2 Black Senate hopefuls look to make history in the South — and fix health care while they’re at it

In 2017, two Republican senators from deep-red Southern states — Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — introduced legislation that would have effectively killed Obamacare. And this year, the two Black men running to replace them are reminding voters of what the “Graham-Cassidy” plan would have done to health care in the U.S.

Democrats Adrian Perkins and Jaime Harrison teamed up on Thursday to host a virtual health care roundtable on the third anniversary of the introduction of the Graham-Cassidy legislation. The bill, which was a last-ditch effort to win over Republican holdouts and kill the Affordable Care Act, never came up for a vote after it became clear to the GOP leadership that the Senate would not pass it. 

At the time, critics of the Graham-Cassidy bill said it would have pulled health care away from 21 million Americans and allow insurance companies to deny coverage to patients with preexisting conditions. Perkins and Harrison hope the bill continues to haunt its authors. 

“It was just a bad piece of legislation,” Harrison told Yahoo News. “And now when you think how we’re dealing with this pandemic, something that we have not seen in generations, the thought that Lindsey Graham and Senator Cassidy still want to repeal the Affordable Care Act when right now millions of people don’t have health insurance because their employer has laid them off, it shows that they are callous. It shows that they’re out of touch and that they don’t deserve to represent the people in the state.”

Harrison and Perkins are two of the five Black Democrats attempting to beat Republican senators in the South this year. It’s a historic undertaking: There have been just 10 African-American senators in U.S. history, with only one coming from a Southern state since the end of Reconstruction. And until 2013, there was never more than one Black member of the Senate at any given time. 

Perkins, the mayor of Shreveport, La., and Harrison, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, seek to make history this year and become the first Black Democratic senators from their respective states. They say that they’re looking to usher in a “new South” and address issues they argue have been largely ignored by their opponents.

In a year when close to 200,000 Americans have died due to the coronavirus pandemic, health care is central to both men’s pitches. While the Graham-Cassidy bill would have kept a lot of the ACA’s structure in place, the proposal would have redistributed funds to states in the form of block grants. Their plan also did not allow a way for states that have expanded Medicaid to continue current insurance systems or cover the same amount of people that they do now. 

So if the Graham-Cassidy measure had passed, fewer Americans would likely have insurance coverage today. And Perkins and Harrison argue that that would have made the coronavirus outbreak even more catastrophic. 

“The fact that Sen. Cassidy and Sen. Graham tried to strip away health care from 23 million Americans, that says enough, really,” Perkins said in an interview with Yahoo News. “You’ve got to wonder, if they’re pursuing this, whose interests are they really looking after?”

He added: “I think if you peel back the onion, you’ll see that they will put politics over people. They’ll put politics over our country any day of the week. And that’s extremely dangerous. That’s the reason why most Americans are frustrated with Washington, D.C., right now. And they want changes.”

Harrison — who consistently polls well in his matchup with Graham — says he feels that the South is changing and ready to elect more African-Americans to the Senate.

“We are seeing the emergence of what I call a ‘new South,’” Harrison, a former lobbyist, said. “[It’s] a new South, which is bold, inclusive and diverse. You’re seeing African-Americans being able to run statewide for the nominations and win and be on the cusp of changing the history and direction of this country. It’s great to have people who are allies to the issues that impact all of our communities, but there’s nothing like having people from those communities sit at those tables and make decisions that impact the folks in their communities.”

While it may be hard for many to imagine a Black Democrat representing South Carolina in the Senate, Harrison told the New York Times last year that the state is becoming less Republican. South Carolina is where the Confederacy was born and was the first state to secede after the election of Abraham Lincoln. But if Graham loses, it will be represented by two Black men in the Senate: Harrison and GOP Sen. Tim Scott. 

The latest poll numbers indicate Harrison has a solid chance of beating Graham, the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of President Trump’s most vocal allies in Congress. A Quinnipiac University poll from last month found Harrison and Graham tied at 44 percent.

Harrison’s ability to compete with Graham is due in large part to his success as a fundraiser. In fact, this is the most well-funded race in South Carolina history. Harrison raised $14 million from April to June, which nearly doubled Graham’s $8.4 million over this time period, according to federal disclosures filed last month. 

Harrison says that he once had confidence in Graham and what he could do for the people of South Carolina, but he now thinks his Republican opponent is in politics for all the wrong reasons. 

“I used to believe that Lindsey could rise above the political fray and that he wasn’t getting involved in the Washington political games that are played,” Harrison said. “But what I’ve come to see is that Lindsey is just like every other political animal in Washington, D.C. He’s in it for the glitz and the glamour and for his own political relevance, rather than focused on addressing the issues.”

In addition to shoring up health care, Harrison’s plan for South Carolina includes growing the middle class, ending poverty in the state and addressing criminal justice reform. 

“By the time I’m done with a first term in Congress, we’re going to rebuild and revitalize your rural communities from the top to the bottom,” Harrison said. “There’s so much that we can do right now and so much that I want to do. I can’t wait to get to Washington, D.C., so I can begin to work on behalf of the people here in the state.”

In Louisiana, meanwhile, the 34-year-old Perkins says that he’s fighting for everyone who has never felt like they had a voice.

“History is a very difficult thing for [African-Americans] to achieve,” Perkins said. “We’re fighting for representation to this day.”

Perkins — a Shreveport native — notes that he could have left his hometown to earn a big check in a bigger city, but he chose to stay home and serve those he feels most connected to. A West Point graduate, he spent eight years in the military and graduated from Army Ranger school. After three tours of duty that included service in Iraq and Afghanistan, he left the Army as a captain. He was also awarded a Bronze Star Medal. 

Perkins then went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. In 2018, he was elected mayor and credits much of his success to his hard-working mother.

“If the church doors were open, you better believe [my siblings and I] were in there, whether it was for Bible study or prayer or Sunday school, you name it,” Perkins said. “She taught us the value of hard work. She worked multiple jobs to make sure that we had the resources that we needed. And she also taught us the value of education. … My mother set a very strong example and gave us experiences that a lot of Louisianians are going through right now.”

Perkins admits that while only a third of Louisiana residents know who he is today, he hopes to force Cassidy into a head-to-head runoff. In Louisiana, if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote in the first round of balloting, there is runoff between the two top candidates.

“We’re confident that Sen. Cassidy’s record is going to be indicted this November and December,” Perkins said. “Especially on his health care record where he tried to repeal and replace the ACA and strip away health care from half a million Louisianians and 23 million Americans.”

Perkins says that he’s not worried about criticism concerning his lack of time in elected office.

“The things that they’ll come at me for is, he’s only been in office for two years, and I’ve heard that from my citizens as well,” Perkins said. “I’ve been a mayor for a little bit under two years, but my response to that is I’m not bringing the leadership experiences of just being the mayor to this race. I’m bringing over a decade of leadership experience from the United States military and from my time at Harvard into this race.

Both Harrison and Perkins are going up against legacy, history and conventional wisdom in the run-up to November, but neither candidate is letting these challenges slow them down.

“You better believe if I’m elected senator of Louisiana and Jamie Harrison is elected Senator from South Carolina, that it’s going to mean a lot to millions of Americans that not only look like us that are brown or that have a certain religion, or that feel like they’ve been marginalized,” Perkins said.

“It’s going to show that the American dream is still attainable and that regardless of the color of your skin or your faith, that you can be able to accomplish what you want to do in the United States of America.”

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