For Dems, there's no chickening out at Clyburn's fish fry

COLUMBIA, S.C. — An oft-quoted parable in the Bible in the Gospel of Matthew goes like this: When Jesus visited the town of Bethsaida, he faced a puzzling problem — there were 5,000 people and only five loaves of bread and two fish. So, he called in a favor, and the crowd was satiated.

But there was no divine intervention to come to the aid of the more than 7,000 very hungry, very overheated attendees of Jim Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry.” Long before the gates opened at 7 p.m. on a steamy Friday evening in Columbia, S.C., crowds snaked out the lot of the amphitheater of the EdVenture Children’s Museum and onto the sidewalk, waiting for a free meal, beer included, and a chance to hear 21 Democrats make their presidential pitch while paying homage to Clyburn, the powerful majority whip of the House. What could go wrong?

Due to a late start at the preceding Blue Palmetto Dinner, guests, who were promised an 8 p.m. start time, did not hear a candidate speak until well after 9:30 p.m. Lines to get some of that world-famous fish ran hours long. Sweaty backs and empty stomachs have all the makings of an early riot. One miffed man who passed by the press barricade remarked that he had lost track of his wife, who had been waiting in line for over two hours for a fish. He stormed off quickly, parched and sweaty, yelling for answers or a sign things were going to kick off.

Democratic presidential candidates stand on stage together, including all of the women running, Marianne Williamson, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand during Jim Clyburn's World Famous Fish Fry in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., June 21, 2019.  Picture taken June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Democratic presidential candidates at Jim Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry” in Columbia, S.C., June 21. (Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters)

Never fear, the chanting, T-shirt-clad campaign volunteers were there to offer at least moral sustenance, in the form of campaign cheers. A group of Bernie Sanders supporters waved signs and yelled their candidate’s name over and over again. Soon, a similar smattering of Kamala Harris volunteers took up a chant for their candidate. Between them, many fish fry attendees stood in line, still waiting for their meal. Thankfully for Clyburn, what could have been a crescendo of angry constituents never materialized to much more than a smattering of “lets get it started” changes from the VIP balcony above the press pen.

In such a key voting state, candidates can’t afford to get caught up in the spectacle, no matter how tardy, especially since they’re fighting to win attention away from Joe Biden, who’s dominating in early state polling. Hoping to close that gap, candidates as they took their turns on the stage fell back on their most tried-and-true lines. Eric Swalwell pulled out his reliable “Republicans are the Hunger Games” meme; Cory Booker tossed the hungry crowd a fish-themed dad joke; Beto O’Rourke huddled (in full view of press) with Jesse Jackson; and people actually cheered for Andrew Yang, the seldom-seen, never-before-elected-to-anything tech entrepreneur who trails most of the rest of the field and is surprising to see in the race at all. Biden, wearing a blue “Clyburn” T-shirt, spoke for only 65 seconds. And while the antics didn’t live up to a reputation forged in earlier years, when the crowds might have been smaller and the weather less oppressive — no candidate did the expected electric slide or the wobble — at least 21 candidates took a class picture, matching swag and all.

Such intimate face time with possibly the next president keeps 46-year-old Caryn Troxler coming back to brace the famously steamy temperatures and crowds. Keeping herself cool with a Cory Booker 2020-branded fan (she is willing to cool off with anyone’s merch, whether or not she supports them), Troxler told Yahoo News that aside from the hurly-burly, watching candidates perform in a relaxed setting helps locals like her stay engaged amid hectic personal lives.

“The fish fry gives a personal feel to the candidates. They can drink and dance in a central location that’s close to work and bus lines. It’s easy access for people from all walks of life,” Troxler said.

Troxler, who works at the University of South Carolina, was especially excited to hear remarks from Biden, a notably absent frontrunner at previous Democratic cattle calls on the trail. She wouldn’t mind if he danced a little, either. “He may have some rhythm,” she speculated.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders mingles with the crowd during "Jim Clyburn's World Famous Fish Fry" in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., June 21, 2019.  REUTERS/Randall Hill
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders mingles with the crowd at the fish fry Friday night. (Photo: Randal Hill/Reuters)

First-time visitor Candice Hawkins, 37, stressed that the family atmosphere is what sets this event apart from, say, more formal events like town halls. A “card-carrying Democrat,” Hawkins hoped a forum consisting of over 20 candidates would help her narrow down her choice in next year’s primary, although she already has chosen favorites in Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Fringe-candidate fans have their time to shine (and sweat) too. An exhilarated member of the “Yang Gang,” wearing a MATH (“Make America Think Harder”) hat and a toothy grin, pulled this reporter aside as she was making her way through the crowd. After handing over “Yang 2020” buttons, he called on 25-year-old Tom Krumins for a testimonial to the relatively unknown, albeit Internet-famous, candidate.

Could a candidate like Yang get anyone’s attention at the fish fry? “He’s in it for that slow simmer,” said Krumins, who added that the California entrepreneur's proclivity to not take himself too seriously would endear him to South Carolina crowds. “While other candidates were choosing political songs, he came out to ‘Return of the Mack,’” said Krumins, referring to Yang’s walk-out music at the Iowa Democratic Hall of Fame dinner. “It’s just a jam. People like that.”

There’s room, too, for the folks who are more interested in spectacle over substance. Thirsty for Franzia boxed wine? The fish fry will provide it. In the mood to see a larger-than-life cutout of Booker’s head attached to a stick several feet long? Come on down! There was a photo booth where guests could pose with “just proving I’m here” signs in front of a branded backdrop, a marketing device known as a step-and-repeat.

The antics served a purpose. With such a crowded field, campaigns do anything they can to turn out as fierce, engaged, megaphone-wielding forces, proving to attendees, and perhaps other teams, that they can out-chant and outlast the competition. And the somewhat collegiate energy is plain fun.

Still, not every attendee finds the show-outside-of-a-show attractive. “The jesters are distracting,” says Joseph Flemming, 26, another first-time attendee. “The sincerity and platforms should shine through.” He didn’t like how the enthusiastic cheering degenerated into “sloppy” cheer-offs between rival candidate teams. “I feel like it could cause a headache.” But he’s able to turn the other cheek for smart conversation, and, most importantly, delicious Southern food.

“Have you tried the tartar sauce? It has such a distinguished taste; it’s worth the wait.”

And for the candidates who showed up to cast their bread upon the waters of Columbia, they can only hope they will reap their reward in the future — specifically, on Feb. 29, the date of the South Carolina primary.

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