Black At The Ballot
South Carolina’s long been called “the Black primary,” but HuffPost spoke to residents of Columbia who are approaching the election with views and values as diverse as America itself.

COLUMBIA, South Carolina — On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a majority of the Democratic presidential candidates were on the steps of the Statehouse awkwardly stumbling through the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick sang the words they knew. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) kept their lips sealed yet nodded along. Billionaire Tom Steyer enthusiastically belted a majority of the words, stumbling and playing it off a few times.

On this unusually cold morning in Columbia, a multigenerational, largely Black crowd listened, restlessly at times, as the candidates tried to win them over. Sanders reminded them of his stance on President Donald Trump’s foreign policy and King’s opposition to the Vietnam War. Steyer, standing with a group of Black campaign workers, said he may not be able to feel Black Americans’ pain but is with them in the fight for equality. Gabbard evoked South Carolina civil rights activist Septima Clark and vowed to carry the torch she did. Patrick, the only Black candidate in the race at that time, who has since dropped out, rattled on for a 16-minute sermon to a crowd that had mostly dispersed after the front-runners delivered their remarks.

Supporters march to the South Carolina Statehouse from Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina.
Supporters march to the South Carolina Statehouse from Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

On Feb. 29, South Carolina voters head to the polls to vote in the state’s primary election. In presidential races, candidates often look to the Palmetto State as an indicator of how strong their support among Black voters ranks nationally. It’s an important demographic in a key state. But often, Black voters are clumped into one monolithic group by candidates and the media without an accurate representation of the many perspectives within the community.

Bobby Donaldson, a professor of African American history and the director for the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina, said candidates have been missing the mark with Black voters because they forget one crucial step: to listen.

“There are many demographics of Black voters,” he said. “There are multiple Black needs and if you’re going to develop a strategy to appeal to people of color you have to recognize there are multiple boxes to check.”

"There are multiple Black needs and if you’re going to develop a strategy to appeal to people of color you have to recognize there are multiple boxes to check.”

Bobby Donaldson, a professor of African American history and the director for the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina

For example, when 22-year-old Benedict College student Faith Dupree goes to the ballot box, her most pressing concerns are the Black maternity mortality crisis and voter suppression. But 18-year-old Mykel King, a first-time voter and student at the same college, is most concerned about prison reform, climate change and student loan debt. Sheila Albergottie, a 64-year-old educator originally from St. Louis, has child care, health care and the student loan debt crisis on the top of her mind. These three Columbia residents are a small sample of Black voters, and they show how Black communities can have backgrounds, beliefs and political values that differ and often overlap.

Ahead of the South Carolina primary, HuffPost spoke to dozens of Black residents of Columbia to explore what it means to be a Black voter today.

Mykel King, 19, first-time voter

Mykel King will cast his first vote this year. And he’s feeling overwhelmed.

Politics aren’t a completely new world for the 19-year-old native of Macon, Georgia. He recalls growing up in a Democratic household and his dad teaching him and his brother about elections as he watched America elect its first Black president. He remembers lessons on the importance of voting — and lessons on how this country’s political system isn’t always fair.

“We have a lot of candidates this year. So it's a little overwhelming.”

Mykel King, 19

But what he didn’t know then was that more than a decade later, he’d be finessing his way into an exclusive event to hear President Donald Trump speak about criminal justice reform at Benedict College, the historically Black college he attends. King, a mass communications major, wasn’t one of the seven Benedict students permitted to attend the event on Oct. 25, but that didn’t stop him from trying. Equipped with his camera, he showed a ticket that event coordinators previously said they wouldn’t honor and walked right in.

Donning a polo shirt and jeans in a sea of hundreds of folks in suits and ties who he described as “people with money,” he knew he stood out. He also knew that it was important that he was present at this moment, especially after the backlash Benedict had gotten for hosting the president. As Trump spoke, King watched in a “weird” awe.

“Oh, this is really happening,” he recalled. “I felt like Benedict, for one, was thrown under the bus, because that’s not how it was supposed to happen. But it felt a little disrespectful, the way that he just came and did it.”

