As Democratic presidential hopefuls visit Orangeburg, local party and legislative officials are hoping for a repeat of the energy and excitement that came with the city hosting the first Democratic presidential primary debate of the 2008 election cycle.
South Carolina State University was the site for the debate on April 26, 2007. It was an event that Betty Henderson, former chairwoman of the Orangeburg County Democratic Party, fondly remembers.
“The debate helped the entire county. It was an opportunity that had never been afforded to Orangeburg. It was such a privilege to be able to host it,” Henderson said.
She said the debate provided an economic boon for the city and put both the city and county on the map. She said it also gave the county worldwide exposure, including students who were exposed to “another level of politics.”
“It was the debate that allowed about an additional 1,200 people to come and meet the candidates. It was just a wonderful and very historic event for Orangeburg County,” Henderson said.
She said Orangeburg was an ideal place in which to hold the debate because of its strong Democratic background and "it plays a big part in who wins the state."
“So many people assisted in hosting them and doing things to accommodate the candidates. In all my times, I don’t know what I’ve ever worked at a time that people were more congenial and more helpful and excited in wanting to do things for a common cause.
"It was a great time for Orangeburg County. We wanted a historical event to take place to be able to tell our children and grandchildren what we had done and participated in. We were fortunately able to elect the first African-American president, which was historic for all of us and gave all of us a message to carry forth," Henderson said.
As Democratic presidential hopefuls begin to visit Orangeburg this year, Henderson said she hopes the same level of focus placed on Orangeburg nearly 12 years ago is repeated.
“I certainly hope that would happen again, and I hope this is the time that it would happen. I doubt that we’ll host another debate in this election, but I’m certainly hoping the excitement and the energy will get to the level that it go to in 2007 because that’s where it needs to be,” she said.
Orangeburg County Democratic Party Chairman Kenny Glover said Orangeburg was a prime location for the 2007 debate.
“We’ve got a large African-American population. All local elected officials are Democrats, and we’ve got a history of strong voter turnout. Voter turnout plays an important role because, historically, we have larger than normal voter turnout,” he said, noting the debate "brought a lot of nationwide exposure" to the city.
"Orangeburg is a great place to live, a great community that a lot of people had never heard of. So a lot of people came here and had a chance to enjoy the city. And I’m sure it helped the city’s tax base for that event,” he said.
Glover said he expects the same level of focus to be placed on Orangeburg this year, but for different reasons.
“The 2008 election was an historic election. The first African-American president was on the ballot and people were really excited. This time around, I think there’s a sense of nervousness because of the divisiveness in politics now. People are afraid of another four years of our current president. So I’m getting calls from Republicans and people that’s not normally involved in politics who want to get involved,” he said.
“With all elections, you don’t want to wake up on Election Day wondering whether there was something you could have done to help with the voter turnout, or help with the election itself. ... It’s about just keeping the excitement going,” he said.
Democratic presidential hopefuls Beta O’Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker have already made visits to the city. Glover expects more.
“I’m hearing that (former U.S. Vice President) Joe Biden may be coming if he declares. I’m sure he’ll be here,” he said.
Glover said Democratic presidential candidate, author and activist Marianne Williamson, will appear at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 28, at Thee Matriarch. The Orangeburg Democratic Party will also be hosting a social to feature Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, April 20, at Sulit in Orangeburg.
Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, said the 2007 debate proved that “Orangeburg County is an excellent place to get a sampling of where the voters are based on our Democratic mix and our Democratic trends.”
“So I think those people on the presidential list really look at Orangeburg as being a microcosm of what they can do in the state. And for those that are coming here, it’s a relatively small media market. They got good organization, good colleges. So when you talk to them, those are the things that they look after,” he said.
"Based on all the candidates out there, you’re going to see Orangeburg on what we call the ‘visit list,’ places that they need to go. We’ll be on the radar of all those national candidates. So based on our history, based on our turnout, based on the outcomes for Democratic candidates, those who have carried Orangeburg County tend to carry the state,” Matthews said.
The senator added, “I think the value to the voters is to get close and personal with the candidates to let them know what their needs are, what their issues are…. Orangeburg County can influence the outcome and the direction and the issues that they will kind of coalesce around. We can help define those issues, and that’s critical.”
Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, chairman of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus, said the 2007 debate "gave Orangeburg a lot of positive national and international exposure."
"I remember very vividly that we had every major news outlet from CNBC to Fox News that was in town. ... It was great exposure for the university” and presented a great opportunity for businesses and citizens, he said.
"Before the end of this election cycle, my prediction is that we will have every presidential candidate to make a stop in Orangeburg. We’re going to get more than our share of attention,” Govan said.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter is president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and national committeewoman to the Democratic National Committee.
She said Orangeburg was an ideal spot for the 2007 debate because of its two HBCUs and strong Democratic background.
“I think that pretty much makes it an automatic draw for any person running for president on the Democratic ticket. The debate not only helped the candidates and the city, but it helped South Carolina State University because the DNC and CNN made a number of improvements to the MLK Auditorium in preparation for the debate. It helped the city and county because of the economic impact. The primaries have been a real economic boon not just for Orangeburg, but South Carolina," she said.
Cobb-Hunter hopes the attention Orangeburg received from the debate in 2007 will be repeated this year.
“It’s a pretty crowded field. So it’s going to be tough for some of the lesser-knowns to gain a footing here. But I’m already seeing the kind of attention from some of the top-tier campaigns that is very similar to the attention back in ’07 when it was (Barack) Obama and (Hillary)Clinton who were the front-runners for the most part,” Cobb-Hunter said.
"I think from now until our primary in February, we’re going to be blessed with a number of visits from candidates," she said.