‘No matter who wins’: South Carolina mayor calls for moderation, unity in primary

By Anne Snabes and Maura Turcotte
Medill Reports

Billy Keyserling, the mayor of Beaufort, South Carolina, governs over a small coastal city reflective of much of the state — largely Republican with some moderate Democrats.

Following Pete Buttigieg’s narrow win of more delegates in Iowa and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ victory in New Hampshire, the pressure on Keyserling’s state to deliver a clear front-runner with the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29 has intensified. South Carolina, hosting a more diverse electorate than Iowa and New Hampshire, will not only act as a bellwether for the South, but possibly for Super Tuesday’s 16 contests on March 3.

Keyserling has prioritized educating the public about Reconstruction and addressing environmental problems such as coastal flooding — two issues he sees as impacting political discussions in 2020 — since becoming mayor in 2008. He spoke to Medill Reports about the candidates’ takes on climate change, the importance of black voters to the primary and the similarities between the candidates.

On what it takes to win South Carolina 

If you can hold the African American vote together, you’ve got a huge advantage because that’s likely to be 60% and no less than 40% of the electorate. So if you can hold that together, then, as Biden had it one point, you’re going to win.

I don’t think any voter, including African Americans, are going to want to vote for someone if they don’t think that it’s going to be part of that person winning, and I think that that is eroding with Biden.

On choosing between candidates

I would settle for stability, for someone who I can trust, because any Democrat is going to take at least the common denominator of what they’ve all said. We’re going to do something with health care, no matter who wins. We’re going to do something with judicial reform, no matter who wins. We’re going to do something with the minimum wage, no matter who wins. We’re going to do something about not getting recklessly involved in starting or feeding on wars, no matter who wins.

You know, quite frankly, Amy [Klobuchar], to me is really sort of the rock solid, best of all of them from a policy of let’s-get-to-business point of view, but she’s not part of the political elite. She doesn’t have the kind of money necessary. She probably doesn’t have the level of experienced consultants working for her.

On Democratic candidates and climate change

I don’t think it’s a cutting issue. Tom Steyer is clearly an environmentalist. I don’t see Pete [Buttigieg] not being an environmentalist. Bernie [Sanders] has talked about climate change enough. [Joe] Biden’s talked about it; Klobuchar’s talked about it. I mean they’ve all talked about it. I mean, the bottom line is they’ve woven together.

Why don’t they just say, “Look, we all agree. How the f— are we gonna all come together and win? Who’s going to be secretary of treasury? Who’s going to be president? Who’s going to be vice president? Let’s go get Stacey Abrams to be vice president. And let’s put together a ticket and begin to run hard in a very unconventional way.”

On divisiveness in the United States

The past 10 years, I’ve been working on Reconstruction [education] and how we could break the cycle of racism, recreate an atmosphere of civility, and in the long run, find common ground that we are a United States. There is a strength in diversity, and there’s a strength in numbers that we should be celebrating. And not dividing. I don’t blame Donald Trump for where we are — I can’t stand the son of a b—-. He has exploited every bad thought anyone ever had to his benefit to the harm of many, many people.

On predicting South Carolina’s primary results

It could very well be that [the primary vote] gets all split up, and that South Carolina doesn’t, even though it has the diversity of none of the other states, may very well be that it won’t be a clear win for anybody.

At the moment, I would say that it is unlike we thought going into it. I think it can be wide open.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Photo at top: Mayor Billy Keyserling, who has yet to endorse a candidate, called for someone with “stability.” (Maura Turcotte/MEDILL)