After the speech, he understands why Trump’s charisma had captivated so many. And though King may still be trying to understand the intricacies of elections now, he does see one thing very clearly: Whoever gets the Democratic nomination needs to be popular enough to beat Trump.

King said he is just unsure of who that is right now. He is leaning toward casting his vote for Sanders because of his promises to help various groups of disempowered people and to attack the student loan debt crisis, but he’s still undecided. He let out a sigh of exhaustion thinking about how he’s going to decide. Though he understands why some people decide not to vote, he says that’s not an option for him.

“I can kind of see how some people feel as if our votes don’t count, but it’s still important that we do vote,” he said. “I understand that my vote is important and that if I don’t vote, I can’t really complain when things aren’t the way that I like it.”

Kenneth Stevenson, 62, small business owner

Kenneth Stevenson has no doubts that he will be voting for Biden in the primary.

Stevenson has voted since he was 18 years old. His goal this go-round is to “defeat the current individual in the White House.”

“I voted since I was 18 so I participated in all the primaries and everything. I want someone who will defeat the current individual in the White House.”

Kenneth Stevenson, 62

“We have to defeat who’s there now; we’ll take a chance next time,” he said. “We don’t need a revolution. We need to get him replaced, period.”

The 62-year-old says he is an Air Force veteran who has served in operations Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and he has toured in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. He said Biden would make an excellent commander in chief because he listens and takes advice. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has already served in the White House as former President Barack Obama’s VP. If Stevenson had it his way, he’d choose former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams as Biden’s running mate.

Climate change and health care are his top priorities in this election. A few years ago, Stevenson started Genesis Energy Development, which provides solar energy alternatives for electronic devices. He hopes to work with historically Black colleges across the country to install his charging stations.

Health care reform is personal to him. He said without Obamacare, his daughter would not have received the medical attention she needed.

“If it wasn’t for Obamacare, we would probably have a million-dollar health care bill or more,” Stevenson said.

He wants the candidates to talk about how they will address insurance companies’ policies on pre-existing conditions. He has been licensed in insurance for the past 30 years and hated telling clients that their premiums were going to skyrocket because they had diabetes.

Stevenson’s office is located on the campus of Benedict College, and he said he is constantly making sure students are registered to vote. He graduated from South Carolina State University, a historically Black college in Orangeburg, and learned the importance of political activism through an African politics class he took in the 1970s. He is looking forward to hearing about how the candidates plan to support historically Black colleges and universities with more funding. In January, for example, Biden launched an outreach program on HBCU campuses across the country to get more support from younger Black voters.

The battle for the first-in-the-South primary state, where Black people make up around 30% of its population, is one that Biden has often referred to as his “firewall” in his bid to win the Democratic presidential nomination. He has long been forecasted as the front-runner to win the South Carolina primary.

However, Biden’s opponents have crept into his lead with Black voters nationally, according to a Quinnipiac poll released on Feb. 10, shortly after his weak performance in Iowa. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s support among Black voters has skyrocketed to 22%, with Biden just ahead of him at 27%. A Feb. 21 NBC poll found that Sanders now has similar levels of support among Black voters nationally as Biden does.

Faith Dupree, 22, HBCU student

Faith Dupree may only be 22, but she stands firm in her political identity.

The Benedict College senior is a first-generation college student, military kid, daughter of an immigrant and chairperson of the school’s NAACP chapter. She grew up in a household of Democrats. Whatever mom and dad says goes, so she believed she would inherit their beliefs walking in to cast her ballot.

“Everybody's so quick to be revolutionary after something happens. I want to be proactive in it.”

Faith Dupree, 22

Dupree’s perspective changed, however, her freshman year at the historically Black college. She met unfamiliar people, took classes that challenged her beliefs and got involved in campus groups that promoted civic engagement. She realized she was more conservative on certain issues than her parents, and more liberal on others.

“I look at what’s going to benefit myself, as well as my brothers and sisters around me,” she told HuffPost. For her that includes Black maternal mortality rates, prison reform and voter suppression.

