The once and future Democratic chairman

I went to my very first ever state Democratic convention today. (You have to understand I spent most of my career as an editor, and going to conventions was reporters’ work.) It started at 10 a.m., but I didn’t arrive at the Carolina Coliseum until about 12:20, having had errands to run this morning. I wasn’t too worried about missing anything, though. After all, this was an event run by Democrats, rather than by Republicans. Or Germans. I refer you to Will Rogers.

Near as I can tell, I was right. I did apparently arrive too late to get press credentials — the table that I think was for that purpose was no longer manned — but it didn’t matter. I went down and wandered about on the floor without being challenged.

The headline: Dick Harpootlian won the party chairmanship on the first ballot, with 624 votes to Phil Noble‘s 331 and 68 for the third candidate whom, throughout this competition, was always referred to as that nice guy from Marion County. It still took a while for that first ballot to happen. After having rejected a proposal to vote merely by standing up (a most UN-Nikki Haley voting method that would have been), which would have dealt with the matter quickly since it was so lopsided, paper ballots were decided up. Then they were distributed, and… there was no place on the ballot to indicate which candidate one preferred for chairman. (Disclaimer — I’m describing this as it was described to me by delegates; that minor fiasco was one thing I DID miss by being late. Which still tells me I didn’t miss much.)

They were in the midst of voting again when I arrived, as speeches continued. So I settled in and listened, and mingled and gabbed, and waited for a result.

Here are some of the things I saw and heard over the next couple of hours before I left:

  • Upon my entrance, Steve Benjamin was giving the key to the city to former Rep. John Spratt. Spratt looked pretty good, and had no trouble speaking to the crowd. It was the first time I’d seen him since his defeat, or since his illness was announced, for that matter.
  • As I sat at an empty chair at the small press table, Jay Parmley was telling the crowd what an awesome job the party had done

    Twitter wag @brookbristow termed this "The best political sticker OF ALL TIME."

    of organizing in 2010. “So,” thought I, “how come y’all got so totally creamed?” Well, he explained, the party did well on the county level.

  • Of 289 county offices that were up last year, Democrats contested 190 and won 167. Yeah, OK. But when you lose every office that anyone is paying attention to, that doesn’t exactly add up to Big Mo, does it? He went on to say that 47 percent of the first-time voters of 2008 (remember the Obama Effect?) turned out in 2010, which was much higher than turnout in the general population. This made me think about baseball statistics. I sort of felt like I was listening to a manager brag on his losing pitcher for having thrown so many great pitches during the game.
  • One speaker, later in the program, said “I want to thank our next governor, Vincent Sheheen,” and got a big cheer. I’m not sure what the cheer meant: Were the assembled Dems giving him an attaboy for having almost won as their standard-bearer last year, or were they endorsing him to be the nominee next time as well? That’s the trouble with crowds cheering. You’d have to interview everybody to know what they were thinking.
  • I learned that the chairman’s race was over from Phil Noble. I ran into him on the floor and, not having any other questions on my mind, asked him how he thought it was going. He said not so well: He had already lost, on the first ballot, and it would be announced from the podium momentarily. Oh. OK. And yes, I felt like an idiot. I excused myself, and Tweeted it out.
  • After that announcement was made, Mr. Noble got up to make a concession speech. I whipped out my camera to try to shoot video, and less than three seconds after I hit the button to start recording, he was leaving the podium. He had pledged his support to the winner and to the party, and that was it. He was off that stage.
  • As it happened, Mr. Harpootlian didn’t speak all that long, either. I won’t trouble you with quoting from his acceptance speech, because I have the whole thing on video above. I recognize that the sound quality isn’t good (and the video itself is shaky, because I was busy looking around the room), so if you have trouble hearing it say so, and I’ll give you some quotes. But beyond quoting Harry Truman and promising to give Nikki Haley and her party a hard time, there wasn’t much to it.
  • Afterwards, Dick told me that he was anxious to get out of there and start raising money. He said he could raise more money in the next two hours than he ever could at any other time — flush of victory, I suppose he meant. I looked around for him not long afterward, and I guess he had left to do just that.
  • John Spratt got up again to address the crowd, and announced that he wanted to be the very first to contribute to the party under its new regime — giving a check for $5,000.
  • After staying maybe an hour after Harpootlian’s acceptance, talking with various sources about other stuff while 17th vice chairmen and such were being elected, I decided to split. A lot of people already had. As I left the hall, I heard behind me a speaker saying, “Whereas, according to rule 6.2….” Yeah, I think I found the right time to leave.

