- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 5, 2016

It may seem a strange partnership: Mattie Thomas, a 66-year-old black woman in South Carolina going out of her way to gin up support for Sen. Bernard Sanders, a man born and raised in New York to Jewish immigrant parents, and who spent the majority of his life representing a state where 19 out of 20 residents are white.

But Mr. Sanders’ message resonates so much with her that Mrs. Thomas, 66, is knocking on every door in her neighborhood in Florence and planning trips to remote corners of South Carolina to make the case to fellow Democrats that the Vermont senator is the candidate their party needs.

“I’m not scared of ISIL, as African-Americans we see a cop car and we’re afraid — we’re afraid of that one cop who’s afraid of a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun,” Mrs. Thomas said. “I’m scared of going to a movie theater or a shopping mall. I do all of my shopping online. I fear that, it’s real to me.”

Mr. Sanders addresses the black community’s fears and proposes solutions to improve their lives, she said. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton offers less clarity, and seems more ingrained and invested in a political system that’s clearly broken, Mrs. Thomas said.

“Fifteen dollars an hour minimum-wage would lift so many people in South Carolina who are really struggling,” Mrs. Thomas said. “I’ve worked and paid into Medicare my entire life and still I have to pay for medical care. Health care for everybody would be a great improvement. The school-to-prison pipeline needs to stop. Privatizing prisons was the first mistake this country ever made. It’s amazing to me how many people in this state need help. You have no earthly idea how much. Bernie Sanders speaks to them.”

Mr. Sanders needs to reach more people like Mrs. Thomas in order to have a shot at winning South Carolina, and his campaign knows it’ll be tough given Mrs. Clinton’s roots in the state, stretching back to her husband’s campaigns in the 1990s and her own run for the Democratic nomination in 2008.

SEE ALSO: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders stay positive in Iowa, avoid attacking each other

South Carolina is the fourth state in the Democratic primary calendar, and the first real test of strength among black voters, who make up more than half of the primary electorate in the state.

And early polling suggests Mrs. Clinton is preparing for a triumph, leading Mr. Sanders by 36 percentage points in the most recent CBS News/YouGov poll taken last month. Among blacks she leads 86 percent to 11 percent, according to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted in November.

“We know it’s an uphill climb,” said Chris Covert, the Sanders campaign’s South Carolina state director. “But we’re taking a very pragmatic approach. We know it’s going to take some time, and rather than rush to build an infrastructure, we’re working to build long-lasting relationships across the state, not only with party activists, but with students and within the African-American community in more rural areas. We’re aggressively trying to build strong relationships.”

The campaign has 40 field staff in the state, part of a total team of 60 people, Mr. Covert said. There are another 120 paid part-time canvassers traveling the state, and in the three months they’ve been on the job they’ve made more half a million attempts at voter contacts, he said.

The campaign has also opened six offices across South Carolina — more than Mrs. Clinton or presidential contender and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Mrs. Clinton however, has the backing of the Democratic political establishment. She’s received more than 80 endorsements including two former governors, party leaders and state lawmakers. She has more than 2,500 active volunteers, and both the first and second vice chairs of the South Carolina Democratic Party support her, bucking the usual practice of state party officials staying neutral.

SEE ALSO: Bernie Sanders says as president, he would break up Wall Street’s biggest banks

That’s of no matter, says Bryanta Maxwell, who is the unpaid chair of Young Leaders for Bernie in South Carolina, and who was until November supporting Mrs. Clinton as well.

“You know, I was supporting Hillary at first, but then Bernie came and spoke at Allen University and addressed criminal justice reform and the Black Lives Matter movement, and his words resonated with me,” said Ms. Maxwell, 31 and black. “It was a matter of words and passion and the passion he spoke about when he addressed criminal justice reform — well, I think he will be a major champion of it.”

Ms. Maxwell is traveling to universities across the state to help mobilize students to vote for Mr. Sanders — a key demographic Mr. Sanders is relying on in other states as well.

Ms. Maxwell said her first challenge is to introduce students to Mr. Sanders and his message — his name recognition and policy positions are much less known than Mrs. Clinton’s.

“After Iowa things will pick up because people will take him serious, that’s how it worked with Obama. Sometimes people need to be made a believer,” Ms. Maxwell said. “People don’t know him, Obama won African-Americans because he was an African-American male so the African-American community embraced him. They don’t know [Sanders] yet. I tell his platform, how he will bring jobs, equal pay for women and health care to South Carolina, and they start listening.”

Mr. Sanders also appears to have overcome early stumbles on race issues — including being forced off the stage in Seattle this summer by protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement — with black voters warming to him, particularly as he tailors his economic inequality message to their everyday lives.

In October, Mr. Sanders met with DeRay McKesson, an active member of Black Lives Matter, among other civil rights leaders, to speak about the barriers to success within the black community. The meeting was well received.

“It was important that Sen. Sanders noted that Black Lives Matter and that he highlighted institutional racism and the need to reform the criminal justice system,” Mr. McKesson wrote in a Medium posting after their meeting, and after hearing Mr. Sanders in the first Democratic debate. “Also, his statements during the debate reflected the presence of a strong initial platform that I look forward to see expanded in the coming months.”

Mrs. Thomas agrees.

“I want a president for all of the people,” she said. “How many small towns has Hillary been to? How many people in rural communities has she spoken with? Does she support $15 minimum wage? What really are her positions? She says a lot, but really nothing at all.

“What I’m looking for as a President Bernie Sanders has already said and it’s a consistent message with him,” Mrs. Thomas said.

• Kelly Riddell can be reached at kriddell@washingtontimes.com.

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