The psychology major saw voter disenfranchisement play out in her first year at Benedict. The state’s law requires people to present a South Carolina or federal photo ID to vote, which could be a barrier for students who aren’t residents.

“I was able to vote because I had my military ID. My voter registration ID did not come until after the election,” she said. It’s a big reason why she leads voter registration drives and town halls on candidates and issues to help students stay politically engaged on campus.

Dupree’s top pick going into the primary is Sanders. She’s attracted to the Vermont senator’s involvement in the civil rights movement and said that “he has not wavered in protecting Black and brown communities,” as well as those who identify as LGBTQ. However, Sanders hasn’t totally won her over. Dupree said that she’s still doing her homework on who’s running and actively encouraging her classmates to do the same.

“It’s important for us to look at [this] as African Americans; it’s important to voice my opinions on issues that directly affect me and my brothers and sisters, because they may not have the same insight as I do,” she told HuffPost. “And it’s that more important for me to break it down to my brothers and sisters to say, ‘Hey, this is how they’re running game on you. You need to understand. You need to get out and vote.’ Everybody’s so quick to be revolutionary after something happens, I want to be proactive in it.”

Jay Shealy, 33, formerly incarcerated

Jay Shealy has never voted.

That’s because he spent roughly the last 13 years incarcerated. Shealy, who’s originally from Philadelphia but moved to Columbia with his family, spent two separate “tours,” as he describes it, in the prison system. He was released on Dec. 31.

“I wasn't able to get my voter registration card due to the fact that I was a felon or what not. And I wanted to vote, but I couldn't.”

Jay Shealy, 33

Shealy, who now works in mold and asbestos mediation and has a certification in rod busting, said that he had a political awakening while he was serving time. His understanding of the many ways Black men are disenfranchised grew deeper, and he began reimagining how he could positively impact his community.

“I believe that I had gotten a second chance in life to actually get right, to be better than when I went in,” Shealy told HuffPost at an interview at Benedict College. “And, while there, I was doing a lot of reading, meditating, self-preservation, all the good things to get me at this point where I’m at now.”

When he was released the first time in 2008, he couldn’t vote because he wasn’t able to obtain the required photo ID that South Carolina citizens need. According to state law, those convicted of a felony are ineligible to vote while in prison, on parole or on probation; their voting rights are restored only upon completion of their sentence. They do, however, need to re-register to vote. He’s already tried to register before the deadline, which is 30 days before Election Day in South Carolina, but didn’t make it because he wasn’t aware of the cutoff. Election workers turned him away, saying he didn’t have proper documentation.

“Honestly, that’s a hurtful feeling due to the fact that my voice matters,” Shealy said when HuffPost informed him of the voter law. “I can’t really express or show my interest due to the fact that I don’t have the card. So in so many words, excuse my language, that’s fucked up.”

Shealy said he was disappointed, especially because he wasn’t given this information upon his release. He called it a form of voter suppression.

He wanted to vote for Steyer, believing that the California billionaire was the best choice since all of the candidates of color have dropped out. But he still has his reservations about the philanthropist.

“In order to actually be for us and with us, you have to be among us,” he said about Steyer’s campaigning efforts in Black communities. “The places that you need to go is the ’hood. Walk the streets, see what the people like, see what the people need. And those are the things that I feel that he really wasn’t doing.”

Though Shealy isn’t able to vote in the primary, he’s looking forward to finally being able to exercise his right in November’s elections. He plans on trying to register again sooner than later.

“Honestly, I feel that it’s an honor. I feel that it’s my obligation. It’s my duty,” he said. “Some of our grandmothers, our uncles, our fathers, our mothers, our sisters, our brothers, never really procured that opportunity to actually be a voice. Even though it’s a minute voice, it’s still a voice nonetheless.”

The statue of George Washington on the steps of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina.
The statue of George Washington on the steps of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina.

Shealy isn’t the only person in South Carolina who has been paying attention to Steyer. Bryant Carlos has seen him and his campaign everywhere.

