The 2010 South Carolina race for the U.S. Senate has left many voters scratching their heads in bewilderment, shrugging their shoulders in apathy, or rubbing their faces in annoyance. Jim DeMint has become the brash new kingmaker of the rightwing Tea Party movement, alienating moderate Republicans and Independents and making progressives consider moving to another state. Alvin Greene, the Democratic candidate, has been a controversial and perplexing figure since his come-from-nowhere defeat of Vic Rawl in the Democratic primary and hasnâ€™t been able to mount a formidable campaign or garner much support even among his own party.
But there is, however, another choice, another party. Enter Tom Clements, the Green Partyâ€™s candidate. Clements was kind enough to sit down with me for a few minutes at his office on Sumter St. before heading to a meet and greet at Goatfeathers in Five Points. After meeting him for the first time, I was sure of three things: heâ€™s an intelligent yet down to earth man, he has the knowledge and experience to make him a serious candidate, and heâ€™s looking for a fight.
DARIEN CAVANAUGH: I didnâ€™t know about your campaign until a few weeks ago, but since then Iâ€™m hearing more and more people talk about you, and youâ€™re starting to get some considerable media coverage, both locally and nationally. The Charleston Post & Courier ran an article on you last week and The Nation ran one a couple of weeks back. Why donâ€™t we start with you telling those who still might not be familiar with you a little about yourself?
TOM CLEMENTS: I was born in Georgia. Lived a good part of my life in Atlanta, but I was born in Savannah and grew up out in the country. I got a bachelorâ€™s degree from Emory in Atlanta, and I have a masterâ€™s in forest resources from the University of Georgia in Athens. My main professional work has been related to environmental issues. I worked for the U.S Forest Service for a while. Then I worked in Kentucky with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, where I was a strip miningâ€”coal miningâ€”inspector for environmental regulations, so Iâ€™m quite familiar with the environmental destruction wrought by mountain-top removal for coal. I lived here in â€™89 and â€™90, working mostly on the Savannah River Site. Then I went to Atlanta, working for Greenpeace, and then switched to Greenpeace International, which is based in Amsterdam. I went to Washington and lived in the D.C. area for 13 years. During that time I also became the director of the Nuclear Control Institute, which focuses on the proliferation of nuclear technology and materials. Then I went back to Green Peace International. After that I went to South America and worked for a human rights organization called Peace Brigades International. We accompanied human rights defenders all around Colombia. That was quite an experience. Then I came here to work for Friends of the Earth and Iâ€™m now the Southeaster Nuclear Campaign Coordinator for them.
I gained a lot of experience meeting with foreign governments during my work for Green Peace International and the Nuclear Control Institute, and also as an advocate for human rights in South America. I was constantly meeting with governments, including the Colombian government. My work on nuclear non-proliferation led me to travel around the world to meet with government officials, particularly in Geneva, and Europe, and at the UN in New York and a whole host of embassies in Washington.
DC: Your background suggests youâ€™ve always been politically engaged, but youâ€™ve never run for public office before. Why now, and why as a Green Party candidate?
TC: The Green Party approached me, and Iâ€™m fed up with the divisiveness in Washington. I think we need to break open the two-party system to allow participation of more diverse views and by more parties. I believe that a more European-type system, which is often a parliamentary system where there are multiple parties, would allow for a broader discussion in American politics. In Germany the Green Party held the balance of power in the last government. They actually had the foreign minister and environment minister positions. So, Iâ€™m running, in part, as a way to expand political representation and participation beyond the views of those in the Republican and Democrat parties.
I was already the Green Party nominee before the Rawl-Greene primary was decided. I did check out Mr. Rawl and his campaign but I didnâ€™t think he would challenge Jim DeMint like Jim DeMint needed to be challenged. Then when he lost, I realized it was urgently important that I step up my campaign because I didnâ€™t think that the Democratic candidate was going to present the challenge to Mr. DeMint that he merited. I certainly realized the limitations of a so-called â€œthird partyâ€ that doesnâ€™t have a big apparatus or a lot of money, but, considering those limitations, itâ€™s pretty amazing the reception weâ€™ve had and the things weâ€™ve been able to accomplish in a short amount of time.
DC: Your two main opponentsâ€”Alvin Greene for the Democrats, and Jim DeMint for the Republicansâ€”are controversial in various ways. What do you think of Greene and DeMint, as candidates, and how do you differ from them?
