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An excited and energized crowd came out early Wednesday evening for a glimpse of Democratic presidential candidate and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Bluffton resident Fred Pitts was among the first in line outside Stevenson Auditorium, arriving nearly three hours before the town hall event.

"I have been a fan of Cory when I lived in New Jersey ten years ago when he was the Mayor of Newark," Pitts said. "Everything about him I like. He is the smartest man of any room he walks into. I have been impressed with him since day one."

He said when he heard Booker was coming to Orangeburg, he jumped at the chance to see him.

Pitts said he’d vote for Booker in a heartbeat.

"He is my number one candidate. He is the only person I have donated to so far,” he said.

Booker was the featured guest on CNN’s live town hall event Wednesday night. CNN anchor Don Lemon hosted the gathering.

The audience consisted mostly of students, faculty and staff from both Claflin and South Carolina State universities, along with community groups and members of the Orangeburg County Democratic Party.

Pitts said he likes Booker's progressive stance on issues “across the board,” specifically related to immigration, voting rights and women's rights.

"The only concern I have about him is his international experience," Pitts said. "He does not have that much international experience."

"I would like him to make a statement up front really quickly day one ... to call a meeting of the U.N. (United Nations) and repudiate everything (President Donald) Trump has done to blow us out of the water internationally," Pitts said.

Pitts says he also likes California Sen. Kamala Harris and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. He wishes they would visit the Lowcountry.

"I would like to see a ticket of Cory and Amy," he said. "That would be my ideal ticket at this point. Both young, both smart, both experienced, both true progressives but not extreme progressives."

Elloree resident Dale Holback said he arrived early so he could be front and center for the town hall.

"Right now he has excellent policies," Holback said. "I will just seek for myself and continue to follow him. I want to see what his ideas are and where he would like the country to be."

Holback said health care, jobs and immigration are the biggest issues he would like to see Booker address. So far he is happy with what Booker has said on all these issues.

"It is such a large field right now," Holback said. He wants to hear from all the candidates to receive some clarity.

"I think it will be awhile. The field has to start eliminating to see who is serious and who has the potential. It is really too early to decide,” he said.

Orangeburg resident Dr. Rachel Danford arrived early for the town hall event as well. Danford lived in New Jersey for about 11 years before relocating back to Orangeburg.

"I really appreciated the efforts he has made as mayor in Newark and as a senator in New Jersey," she said. "I am happy to see him come to my hometown and am here to support him."

Danford said she will “definitely vote” for Sen. Booker.

As a nurse practitioner, she appreciates Booker's desire to expand Medicare to include vision and dental benefits. She says she has had patients who have had difficulty getting access to these benefits.

She also likes his stance on climate control.

"I appreciate his humility as a human being," she said.

Danford also said, "I am interested in knowing what initiatives he could propose to help families deal with the stigma to mental health access."

Orangeburg resident Lacella Williams said she likes Booker.

"I think he is a nice young man and I think he has his head on the right shoulders," she said.

She wants a president that will bring the country together.

"I am concerned about gun control, education and insurance, especially for elderly and for those who really need it," she said.

Williams has yet to decide who she will vote for.

"I think all of them are doing a fantastic job," she said.

Orangeburg resident Erica Canty said she arrived early to the event not only to get a good seat, but also to socialize with those others in line.

Booker “represents so many great ideas in economics," Canty said. "He focuses on the youth and that is what we need now. He will create funds so they have extra activities."

Canty said she wants to hear more about what Booker has to say about education, cutting crime and helping the elderly.

"I am rooting for the elderly folk and for our homeless people," she said. "We need something for our homeless folks, not just here in Orangeburg, but in the whole South Carolina area."

She is still observing all the candidates and has not decided who she will vote for. She is calling for all candidates to come to Orangeburg.

"They give us great publicity," she said. "We can hold them all."

Prior to the town hall, Orangeburg's Rachelle's Island catered to between 120 and 150 CNN staff and employees at the Sulit Luxe Affairs venue.

Owner Rachelle Jamerson, who was busy serving the guests, said her staff has catered both lunch and dinner for the CNN crew since their arrival to Orangeburg earlier in the week.

The television crew and other personnel enjoyed salad, BBQ pulled pork, jerk chicken, seasoned chicken, rice and vegetables, sweet potatoes, Rachelle's Island signature sweet iced tea. The crew also had ice cream and the catering company's signature bread pudding.

The network chose Rachelle's Island when they were looking for a venue to host the town hall. Several CNN crew members expressed appreciation at the hospitality they have received in Orangeburg and said Stevenson Auditorium was a great venue for the town hall event.

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Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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Staff Writer

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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