“Tom Steyer, I’ve seen him a lot,” the 24-year-old barber said while cutting a customer’s hair inside Stroy’s Barber & Styling Shop in Columbia. “Every time I get on the computer, Tom Steyer. Every time I go to a commercial, Tom Steyer. Like he’s putting himself out there.”

The retired California hedge fund manager definitely has the money to appear omnipresent in South Carolina, where Black voters made up 61% of the Democratic primary electorate back in 2016. He has overwhelmingly outspent every other Democrat in the race not named Bloomberg on media, with his campaign pouring $139.8 million into television and digital ads.

What’s more — South Carolinians appear to be listening. A Fox News poll last month placed the billionaire right behind Biden in the state, showing that the Steyer campaign’s big media push seems to be grabbing some attention.

Steyer’s ad campaign may have a much stronger impact on Black voters as two of his rivals — Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey — have dropped out of the presidential race in recent months. The two senators, both of whom are Black, failed to gain traction, despite strong outreach to South Carolina voters from both campaigns, which hoped to recreate the 2008 primary success of former President Barack Obama.

“Sometimes Black voters often have to say, who else is everyone else going to vote for?” Todd Shaw, professor of political science and African American studies at University of South Carolina, said of Harris’ and Booker’s campaigns. “And I think each of those persons, though strong candidates in their own right, weren’t able to get past that bar.”

Darrell Goodwin, 50, local business owner

Darrell Goodwin wants you to know that socialism isn’t scary.

An avid Sanders supporter, the 50-year-old businessman was born and raised in Columbia. He explained that he will likely be supporting the Vermont senator for a second time, primarily because of Sanders’ enduring case for democratic socialism.

“I think a lot of people are scared of socialism because they think it's more like communism, but it's not.”

Darrell Goodwin, 50

“I like the socialism side of Bernie; I think a lot of people are scared of socialism because they think it’s more like communism, but it’s not,” said Goodwin, who also added he was leaning toward Warren, as he sat in his barber chair. “It’s just like everybody lives equally. And I like the fact of free school and free health care because most of the other countries have this.”

Goodwin, a Democrat, is the owner of Stroy’s Barber & Styling Shop, a barbershop that has been a part of Columbia’s community for over 90 years. He’s owned the shop for the last three decades and enjoys the political debates his customers have within its walls. He inherited the shop from its founder, Deacon Stroy, years after getting his haircut there as a child.

The shop was a part of the city’s “Black Wall Street,” a designation for once-thriving Black communities across the country during the early 20th century. Columbia’s Black Wall Street was “right here on Washington Street, where we had just a lot of Black businesses, movie theaters and stuff,” he explained. “So we just kind of kept it going after all the years.”

A customer has their hair cut at Stroy's Barber & Styling shop in Columbia, South Carolina.

The self-reliant community supported itself at a time when Black people were subject to racial violence and laws that reinforced segregation. “Blacks, when we weren’t being treated fairly in Jim Crow, you can go to your own stores and be treated right,” he said. “So we were rich back then because we supported each other, and we were more of the consumer back then like we are today. So that’s what helped those Black Wall Streets grow.”

Goodwin believes that, under a Sanders or Warren presidency, the Black community will be able to return to that self-reliance. The barbershop owner said that the way the country is currently headed, it’s “hard for our people to move” out of poverty.

“I think our kids should have a better start for their future than debt. And then most of the people who can’t afford health care,” he said. “My heart goes out to them. That’s why I’m going more for Bernie and Elizabeth because they are fighting for this.”

Darius Jones, 30, South Carolina Black Pride organizer

Darius Jones sees a little bit of himself reflected in Pete Buttigieg.

At first glance, it seems the two men are worlds apart. Jones is a 30-year-old Black man from Columbia. Buttigieg is a white man from South Bend, Indiana. Jones attended a nearby historically Black university, Allen University, while Buttigieg attended Harvard and is an Oxford Rhodes Scholar.

“Just to see him and his partner go throughout the United States together, hand in hand, spreading the same message of basically love and peace and unity and honestly that right there puts him at the forefront for me.”

Darius Jones, 30

And yet, Buttigieg has Jones’ support in the primary. And it’s not simply because the Columbia native worked for Buttigieg’s campaign as an HBCU campus organizer. It’s because of what the former mayor represents.