TC: Well, first, about Mr. DeMint, Iâ€™m not sure that he really is a candidate. Heâ€™s going to be on the ballot and heâ€™s listed as a candidate, but Iâ€™m not aware that heâ€™s doing anything in South Carolina. Mr. DeMint is AWOL from South Carolina. Heâ€™s been afraid to come back and discuss the important issues that are going on in our country. Heâ€™s taken the voters for granted. I have not run across him, nor any of his surrogates speaking for him, anywhere on the campaign trail. He may be coming back on the weekends and doing some events, but heâ€™s not out campaigning. Iâ€™ve challenged him to debates. One of my steering committee members asked him on a radio show over a month ago if he was going to come back to South Carolina to debate with me and Mr. Greene, and he said, â€œNo, my debate is in Washington.â€ People ask me all the time, â€œWhen is there going to be a debate?â€ I donâ€™t think Mr. DeMint has the guts to come back and stand up and debate me in front of a statewide audience, but I still extend the challenge to him. I think he has a dangerous agenda that needs to be challenged, an agenda that is dangerous to the United States and the people of South Carolina. And Iâ€™m putting out an appeal to Democrats to help me challenge Mr. DeMint. I think itâ€™s a very sad situation that heâ€™s not here in the race.
As far as Mr. Greene goes, I still hear people say that they think there was something nefarious going on with his primary win. I donâ€™t see that. He just won. It may have been a fluke, maybe because he was at the top of the ballot or maybe because people were voting against Vic Rawl as a vote against the Democratic establishment. But Mr. Greene is not really running a campaign either, except for maybe an occasional appearance. Although it seems likes heâ€™s been getting more coverage than just about any other politician in the United States for the last several months. I think thatâ€™s a real testament to the shape the media is when they focus on him and his missteps so much. I try to focus on issues and on Jim DeMintâ€™s record and the fact that heâ€™s not here. But the media has been more concerned with Mr. Greeneâ€™s mistakes and making a sideshow out of the whole thing. I think thatâ€™s unfair to the voter and to Mr. Greene.
DC: Jim DeMint is a very polarizing figure, but he seems to be popular here in South Carolina. How do you run against Jim DeMint in South Carolina?
TC: It is difficult to go up against Jim DeMint. He is taking the voters for granted here in South Carolina, and I think heâ€™s trying to exploit peopleâ€™s fears. Heâ€™s using rhetoric that can be attractive to some people, even though I find it very empty and vacuous. Heâ€™s not really presenting any solutions. He just says heâ€™s about â€œdefending the Constitutionâ€ or â€œfighting for freedomâ€ or â€œtaking our country back.â€ I donâ€™t have any idea what any of that means exceptâ€”you knowâ€”we all support the Constitution and freedom and are against evil. He just uses hot-button language to try to confuse people, and a lot of people are falling prey to it.
The Republicans have learned to manipulate the system and use rhetoric to get people to vote against their own self-interests, particularly in relation to Social Security and Medicare. I think we have to understand the motivation of the people in the Tea Party and their anger at the government. We all share a lot of their anger, but I think their logic breaks down in defending Mr. DeMint, because heâ€™s on the side of multinational corporations and the super wealthy. The vast majority of people in South Carolina are just average folks who are not rich. I think one reason DeMint does not want to come back and debate me is because it might expose him for who he really is. What heâ€™s about right now is trying to gain more power and influence. In fact, he has become the consummate insider in Washington. Heâ€™s the exact type of incumbent that we need to remove from office because he is causing divisiveness and logjams and preventing the two parties from having a decent conversation in Washington.
DC: The South Carolina Democratic Party has more or less walked away from Alvin Greene. The SC Democratic Party canâ€™t officially endorse you, but have you been working with any Democrats?
TC: I have spoken before a couple ofâ€”letâ€™s call them â€œDemocratic clubs.â€ [...] A lot of Democrats at that level, and even higher up, tell me that they will vote for me but that they canâ€™t officially endorse me. For a lot of people, I think this campaign has kind of become the de facto campaign for Democrats and Independents.
One problem for me is that a lot of people, Democrats and Republicans, vote a straight-party ticket. In my case, you have to vote for the race. My campaign manager, Frances Close, had an op-ed in The State about two or three weeks ago in which she said, â€œVote for the candidate, not the party.â€ And thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m telling people: You have to vote for the candidate, not the party. If you feel that, as a Democratic entity, you canâ€™t officially endorse me, spread the word and give me an opportunity to speak. Actually, I asked Mr. Sheheen to vote for me last week. He gave me a thumbs-up, but Iâ€™m not sure if that was exactly official.
DC: Are there any closing thoughts youâ€™d like to leave our readers with?
TC: Just that this is a serious campaign. Iâ€™ve got a great staff full of dedicated workers, and weâ€™re committed to doing everything we can to challenge Mr. DeMint on the issues that are important to South Carolina. We just ask that people give us a chance and hear what we have to sayâ€”and help us spread the word.
For more information on the Tom Clements campaign for U.S. Senate visit http://clementsforsenate.com/