BENNETTSVILLE, S.C. – Since the country's founding, no Black woman has ever served as a governor in the United States. But South Carolina Democratic state Sen. Mia McLeod says she's the person who can change that, despite the fact that Democrats haven't been elected to a statewide office there in 15 years.
“I want to be the person that is running not because I’m a woman, and not because I’m Black, but because I am so connected to and so much like the people that I represent,” McLeod, a Columbia-area lawmaker, told The Associated Press ahead of Thursday's official 2022 campaign launch. “It’s a tremendous responsibility, but it’s one that I’m excited about.”
McLeod, 52, spoke extensively with AP during a Tuesday tour of her hometown Bennettsville, a rural hamlet about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of the state capital. It's the seat of Marlboro County, which has one of the state's highest unemployment rates. Asked about her top campaign concerns, McLeod cited education and health care, noting the area's crumbling schools and lack of a hospital since 2015.
“I believe rural counties like mine are a microcosm for what’s happening statewide, when it comes to our rural communities that have been left behind,” she said, arguing that Republicans like Gov. Henry McMaster, in his first full term, had failed the state.
According to University of South Carolina professor Bobby Donaldson, a scholar of Southern history and African American culture, McLeod is the first Black woman to seek South Carolina's top job. If elected, she would be only its second female governor. She would also be the first-ever Black governor in the state whose constitution was reconfigured during the Jim Crow era, weakening the office in the event that a Black person were ever elected to it.
A state lawmaker for a decade, McLeod was elected to the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2016. A communications consultant, she's served several state government stints, including director of the Office of Victim Assistance and government affairs director at the state probation department.
In the Senate, McLeod has made recent waves. In spring 2020, as lawmakers returned to Columbia after an abrupt, pandemic-related halt, McLeod stayed away, citing concerns related to her battle with sickle cell anemia and calling Republican leaders’ decision to hold in-person session “tone-deaf” and “deadly” as coronavirus cases rose.
During a contentious debate over this year’s “heartbeat bill," which would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, McLeod railed against Republicans for opposing exceptions for rape victims, revealing that she had been the victim of sexual assault. The measure became law but is stalled in litigation.
Two other Democrats have already announced gubernatorial bids: activist Gary Votour and Joe Cunningham, who in 2018 flipped his congressional district from red to blue for the first time in decades before losing reelection to Republican Nancy Mace last year.
Asked how she will differentiate herself from Cunningham, who has been traveling South Carolina in the weeks since his launch, McLeod said she hadn't followed Cunningham closely but looked forward to an active primary, citing her willingness to challenge fellow Democrats on legislative issues including redistricting.
“I am a fierce advocate who is unafraid to fight for the people and advocate for the people in the state,” McLeod said. “Even if I have to fight alone, and even when I have to fight members of my own party, I’ve shown that I have the courage to lead.”
But McMaster is the foe McLeod references most often, criticizing what she characterizes as a leadership void, particularly during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Tapped to give the Democratic response to the governor’s State of the State address this year, McLeod excoriated the Republican for bringing South Carolina to a “bleak” place, arguing McMaster pushed economic reopening too quickly, failed in not instituting a statewide mask mandate, and rushed a return to five-day-a-week, in-person education.
Winning a statewide office in South Carolina is an uphill climb for Democrats. Republicans have long dominated the state's politics, winning all statewide elections over the past 15 years and controlling the governorship for two decades. DNC chairman Jaime Harrison, who smashed money records in his 2020 challenge against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, was defeated by a double-digit margin.
Asked how to overcome that kind of statewide math, McLeod said she'd apply the same nonpartisan standard to voter outreach as she does to constituent services.
“I never ask anybody, when they email me for help or call me for help, whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican,” said McLeod, recounting tales of constituents from all political persuasions who sought her help during the pandemic, citing difficulties with state unemployment resources or vaccine availability — two areas where she says McMaster failed the state.
“I know what connects with everyday people, because I am everyday people," she said.
Acknowledging the historic nature of her run, McLeod says she hopes to appeal to all voters regardless of race, although she understands that some may connect with her candidacy on a personal level, like an older Black woman did at a recent event.
"'Baby, I’m going to knock on every door in Calhoun County for you,'” McLeod says the woman told her.
“She finally had somebody who saw her, and who was speaking her language, and who talked to her — not about racial issues, not about Black and white, but just about life and living and wanting the same for our families that these white men, who have been in these positions historically, forever, want for their families.”
“It’s not like I’m speaking a different language,” McLeod said. “It’s just that they haven’t ever seen or heard anybody who looks like me speak in a way that resonates with all the people.”
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.