It’s a powerful sight for him “just to see him and his partner go throughout the United States together, hand in hand, spreading the same message of basically love and peace and unity,” Jones told HuffPost inside the library of the Harriet Hancock LGBT Center, a resource space for Columbia’s queer community.

Jones, the president of South Carolina Black Pride, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting the state’s Black LGBTQ community, helps uplift other Black queer folk.

“It’s already hard to deal with ‘dual identity’ being a Black man and a gay man,” he said, explaining how it feels to juggle both identities consciously. “Not knowing which [identity] people are responding to and not knowing how your Black community will respond with your sexuality.”

Despite the challenges queer folks face in the South, Jones believes voting is the instrument that can help uplift his community. He attributes his passion for voting to his 98-year-old grandmother.

“I used to talk to her a lot before she got dementia, and she used to tell me all the time, that was the one thing she always wanted me to do, was to vote,” said Jones, who works as a prevention specialist at CAN Community Health. “No matter what’s going on in life, you make time to vote. So if you got to leave your job to vote, you do it. If you get fired, you just get fired. Those were her exact words.”

Ashley Harrington, 20, College Democrats organizer

It’s the day of the Spring Student Organization Fair at the University of South Carolina. Ashley Harrington, the event director for the USC College Democrats, is headed to her organization’s table to encourage students to vote and get involved.

The third-year political science major and statewide president for the College Democrats of America showed up to campus that morning wearing a “Badass” shirt with the Democratic donkey, clearly indicating her politics.

“I'm always sick of the candidate that shows up to a church and just walks away. That’s just a trope that occurs and occurs.”

Ashley Harrington, 20

“I grew up in a household that was very conservative, but not even like religious conservative, but just Black conservative, which I think is very different,” Harrington, who was born in the small suburb of Irmo, South Carolina, told HuffPost. “My mom’s a DINO, so she’s Democrat but in name only. Everything else conservative. My dad, Republican.”

The 20-year-old is almost the perfect personification of Gen Z, the politically engaged generation taking to the streets to protest against inaction on climate change, racial issues and climbing student loan debt.

“Environmental issues are very important to me because I will still be around when the earth is at its worst and my children will be around as well,” Harrington said. “Issues, definitely pertaining to civil rights, discrimination, things like that are very important to me as well.”

The aspiring lawyer talks politics with the shrewdness of a veteran Washington insider and with a passion she attributes to her father, who made her watch the news at a young age. “I would have to watch ‘60 Minutes’ and things like that and then it just got interesting to me,” she said, explaining that she kept up with former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s alleged sexual assault scandal in 2011 as a kid. “So I’ve been in this game for a little bit.”

Because of her current role as an executive committee member with the South Carolina Democratic Party, Harrington declined to indicate who she’ll support in the primary, but she did offer a piece of advice for the Democrats running.

“I’m always sick of the candidate that shows up to a church and just walks away. That has always ... I’m not calling out any candidate, but that’s just the trope that just occurs and occurs,” Harrington said. “And I’m waiting for the day when Black communities just say, ‘You know what? Unless we see what you’re doing, you’re just not going to step foot in this church and just take photo ops with people.’”

“What I really appreciate is when candidates actually canvass, like go door to door to those communities and actually talk to people,” she added. “Just remind them of dates when they need to vote, remind them and actually have voter registrations.”

Lester Young, 47, and his daughter Kaleeyah, 4, listen to the 2020 Democratic candidates during the MLK Day celebration at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina.
Lester Young, 47, and his daughter Kaleeyah, 4, listen to the 2020 Democratic candidates during the MLK Day celebration at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina.

Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown told HuffPost that those in the media need to change how they talk about Black voters.

“It’s centered around white behavior, and then we’re always compared to white behavior when our relationship to democracy and voting in this country is distinctively different,” Brown said, noting Black voters’ pragmatism. “We’re voting for people who’s going to provide the most protection for us in our circumstances, but not necessarily because they’ve got to be the next superstar. We haven’t felt like that about many candidates.”