There had never been a lot of doubt among observers that Dick Harpootlian would win this, once he got in. And media types are positively looking forward to having The Mouth generate good copy over the next couple of years. So I could hardly blame Phil Noble for seeming a bit put-upon when I interviewed him earlier in the week, seeming resentful that after all those months of work, this would be taken from him so easily. Today, after his concession speech, he said to me something along the lines of “That’s life.” It’s certainly politics. But I wouldn’t blame him a bit for feeling kind of alone at that moment.

Not entirely alone, though — he did get 331 votes. And I had the opportunity to speak to as couple of those 331 during the convention. The ones I heard from were more anti-Harpootlian than pro-Noble, and their reasons ranged from their sincere belief in political correctness — which the new chairman definitely does not share — to their conviction that Harpootlian is all talk, and the party needs more than that.

But you know, if I were a Democrat, I’d have been concerned about something else. Dick is way more than talk; he had a lot to do with the party’s success in 1998. I think he’ll pull out all the stops to reverse momentum and win victories over the Republicans. And if I were a Democrat, I’d wonder, “At what cost?” In 1998, he brought video poker money to the table, and helped Jim Hodges (who had been a staunch opponent of both video poker and a state lottery) win on a lottery-based campaign. If you’re a Democrat and you’re OK with such things, you’re bound to be happy with your new chairman. If you worry about such tactics, you might be concerned at what lengths he’ll go to to win.

But there’s no question that for media types, it’s going to be more fun to write about the Democrats over the next couple of years.

8 thoughts on “The once and future Democratic chairman

  1. Steven Davis

    Okay I have to ask… what exactly does it take to get “press credentials”? Are bloggers now “the press”?

  2. Steven Davis

    So is this what diehard Democrats and Republicans do for fun on a Saturday? I can think of at least 1000 things I’d rather do than attend one of those.

  3. Brad

    Dav called Harpootlian “tart-tongued.” Gina Smith of The State called him “flame-throwing attorney Dick Harpootlian.”

    Like I said, the press loves the guy. Coming from reporters, these are terms of endearment…

  4. Steven Davis

    “If I were a Democrat”… ha, does this mean you’ll be giving equal space and that you will be attending the Republican convention next Saturday?

  5. Nick Nielsen

    My take mirrors that of Will Rogers:

    “The average citizen knows only too well that it makes no difference to him which side wins. He realizes that the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey have come to resemble each other so closely that it is practically impossible to tell them apart; both of them make the same braying noise, and neither of them ever says anything. The only perceptible difference is that the elephant is somewhat the larger of the two.”

  6. Brad

    Steven, I don’t know what I’ll be doing next weekend. I haven’t decided. Just as yesterday I hadn’t decided whether to go to this thing, which as I told you, I’d never been to before (because I, like you, can think of a lot better ways to spend my time).

    Last year, I went to the Republicans’ Silver Elephant dinner. I still haven’t been to the Democratic equivalent of that (the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, which was Friday night).

    I wouldn’t have gone to this thing yesterday, if not for one thing — the return of Dick Harpootlian is news. And if they had rejected him, that would have been news. He’s the highest-profile chairman of either party in the last … well, since I started covering SC politics in 1987.

    As I explained on an earlier post, normally I ignore party politics. But I got interested in the Harpootlian angle, and then figured I’d better do some stuff on Noble, and next thing you knew, I was covering it.

    So far, the GOP thing is VERY low key. I did get something from Bill Burton yesterday that I plan to post, though…

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