CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Jazz Johnson’s trust in presidential candidates often wavers in the months leading up to the election. The South Carolina native has grown accustomed to seeing presidential hopefuls zipping across her state in an attempt to woo the support of African American voters, like herself.
She listens as they speak on important policies like the economy, healthcare, and education but wonders if they will continue to visit areas like Denmark, S.C., where residents have been grappling with rust-colored water they say is not safe to drink.
“I want to see a candidate committed not only to national issues but South Carolina issues as well,” said Johnson. “One who will keep showing up regardless of the polls, and win or lose will continue to use their platform to help us.”
As the first Southern state to vote in the 2020 Democratic primaries, African-Americans in South Carolina have become a critical voting bloc that could help sway the primary. Black voters make up more than 60 percent of the electorate in the Democratic primary in the state.
This past weekend, a handful of candidates ramped up their efforts to connect with the black community in an attempt to break away from the crowded primary race. The candidates spent their day Saturday sharing their plans to address America’s growing racial wealth gap.
South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke attended the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Forum, which was dedicated to discussing the significance of “work, wages, and wealth” in black communities.
“The road to heaven and the White House runs through South Carolina,” said Antjuan Seawright, a prominent South Carolina-based Democratic consultant and CEO of Blueprint Strategy.
For Democratic candidates vying for the presidency, South Carolina is the first real test to see if their message will resonate and generate enthusiasm among black voters, a large and loyal voting bloc for the party that will be critical in the race for White House. A win in South Carolina would boost a candidate's chances nationally among African Americans.
“South Carolina has been a very good indicator or a signal to the rest of the country as to how the African American population feels about a candidate,” said Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the University of Charleston.
According to Seawright, the issues most important to African American voters are affordable housing, wages, health care and education.
Vaughn Postema-Swain, a 27-year-old college graduate, was recently married and said what’s most important to her is building and having access to “generational wealth.” Postema-Swain said she is drowning in college debt and, despite working full time, the salary is still too low, and the opportunities in her state are scarce.
Marva Smalls, a board member for the Black Economic Alliance and a South Carolinian, said access to opportunity and education are among her top concerns.
“Work, wages, and wealth are the issues that matter here these issues can uplift the community through economic empowerment,” said Smalls.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders visited the state recently, as did California Sen. Kamala Harris. But while Booker and Harris are both African American, that doesn't mean they have locked up the black vote in the state.
Smalls said Warren's policies, in particular, have stuck out. Tracy Dilligard, a Charleston resident, said affordable housing and gentrification are among his biggest concerns and he believes Sanders is the best person to challenge President Trump.
“I feel like I know his policies,” said Dilligard. “Some call his policies socialism, but I call it equality for all.”
Johnson disagrees, saying she is looking at candidates with a fresh perspective.
"I attended the forum and Cory Booker stood out to me not so much because of what he said, but because later on in the evening he was marching with us and sticking true to his promise," said Johnson in reference to the Fight for $15 march, which took place after the forum.
Former Vice President Joe Biden holds a commanding lead among Democrats in the state. Biden, along with the other 21 Democratic presidential candidates, return to the Palmetto State later this week to attend the state party convention and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn's famous fish fry on Friday night. African American voters will be listening, watching and, most important to Johnson, waiting.
“I want to look for someone who is genuine and really means what they say, and has a track record of doing what they say they’re going to do,” said Johnson.