In 2017, Brown and Cliff Albright founded Black Voters Matter Fund, which made headlines during the 2018 midterms for its voter mobilization tactics. In an effort to empower South Carolina’s Black voters, the founders organized a bus tour throughout the state, hitting rural Black communities candidates often miss. Their mission is to promote “effective voting” by increasing voter registration and turnout and knocking down barriers that often cause voter suppression.

Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, echoes this sentiment. She is using her new nonprofit to cultivate a discussion around who’s left out of national conversations about Black voters. Garza leads the Black Futures Lab, which works to help build Black people’s political power; the organization is using its initiative “Black to the Ballot” to expand the Black electorate by reaching out to residents in rural areas, those who identify as trans and others whose voices are not generally considered by mainstream. She told HuffPost that their goal is to register 10,000 people this year.

“It’s almost like people are waking up to the fact that Black people are capable of yielding an enormous amount of power,” Garza said. “But I think that what gets missed in that, is that somehow we’re just inherently political. And I think that the reality is: Black folks turning up and turning out is really a function of a whole ecosystem of organizations and institutions that are deeply invested in making sure that we don’t get left out of the decisions that are being made about us.”

Roger Leakes, 79, Republican

Roger Leakes is a self-proclaimed “country boy.” He grew up in upstate South Carolina near the Newberry County line as the oldest of 10 siblings. He and his family were sharecroppers. In adulthood he became a teacher, but he decided to enlist in the army to make more money.

“I'm concerned about things like college tuition being paid. I don't think we should even consider anything like that.”

Roger Leakes, 79

He saw the civil rights movement unfold before him and was eventually deployed to Vietnam. Leakes told HuffPost that he identifies as an independent, but his political stances are firmly Republican and he voted for Trump in 2016.

The 79-year-old said that his main concern right now is making sure his quality of life isn’t compromised. Not by plans to address the student loan debt crisis, policies against fracking or monthly $1,000 checks in the mail that would be coming out of his taxes. Leakes believes everyone should be self-reliant, as he says he and his family have been for years.

Since 1981, he’s owned a photography company, which also helps schools and daycares raise money for resources they need. He plans on voting for Steyer in the Democratic primaries. He thinks the candidate has some good ideas about how to help grow the economy, a big priority for Leakes going into the election. But the military veteran believes the billionaire candidate is “too green-oriented.”

“He talks about climate change all the time,” Leakes said. “And he says that he doesn’t like the usage of fossil fuel. Well, I’m going to tell you that is the backbone of our lives here in the USA, fossil fuel. And if we do anything to disrupt that, we’re going to be in for a big problem.”

If Steyer doesn’t secure the nomination, Leakes is considering voting for Trump again.

“He’s done a lot in terms of growing our economy and making our quality of life better. And we are now the world’s leading producer of petroleum, because of fracking,” Leakes said. He praised Trump for the decline in gas prices in recent years, as well as the unemployment rate.

Leakes, who was once a Democrat, said he felt the party took him for granted, so he began questioning why Black people had to vote along Democratic Party lines at the ballot box. Not even Democratic efforts to fight against voter suppression can win over Leakes, mainly because he doesn’t believe it exists in South Carolina, but also because he served on the South Carolina state election commission in Columbia for five years. He believes voting in South Carolina is a “fair game.” Similarly, he believes individuals should be able to fend for themselves, though he knows there have been historical barriers for Black people seeking economic gain.

“I’m worried because everything that they’ve laid out, the platforms that I’ve heard, they tend to be a tax increase in it, and it’s going to cost somebody some money,” he said. “Those kinds of things worry me, because I think they would hurt the nation, and they would hurt me and what little saving I have and what little saving a lot of people have. They wake up one morning; it would be evaporated, gone.”

Young kids of color march to the South Carolina Statehouse from Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina.
Young kids of color march to the South Carolina Statehouse from Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

Leakes and others like him may not agree with addressing the student loan debt crisis with tax dollars, but that isn’t stopping candidates from including it in their platforms. Last year, Warren announced that she would take steps to broadly cancel student loan debt on her first day in office if elected. Sanders’ plan is to cancel all $1.6 trillion of the country’s student loan debt.

