A New Southern Strategy: Can a Politician Who Began His Career as an Obama Organizer Make a Lasting Change in South Carolina Politics?

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Anton Gunn's e-mail promises I won't have a hard time picking him out in the Starbucks in Richland County, South Carolina.

He's right.

Easily the biggest guy in the room, the former offensive lineman looms over an older man in an American Legion baseball cap with whom he's chatting about local business. We're just northeast of Columbia, South Carolina's capital, in the heart of Gunn's state House district.

Gunn is used to standing out. An African American representative in a majority-white district, a Democrat in a Republican-dominated state, and a 36-year-old surrounded by career politicians, he makes a fitting messenger for Obama's campaign-trail message about the need for a new kind of polities that moves beyond traditional divisions.

The 2008 election maybe long over, but Obama's campaign themes are still being put to the test in states like South Carolina. When Gunn became Obama's state political director during the all-important South Carolina primary, he had already made one run at public office and lost. After Obama won the primary, Gunn ran for state representative again. This time, he won. He has also maintained his Obama-campaign ties: Gunn is the state director for Organizing for America, the grass-roots group keeping a semblance of Obama's campaign presence alive nationwide.

Gunn clearly loves the campaign trail but also seems to enjoy the Legislature. He's as at home talking about everything from the digital divide and broadband access--"the dial tone of the future," he calls it--to tax credits for employers who provide health care to physical-education requirements in school to corruption--sponsoring a bill to fight "dudes getting money on the back end from their brother-in-law's government contract."

He has gotten involved in messy issues with special relevance to South Carolina--he joined the education superintendent in pushing for public "school choice," against some in his own party as well as Republicans who want to privatize the whole system. He also signed on to aletter to Obama from young elected officials calling for a climate deal in Copenhagen and a serious investment in sustainable-energy technology.

Gunn is up for re-election this year, and state Democratic Party activists are already floating his name for higher office. But for Gunn, South Carolina isn't a stepping stone to a national political career--it's home, one he's chosen and wants to fight for, despite the fact that Republicans are unlikely to take his hands and dance off into a bipartisan future.

Though Democrats have turned more attention to the South in recent years, the region's political alignment that solidified in the 1990s, in which conservative Democrats were replaced by conservative Republicans, is not likely to change soon. Ed Kilgore, editor of The Democratic Strategist and a South Carolina native, notes that many in the party still treat the region as a long shot. "We're just crazy if we don't look at the excitement the Obama nominating contest created in South Carolina," Kilgore says. It's not just Obama. Democrat Jim Rex became South Carolina's superintendent of education in 2006 by a slim margin and is now fighting for the governor's mansion. And while shouting "You lie!" at a Democratic president would have once been a near guarantee of political success in the state, pollsters have called Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's re-election fight, against a well-financed Democrat, former marine Rob Miller, one to watch.

But even where electoral victories are rare, organizing can thrive and win the occasional victory for the disenfranchised of the state. Gunn's journey from organizing outside electoral polities to working from within the political system in what most consider hostile territory for Democrats provides a glimpse into what Obama's army of organizers learned on the campaign trail--and marks one path toward a future in which true progressive politics is possible--even in South Carolina. …