking, mostly letting community members tell their stories about why her husband’s candidacy spoke to them.
Mark Compton, a 52-year-old adjunct professor, born and raised in Sumpter, said he was supporting Sanders because he thought the country needed someone with visions as grand as a socialist’s. “I look at the capitalist system, and truly the reason I support Sanders is Wall Street is corrupt,” he said. Compton teaches art history at Midlands Tech, a local community college, and though he’s a full-time professor, he tells me: “I don’t make a month what my student loans are supposed to be.”
Before moving back to South Carolina, he taught in Tennessee for two years but was only allowed to teach two classes so that the school did not have to give him benefits. To make ends meet, he would drive across state lines to teach a third class in North Carolina. “They don’t want to pay us,” he said. “They require us to have all these credentials that cost up the yin yang but they don’t want to give us health insurance.” Compton thinks Obamacare is a good start, and he thinks Sanders is the only candidate bold enough to really build on it.
I just believe he’s not going to get us into war for no reason
Jordan McLendon, 19
Jordan McLendon, a 19-year-old from Lexington, also happily waxed enthusiastic about Obama’s policies. “I trust him,” he said of the president. “I definitely think he’s been a great president with all he’s had to endure.” Now McLendon, who has plans to join the military, says the person he trusts most – with his life even – is Sanders: “I just believe he’s not going to get us into war for no reason.”
Of course Sanders supporters are not the only ones making the case that their candidate should inherit Obama’s legacy.
At a field office in a drab plaza across the street from a Dunkin’ Donuts in Columbia, a handful of Clinton volunteers are working the phones. With the primary just days away, volunteers are making a final push to ensure that voters who have committed to supporting Clinton on Saturday actually turn up.
In the corner of the field office, formerly Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles, a cardboard cut-out of Clinton wearing an American flag scarf smiles at volunteers while they work. The walls are covered with handmade posters and campaign signs. A mountain of campaign signs lie in a pile in the back room.
With each call, volunteers ask first if the voter still intends to support Clinton on Saturday.
“I believe that Hillary Clinton is going to build on the progress of President Obama,” said Jacqueline DeBose. And that message seems to be carrying some weight with more than a few voters.
Lafaye Cooper, of Columbia, said she and her friends are passionately divided over who to support in the primary. She too went back and forth torn between Clinton and Sanders but was ultimately drawn to the prospect of making history, again.
“I would like to see a woman president,” said Cooper, who supported Obama in 2008.
“I was all for Obama, both times. I brought my daughter to the polling booth with me that day. I told her, ‘Back in the day we couldn’t vote so we have to take advantage,’” said Cooper, who is black.
Though she is supporting Clinton, the mother of two wishes Clinton would adopt some of Sanders’ ideas, especially his plan to make college free. “I wish they’d run on the same ticket,” she said. “Maybe he could be her vice-president.”
Meanwhile Beverly Jivers of Hopkins, South Carolina, said since she wanted a president who would continue Obama’s policies, it never occurred to her to support anyone other than Clinton. “I never really followed Bernie,” Jivers said after Clinton spoke at Central Baptist church in Columbia. “I never really followed anyone else. I’m satisfied with Hillary.”
Jivers said most of her family and neighbors intend to vote for Clinton because they believe she will expand on Obama’s progress at home and abroad. Still, Jivers said she has learned to have realistic expectations about what a president can achieve. “Candidates make a whole lot of promises to us when they’re running for office,” she said. “Then afterward who’s left hanging but the African American communities.”
Others, like Justin Graves, a 24-year-old chemistry major at the University of South Carolina, simply cannot make up their mind one way or the other. In a Tuesday interview on the USC campus, Graves – an Obama supporter in 2012 – explained that while he liked Clinton’s tenacity and fighting spirit, he also admired Sanders’ idealism and his drive to accomplish the seemingly impossible. His only concern with Sanders was whether he could really do it. “Revolution is like, you’re doing a big thing,” Graves says. “Are you sure you can do it? If you can do it, I’ll be impressed.”
Hamilton Grant, a 27-year-old financial consultant from Columbia, is convinced he can. “I think anybody who says his platform or ideas or notions are impossible or unrealistic is hypocritical,” Grant, who also serves a co-chair of South Carolina’s Young Leaders for Bernie, says. “And we can trace that back to every movement across history.” Abolishing slavery once seemed unrealistic or impossible, he noted, as did having an African American president. “Bringing it back to South Carolina, my grandparents never thought they’d see that Confederate flag come off of that state house capitol but we did.”
I love Hillary Clinton, I just like Sanders’ ideas more
Bryanta Brooker Maxwell
He adds: “I don’t understand what’s so unrealistic about healthcare for everybody or reforming our prison system or coming out of college not being thousands of dollars in debt – I don’t see how that’s not realistic.
“If you want to go back to Obama’s phrase of ‘Yes we can,’ then it’s possible … and to say that these things can’t happen or won’t happen, it almost kills the optimism of America.”
Bryanta Booker Maxwell, Grant’s fellow co-chair of Young Leaders For Bernie, agrees, even as she’s somewhat protective of Clinton. “I love Hillary Clinton, I just like Sanders’ ideas more,” she says, when pressed to differentiate between the two. “I think he has more of a movement than people give him credit for.”
At a press conference at a DoubleTree hotel in Columbia on Wednesday, Sanders implored reporters to remember how far his campaign had come and not to read too much into any one state, foreshadowing, perhaps, his coming loss in South Carolina. “What I would ask of the media is not to look at it state by state,” he told the assembled reporters. “We’re going to have good days and we’re going to have bad days.”
One of the men flanking Sanders at Wednesday’s event was South Carolina state representative Justin Bamberg, the lawyer who defended police shooting victim Walter Scott.
Bamberg has become a vocal advocate for Sanders and a much-needed one, as Sanders has struggled to make inroads with voters of color. Earlier this week, for instance, Clinton held a press event with the mother of Eric Garner, and four other mothers whose children were victims of gun violence or died in police custody. Until recently, Bamberg too was in Clinton’s corner, but a conversation he had with Sanders about criminal justice reform when Sanders visited on Martin Luther King’s birthday changed his mind.
“It said a lot to me that he was getting ready to speak to hundreds of people and without hesitation he sat down to have a discussion to me,” Bamberg said in an interview. “The conversation we had … it wasn’t a presidential candidate talking to a state representative, it was two people talking about things they care about, what they’re passionate about, and what they’d like to see happen for citizens.”
Back at the Brookland Baptist church, however, Robinson still can’t make up her mind, except to say she won’t tell anyone else how to vote. Some of the churchgoers having lunch there are not so conflicted.
Mary L Johnson, a 68-year-old from Columbia, says over a fruit plate that she was an Obama voter in 2008 and 2012, and now she is counting on Clinton to expand his legacy. “Hillary will expand on Obamacare,” she began, before her friend, Judy Irvin, 61, interjected: “Promised to!”
The state’s governor has turned down money for Medicaid expansion, and that is something both women say they expect will change under a President Hillary Clinton.
Johnson adds that she is “just as excited” for Clinton as she was for Obama, saying: “I feel like what Obama has started, she will improve on.”
“I am too!” says Irvin, cutting in again. “She’s going to kick butt.”
“She’s very intelligent,” adds 71-year-old Mahasin Madyun, leaning across the table. “I can’t wait for Saturday.”
Back in her office, just around the corner, Robinson says no matter who is elected, her collection of Obama paraphernalia stays put.
“I just save the stuff, I don’t look at it,” she explains. “I just know it’s historic and I want it to be around for my five-year-old nephew. I want him to understand.”