Ronald Epps, a 74-year-old retired superintendent who spent six years in Columbia’s school system, believes that conservatives have thrown their weight behind addressing the country’s deficit in ways that only benefit the rich.

“I have five grandchildren and the conservatives have touted a fiscal restraint, and yet we have the largest deficits in the history of the country that my grandkids are going to have to pay,” he told HuffPost. “Someone’s going to have to pay it; it’s going to be my grandkids. Trillions of dollars of deficits that have been exacerbated by the tax reform that Trump has pushed for the upper class, for those that are the most wealthy in the country.”

Lyric Swinton, 21, issue-driven voter

Lyric Swinton has one immediate concern when she heads to the ballot box: Which candidate is best suited to address the student debt crisis?

The 21-year-old University of South Carolina senior grew up going to the polls with her mom and grandma, and they instilled in her the importance of voting in every election once she turned 18. She’d just made the cut in the 2016 presidential election, when she cast her vote for Hillary Clinton. This year, she’s leaning toward Warren because “she has a plan for everything.”

“As a college student about to graduate with student loans on the horizon for me, student debt is 100% a major concern.”

Lyric Swinton, 21

“I really like her policy regarding student debt,” she said. “Her background as a school teacher is very relevant, and she understands the problems that our education system is facing.”

Swinton, who grew up in Columbia and is majoring in sports management, said she is also concerned about women’s reproductive rights, gun control, climate change and funding for historically Black colleges and universities. She has been watching the campaigns closely, especially their outreach in her home state. That Warren and Sanders have chosen Black women as South Carolina state directors who are actually from the Palmetto State shows a good faith effort to appeal to voters in the area.

However, Swinton said she wishes the candidate lineup reflected the diversity of the Democratic Party’s biggest supporters.

“We’re the most diverse party and our wins are literally built on the backs of Black voters,” she said. “And the fact that this candidate lineup is now majority white, and majority men, that’s a hard pill to swallow. And it makes you think, how much are you actually valued?”

She was devastated when Harris dropped out of the race. She hadn’t made up her mind yet on who she’d be voting for, but it hurt to see the California senator drop out before Iowa. She had also paid close attention to Booker’s campaign.

“Just seeing her run I think it meant a lot to me, particularly as a Black woman who has always been interested in politics, has always been interested in how this works, but never really seeing myself represented in that type of fashion,” she said. “Even if you didn’t 100% agree with her, it kind of gave you that push like you can do this one day. It might not be president; it might not be Senate, but that leadership position that you’ve always wanted, that promotion that you’ve always wanted, you’re worthy, you can do these types of things.”

Sheila Albergottie, 64, former teacher

Sheila Albergottie knows all about what it takes to create a lesson plan. So her top choice for president of the United States, Warren, makes a fair bit of sense.

“She’s been a teacher. You know, if you’re a teacher you have to have your plan at the beginning of the school year. That is no joke,” the 64-year-old said, standing outside Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in Columbia after attending a brunch hosted by the Warren campaign inside the restaurant.

“I am not about folks who have good ideas. I want to see some evidence that you have a plan.”

Sheila Albergottie, 64

A former educator, Albergottie believes the Massachusetts senator has a plan for the issues most important to her and her children, such as student loan relief and childcare. (Alycia Albergottie, Warren’s South Carolina state director, is her daughter.) “Those are the issues that Senator Warren [is] talking about that are important for her,” she told HuffPost. “And I do believe it’s because she’s a woman.”

“I am not about folks who have good ideas. I want to see some evidence that you have a plan, that you know what you’re going to do to take me from here to there,” she said. “She has a plan for all these different issues that she can show that there is going to be a way for it to be successful. That’s why I support her.”

Originally from St. Louis, Albergottie has lived in Columbia for the past 40 years.

Though she’s been a social worker for much of her professional career, she taught African American history at Allen University, a local historically Black university in South Carolina’s capital city. Albergottie stressed that Black people, young Black people, in particular, must understand their history as they head to the ballot box.

