Phil Black won the Democratic primary to run against GOP Rep. Joe Wilson after challenging Wilson three times as a Republican. Courtesy photo
Phil Black wants to abolish the Federal Reserve and return the country to the gold standard. He wants to eliminate the federal Department of Education. He wants to put the Bible back in schools and make students wear uniforms. He’s pro-life. (“Shee-han is, too, so a Democrat can be,” he says, referring to gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen.) He will push hard for congressional term limits. He does not think gay people will inherit the kingdom of heaven.
And on June 10, he won the Democratic primary to run for Congress in South Carolina’s second district.
Black didn’t raise any money in his primary but knows he’ll have to in order to beat powerful Rep. Joe Wilson.
“Statistically, I could win this thing,” he says. “If I do, Washington will not be the same.”
Black ran three times in the Republican primary against Wilson. In 2008 he won 15 percent of the primary vote. In 2010 he won 17 percent. In 2012 he won 19 percent.
This year, he decided to try something different and filed to run as a Democrat.
“I took a lot of heat from people, the fact that I changed parties,” he says. “Strom Thurmond changed three times. I only changed twice.”
In the primary, Black faced Ed Greenleaf, a first-time candidate who ran on a very mainstream-Democrat platform of bringing tech jobs to the district, straightening out the Veterans Administration and improving public education. Greenleaf hired a campaign strategist and raised some money. Black did not.
The primary rolled around, and Black beat Greenleaf 54 to 46 percent.
This has happened before to Democrats in South Carolina. The most high-profile incident was in 2010, when Alvin Greene, an unemployed man from Manning who lived with his father and did not appear to have campaigned for the office, beat Vic Rawl, a former S.C. House member and the party’s anointed candidate, in the Democratic primary to face Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint. Not only that: Greene was facing felony obscenity charges.
After Alvin Greene, the South Carolina Democratic Party decided to get more involved in its own primaries.
New party chair Jaime Harrison wasn’t shy about it: The party would be vetting candidates, making sure they were worthy of the Democratic label.
This year, in the race to decide which Democrat would face Sen. Lindsey Graham, the party’s executive committee endorsed Brad Hutto over his opponent Jay Stamper. Stamper had three felonies in his past, and there were questions about his campaign tactics.
Not so in the Black-Greenleaf race.
“This is one of the races in which we did not get involved,” Harrison says. “We try not to get involved where people are as it related to policy status. The Democratic Party, as you know, is a big-tent party. … There was no criminal background issue in any of congressional races.”
Still, says Harrison, Greenleaf was definitely the candidate more in line with Democratic Party views.
So, what happened?
Black chalks it up to persistence. There’s no question he sees his primary victory as a victory against Joe Wilson — at long last.
“It was a race between the hare and the turtle,” Black says.
Asked whether the outcome might have had something to do with Greenleaf being openly gay, both Harrison and Greenleaf say they don’t think so.
The media (aside from Free Times) didn’t focus much on the race beyond some early profiles of Greenleaf. Black says he couldn’t get any of the local TV outlets to cover the race.
Harrison chalks the outcome up to low voter interest.
“Part of the problem we have to tackle in South Carolina is lack of voter education and enthusiasm as it relates to politics,” Harrison goes on. “You get opportunities where people slip in and win races where they probably shouldn’t.”
Black thinks he belongs in the party, though, and that he’ll get the support of Democrats.
“This time I have renamed myself: I am a conservative Democrat,” he says. “I am putting a new twist on the Democratic Party.”
Will Greenleaf support Black, who has asked for his endorsement? Greenleaf won’t comment but says, “I will vote for a candidate who supports the Democratic platform.”
Will Democratic voters support Black? Maybe. In the past, the party has encouraged Democratic voters to punch the straight-ticket button.
But that might be a thing of the past. Harrison says Black has to earn Dems’ votes.
“I will be talking with Phil Black about the core ideals of the Democratic Party,” Harrison says. “I want to have an honest conversation. If Phil is going to go out and promote the values of the Democratic Party, we can work with him. If his objective is not to do that and to do something else, then he just needs to go on his way and we’ll go our way and see what happens in the fall.”
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