Lindsey Graham faces challenge from ex-Podesta Group lobbyist

Jaime Harrison seized upon Graham’s transition from a feuding 2016 primary opponent and staunch critic of Trump into one of the president’s strongest defenders in the Senate.

Image Credit: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc./Getty Images

Anna Massoglia contributed to this story.

Already backed by fundraising money from lobbyists and foreign agents, a former Podesta Group lobbyist launched his campaign to unseat Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on May 29.

Jaime Harrison, a longtime revolving door member with a lengthy lobbying history, announced he would seek the Democratic nomination to challenge President Donald Trump’s rival-turned-top supporter in 2020.

Harrison seized upon Graham’s transition from a feuding 2016 primary opponent and staunch critic of Trump into one of the president’s strongest defenders in the Senate.

“Lindsey Graham can’t lead us in any direction because he traded his moral compass for petty political gain,” Harrison said, announcing his run against the incumbent Senator.

Two other Democrats are running, lawyer William Stone and economist and professor Gloria Tinubu, though neither have reported raising any money yet. Tinubu is the South Carolina state director for Marianne Williamson’s 2020 Democratic presidential campaign.   

Harrison started his career in D.C. as a staffer for Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). He became the first African-American chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party in 2013. His first turn toward the national spotlight was an unsuccessful run for Democratic National Committee chairman in 2017. The eventual chairman, Tom Perez, then made Harrison the associate chair of the DNC.

Harrison worked at Podesta Group from 2008 until 2016. The firm run by Tony Podesta, brother of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman and firm co-founder John Podesta, closed in 2017 after being tied up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. An indictment from Mueller, which charged Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, alleged that Manafort hired Podesta Group as part of his work in Ukraine.  

Even though much of the 2020 Democratic presidential field is rejecting lobbyist money, Harrison himself has a long history in the profession, deemed by presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as “a public cancer.”

As a lobbyist, Harrison worked for a number of big corporations, many with ties to South Carolina. For a number of years, he lobbied on behalf of Michelin North America, headquartered in South Carolina, as well as the state of South Carolina and the South Carolina-based subsidiary of Italian rail transit company Mer Mec.

In 2008, during his time as a Clyburn aide, Harrison met with Andrew Kauders, who was working as a foreign agent for the Egyptian government along with Tony Podesta. Harrison would go on to become coworkers with Kauders at the Podesta Group.   

Some of the clients Harrison took on could prove troublesome to the progressive segment of the Democratic base. In 2015, he represented ACA International, the trade group that consists of debt collection agencies and creditors. In 2013, he lobbied for Walmart, which faces scrutiny over treatment of employees; pharmaceutical company Amgen; and defense contractors General Dynamics and Boeing. Harrison also lobbied on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity in 2011, a controversial coal industry group advocating for “clean coal” practices, a concept some scientists suggest isn’t real.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, in which Bank of America was heavily involved buying failed Countrywide and Merrill Lynch, Harrison lobbied for the company at the same time it faced intense criticism for its skyrocketing credit card rates.

While Democratic presidential candidates are rejecting lobbyist cash, Harrison appears to embrace it. Lobbyists, even some who are registered as foreign agents, provided financial support to Harrison’s exploratory committee, which evolved into his Senate campaign account.

Maxing out donations to his exploratory committee are a number of prominent lobbyists. Tonio Burgos, leader of the Burgos & Associates lobbying firm, contributed $5,600. Gordon Taylor, president of Ogilvy Government Relations, contributed $1,000. Taylor represents a number of massive corporations in 2019 with clients such as Pfizer, Wells Fargo and oil and gas industry members the American Petroleum Institute and Marathon Petroleum.    

Patrice Willoughby, who used to work at the lobbying firm of Heather Podesta, Tony’s ex-wife. Willoughby is currently a registered foreign agent for Volodymyr Zelensky, the newly-elected president of Ukraine, reported a $250 contribution to Harrison. Another foreign agent, David Kusnet, who works for Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, contributed $100 to Harrison’s exploratory committee.  

During his time as a Hill staffer, Harrison interacted with a number of foreign agents, some of whom are now helping fund his campaign. Cristina Antelo, who worked with Harrison at Podesta Group, spoke with Harrison about the U.S.-Dubai relationship when he was floor director for Clyburn and she was a registered foreign agent of Dubai. In March 2019, Antelo contributed $1,000 toward his Senate run.

Democratic megadonor and owner of Paloma Partners hedge fund, Donald Sussman also contributed the individual maximum of $5,600. Sussman and his business were the top contributor to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.    

Harrison has also gotten the help of a number of leadership PACs, which have contributed a total of $34,000 to his fledgling campaign so far. Perhaps due to his location in an early primary state, three 2020 presidential candidates have offered financial support so far to Harrison’s campaign. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) contributed $5,000 through his Purpose PAC, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (one of the few presidential Democrats to accept lobbyist money) gave $2,500 through his Giddy Up PAC, and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) contributed $1,000 from his New Energy leadership PAC.

Notable members of establishment Democratic leadership have been supportive. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) PAC to the Future contributed $5,000. Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), provided $2,500 from his leadership PAC.  Harrison’s old boss, Clyburn, has also been active in his financial support. Clyburn’s campaign committee gave $4,000 and his leadership PAC, BRIDGE PAC, contributed $10,000.  

Prior to his announcement Wednesday, Harrison’s exploratory committee raised a total of $231,187. He tweeted on Thursday that the campaign raised an additional $270,000 in the first 24 hours after his official announcement.

On the other hand, Harrison substantially trails Graham who brought in a substantial first quarter haul of around $2 million. As an incumbent in a typically Republican seat and a national name, Graham has $4.6 million cash-on-hand compared to just $200,032 for Harrison.


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