“It is so critical for Black voters to realize, first of all, their history,” she said. “We are Black every day, we don’t have to wait till February to know our history.”

Donna Thompson, 58, undecided voter

Donna Thompson hasn’t decided who she’s voting for yet, but “it won’t be Trump.”

Sparing a moment to talk about the 2020 presidential candidates during her lunch break at Trinity Education Community and Conference Center in Columbia’s Waverly neighborhood, the 58-year-old explained that she is split on who to support between Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren.

“The middle class and the working folks: I think this country is running on our backs and it's about to break us.”

Donna Thompson, 58

“I don’t think I want to vote for Biden,” she told HuffPost.

For the Vermont senator, the way he speaks about the middle class appeals most to her.

“What I like about Bernie Sanders, the little bit I know, is the fact that his ideas which they call socialism, to me I don’t think that’s what it is, but to me, it’s more for the people,” said Thompson, who identifies as a Democrat. “People like me, the middle class and the working folks, which I think this country is running on our backs, and it’s about to break us.”

Thompson, an account executive with a Medicaid managed care company, said health care, elder care and long-term support services are her top concerns in the new year, which is why she also likes Buttigieg. “I like two things about Pete. Young. His ideas about health care, he says ‘Medicare for All’ is good, but you can keep your private health insurance if you want it,” she explained.

As for Warren, Thompson appreciates the Massachusetts senator’s willingness to oppose the status quo in Washington. “It seems like she wants to go against the grain of what’s always been in Washington.”

But Thompson, born and raised in South Carolina’s capital, said there’s one thing each candidate can improve on: canvassing in the community.

“Try to get a little bit more on the grassroots level. And that’s for me, I see events, but I don’t see [where] they were advertised. So when I see them it’s like, ‘Oh man, if I had known that was going to be, I would have gone,’” she said.

Travis Washington, 51, veteran with disabilities

Travis Washington is ready for Sanders to transform the nation’s health care system.

The 51-year-old retired veteran, who served in the Army from 1984 to 2004, stood outside the Zion Baptist Church at the MLK Day march to the Statehouse holding a sign for Sanders and wearing a T-shirt that read: “If you support these programs, the military, the police, firemen, national parks and social security, then you already support democratic socialism.”

"As retired military, I'm on single-payer, government-run insurance. There are some veterans that are 100%, that can do some side jobs to make extra money. I'm not one of them."

Travis Washington, 51

Washington started supporting Sanders after watching a video explaining his policies by The Young Turks, a progressive news and opinion program on YouTube. He admires Sanders’ work in the civil rights movement in Chicago in the 1960s.

The Columbia, South Carolina, native is convinced that Sanders is the best pick for the next president because he is “running an uncorrupted campaign that will be responsible to the people instead of corporations,” he said. And nothing makes that more clear, Washington said, than his commitment to making sure people can get the medical care they need without going bankrupt.

“As retired military, I’m on single-payer, government-run insurance,” he said, adding that he knows Sanders’ Medicare For All plan will work for Americans. “There are some veterans that are 100%, that can do some side jobs to make extra money. I’m not one of them. I’m giving every little extra I have for the campaign, trying to hope that Sen. Sanders makes it.”

Washington is disabled and can’t work through the pain of his injury. His lower spine is made of titanium.

“What they pay me, the pain is not worth it,” he said. “They say quickly, ‘thank you for your service,’ but you can’t pay a bill with that statement.”

Credits : Senior Enterprise Editor: Erin E. Evans; Reporters: Taryn Finley, Philip Lewis; Enterprise Director: Richard Kim; Creative Director: Ivylise Simones; Photo Director: Christy Havranek; Photographer: Demetrius Freeman; Photo Editor: Chris McGonigal; Audio Production: Joey Horan, Erin E. Evans; Audio Editing: Sara Patterson; Senior Audio Producer: Nick Offenberg; Copy Editor: Aurora Ellis; Project Manager: Jagie Daya; Audience: Ron Nurwisah; Software Dev Engineer: Mike Dorfman

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