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Joe Biden courts churchgoers in SC with new faith outreach director

2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to supporters in Columbia

2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to supporters in Columbia at the Hyatt Park Community Center
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2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to supporters in Columbia at the Hyatt Park Community Center

Another Democratic presidential candidate has hired a staffer whose sole responsibility will be to harness South Carolina’s influential church voting bloc ahead of the 2020 primary.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s S.C. campaign has brought on Michael McClain to be its faith outreach director in the critical early primary state.

The campaign made the announcement Thursday along with a slate of 39 new local faith leader endorsements, most of whom McClain helped secure over his first two weeks on the job, the campaign confirmed.

McClain has served for years as the pastor of Historic Liberty Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Catawba and as the national outreach coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

He will continue to preach but has taken a leave of absence from his environmental advocacy. McClain’s position on Biden’s campaign is a homecoming: He first worked for Biden as his state field director in 2007, the last time the then-U.S. senator from Delaware launched a presidential bid.

“Joe Biden is solid, he is moral, he is sincere, and he is loyal, and he cares about all people, not just a certain segment of people,” McClain told The State in a phone interview on Wednesday. “His policies are sound because he is sound. And he has a record that coincides with his soundness.”

Many presidential candidates have people on staff to handle outreach to the faith community as part of a larger job description. Biden, however, joins U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., as the only candidates who have brought local pastors onto their payrolls to focus exclusively on the faith vote in South Carolina specifically.

McClain told The State that it might have been feasible in the past to lump faith outreach efforts into a staffer’s broader issue portfolio. That was the case for him on previous political campaigns on which he’s worked.

But now, McClain said, it is necessary to have one person dedicated to this constituency full-time. The faith vote in South Carolina is particularly crucial, given the high percentage of African Americans who vote in Democratic presidential primaries, many of whom also regularly attend church.

“I would say it is going to be important throughout the nation in this election because the soul of America is at stake in this election,” said McClain, expressing the anxiety voters have about President Donald Trump’s morality. “We are going to need people who have a sound moral compass to step up and speak and vote.”

Since his official first day on the job on August 6, McClain said he has been visiting with faith leaders across the state. He plans to visit big and small houses of worship, so-called “mega churches” and more remote, rural outposts.

Though black voters are the most coveted constituency in the crowded Democratic primary field, McClain said he was also going to synagogues and mosques.

McClain said Biden has gotten a positive reception from pastors so far, but the next step is getting Biden in front of congregations so he can make the case to parishioners personally.

“By him being in the church, being in the crowd in the church — when he’s in the church, it’s a natural for him,” McClain said. “And people see that and feel that. That’s one of the reasons, with the African American church, they want to see you. They want to see and feel the genuineness of a candidate.”

McClain added that Biden’s Catholicism aligned closely with the Christianity largely practiced among black South Carolinians: “He is talking to people who have faith in the same God that he does ... they’re talking about taking care of the least of these. You look out for your brother. Always trying to help someone, not condemn someone, not beat someone down.”

In addition to the work McClain did for the 2007 Biden campaign, he has been involved in the intersection of politics and faith for years, locally and nationally.

At one time, he was the public relations officers for the Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina. He held roles with the South Carolina presidential campaigns of former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

He was regional political director for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Inez Tenenbaum in 2004 and the state field director for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tommy Moore in 2006.

If Biden wins the party’s nomination, McClain hopes to serve as a national faith outreach director for the campaign.

“I already have national connections,” McClain said. “I already have relationships with them ... I can all but guarantee (this bloc) is going to be more important than ever before.”

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