Anton Gunn was a former college football player working as a community organizer in South Carolina when he first met that other community organizer –- now known as President Obama.
Gunn was instantly impressed, so much so that when he heard the former U.S. senator from Illinois was thinking of running for president, he cold-called Obama and told him he would work to get him elected.
“He was a black man running for president, and as a black man, I just was inspired by that,” he said. He had never worked in national politics.
He joined the Obama campaign and became Obama’s South Carolina political director. Later, he ran for local office himself, and then joined the Obama administration.
These days though, Gunn is not excited by presidential politics — and he’s not alone.
In 2008 and 2012, African-Americans turned out to vote in record numbers for President Obama. But now many black voters in the early voting state of South Carolina say there isn’t the same devotion to any 2016 candidate. Of the two dozen or so African-American voters NPR spoke with recently in South Carolina, all but one or two said they supported Hillary Clinton. But it’s not enthusiastic support — and without enthusiasm, Democrats could struggle to make those high turnout numbers stick.
This time around “it’s all about ‘gotcha,'” Gunn said. “Or, it’s the angry people running for president. I mean, I hear the clips of Donald Trump, and I hear the clips of Bernie Sanders, they just sound angry to me.”
Gunn says he misses Obama’s real talk, and called this campaign “scripted and contrived.”
“Nobody shares the authenticity that I heard in Barack Obama’s voice,” he said.
Some voters admit there’s a lack of momentum because there’s no black candidate running in the Democratic primary (an overwhelming majority of black voters in South Carolina, and across the country, voted Democrat in recent elections). But for others, the political apathy is deeper — they say the way the first black president was treated left them with a sour taste for politics. They point to instances such as monkey caricatures or or questions over Obama’s citizenship in which they felt the president was disrespected and “dehumanized” because of his race.
Charleston City Councilor Keith Waring says there was an energy for Obama that he had never experienced.
“I gave a number of times financially and we asked others to give,” he said. “I had never done that before for any presidential candidate before in my life.”
In his office, 60-year-old Waring keeps a framed copy of the front page newspaper the day after Obama was first elected in 2008.
“I guess, maybe we want another Barack Obama,” Waring said wistfully. “And there’s just not another one out there.”
Getting ‘down in the trenches’
For a lot of young black voters, there’s a similar sense of disillusionment with presidential politics. It’s tied more to recent attention on police-involved deaths of unarmed black men than to the vanishing Obama “glow.”
In recent months, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were interrupted by young African-American activists.
Bree Maxwell, the 31-year-old president of the Young Democrats of South Carolina, stood under the awning of a coffee shop just a couple of blocks from the state capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C., where the Confederate flag infamously flew for more than half a century. It’s a symbolic place to chat about politics, given what’s on her mind these days.
Maxwell said she wants the presidential candidates to be more specific about what they will do to improve racial inequality.
“I need a better clear-cut definition on what you’re gonna do for the Black Lives Matter movement, ’cause people aren’t protesting for nothing,” said Maxwell.
Maxwell wants policy details from the candidates, but she also wants empathy.
“You can’t just be on these national platforms, come up with these elaborate ideas without actually being down in the trenches talking to the people it has affected,” Maxwell said. “Like go talk to these families that had to suffer with police brutality, spend a day with them to understand exactly what they have to deal with, spend a day with these black males that can’t get jobs, spend a day with these African-American females that [get] discriminated against as well.”
Maxwell’s frustration that she’s not hearing enough about issues that affect her are common among black voters.
Some want the next president to focus on the high level of black male unemployment. Others, like 33-year-old Tiffany James, a Hillary Clinton supporter, point to the need for prison reform.
“Personally, I would want her to go as far as supporting reparations,” James said, outlining her ideal proposal around racial justice. “I don’t think it’s a check that should be mailed to everybody. For me, free college for African-Americans would suffice.”
‘Do black voters believe any of these people?’
No presidential candidate is discussing reparations, but every Democrat has some iteration of a racial justice platform. Hillary Clinton, for example, is calling for an end to racial profiling, and Bernie Sanders often talks about reforming the prison system.
“The question is — do black voters believe any of these people?” asked Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Hiram College in Ohio.
Johnson said the racial strife in the country is not an issue that’s going to peter out before election day; in fact, he said there’s likely going to be another racially charged shooting (or several) before then.
“The candidates are going to be forced to address these issues,” he said, “and the candidates that don’t address or can’t address them consistently are the ones who are going to end up losing out in November of 2016.”
Shani Gilchrist, 36, lives just around the corner from Mother Emanuel church, where nine African Americans were killed by a white man this summer.
It’s hard to explain how profoundly the church massacre troubled Gilchrist, a cultural critic and writer. But, simply put, it disturbed her so deeply, she packed her bags and moved her family from Columbia to Charleston because she and her husband felt they could better work on racial issues there.
“We’re raising two mixed children in South Carolina, which is a paradox in itself. We want them to see us doing what we think is right,” said Gilchrist, explaining the move. “This spoke to us, we just knew.”
Gilchrist has always voted Democrat in the presidential election, but she said this time no candidate is talking about race the way she wants.
“The black community doesn’t really have a hero in this race. Hillary Clinton should be it, and she could be it,” said Gilchrist, but then added, “In my opinion, she’s not quite there yet. ”
There’s no one candidate that really appeals to Gilchrist. She said she’ll probably vote for Clinton reluctantly, like many of the black voters NPR spoke with.
“She’s not authentically or fully addressing what’s causing the racial strife in this country,” said Gilchrist.
Gilchrist said Clinton needs to “listen, and not fake listen.” She also said the candidate should “call for a truth and reconciliation commission on a federal White House level.”
Does Clinton have enough ‘street cred’?
Gilchrist’s lukewarm feelings about Clinton go beyond race. She thinks Clinton is too politically divisive at a time when the country needs a leader who can unify the country and foster more bipartisanship.
Anthony Gunn, the former Obama operative, said he’ll vote for Clinton, but he doesn’t think she’s reaching enough black folks in the right way.
Barack Obama, he said “did the NAACP dinner, but he also rolled up in the barbershop and sat in the chair, and got his hair cut and talked to guys in the barbershop,” said Gunn.
Some of the women at Samiyah’s beauty salon in Charleston had similar concerns.
Bill Clinton was often jokingly referred to as the country’s “first black president.” But, in the early voting state of South Carolina, where the black vote is key, many voters say Hillary Clinton doesn’t have that same level of “street cred” in the black community.
“I mean she’s likable, but I think Bill was just a little more personable than she is,” said Nivi Grimball while she sat under the hair dryer. Then, with a bit of hesitation, she added “I mean, it’s possible she could get there.”
Clinton is the overwhelming favorite in the South Carolina Democratic primary — a recent Winthrop University poll shows 80 percent of African-Americans say they’re leaning toward Clinton.
“This election, I know I’m gonna end up going with Hillary,” said Brenda Barron, the owner of Samiyah’s salon. “I think because of the choices that’s out there. Choices are limited,” she said with a laugh.
Barron said she doesn’t know much about Clinton’s main Democratic primary challenger — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
And, Sanders has acknowledged, black people don’t really know him.
“If the elections were held today, just among the African-American vote, we would lose,” Sanders told NPR’s Steve Inskeep in a recent interview.
Sanders said he needs to do a better job introducing himself and his civil rights record — and selling his message to black voters.
In 2008 and 2012, Barron said she “had a lot of clients that was campaigning and I don’t hear it now. … I don’t know of anyone that’s doing it this year.”
City Councilor Waring said he supports Clinton and in all probability he’s going to vote for her. But he also doesn’t feel that same spark.
“With Barack Obama — it was new, the Clinton name isn’t new,” said Waring. “I mean her husband ran twice, she ran once, so you get the feeling like you seen this movie before.”
A lot of black folks in South Carolina said it would be a different game if Joe Biden were in the race. One guy’s analogy is that Biden was to Obama what Scottie Pippen was to Michael Jordan.
But, Biden’s not running, and, so a lot of people say Clinton will do.
The question is whether being “good enough” can actually turn people out to vote.