For years, it's been known as "Jim Clyburn's World Famous Fish Fry." The once somewhat heady reference has become a self fulfilling prophecy. It began in 1992 as a thank you from Clyburn to Democratic voters for nominating him as the candidate for South Carolina's Sixth Congressional District. Over the years, it has grown to become an annual staple for loyal South Carolina Democrats.
In 2003, when South Carolina was preparing to host its first "First in the South" Democratic Presidential Primary, the Clyburn Fish Fry was fertile ground for rarely seen retail Presidential politickin'. (Warning: here comes a personal story.) That night, John Kerry had given the keynote address at the SC Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. I left early to beat the crowd to the Fish Fry. When I arrived, John Edwards was already there and had been working the early attendees, folks who either forego or can't afford the JJ Dinner. I watched as John Kerry and Teresa Heinz-Kerry arrived. They were casually strolling along with Senator Fritz Hollings. When Kerry saw Edwards had beat him to the punch, he leapt into action. He tossed his suit jacket to an aide, grabbed Teresa's hand, and started shaking hands. Well aware of Teresa's reputation for having a lack of patience, I quietly observed, waiting for her to explode. At this time, most people didn't know who she was. Many probably assumed she was staff. Cameras were slung at her, three or four at a time. The only explosion that happened was the popularity of the Fish Fry. Teresa handled the hand-to-hand campaigning like a pro. I was pleasantly surprised and liked her immediately.
The point of that story is that Jim Clyburn's Fish Fry has become a unique stop on the Presidential campaign trail. I learned something that night that I wouldn't have had the chance to in any other setting. Because of the size of the nation, it is rare that the average activist gets face time with Presidential candidates. For a couple of hours, Jim Clyburn makes the media-driven campaign world disappear.
Now Clyburn is the third ranking member of Congress, serving as the Majority Whip. He's always been called "South Carolina's Congressman." Now pundits call him "The Presidential Kingmaker". Things have come a long way in fifteen years.
Tonight, all Presidential candidates are expected to attend the Fish Fry. A crowd of 2,000 people will fill the first floor of a parking garage in Columbia, South Carolina and eagerly bask in the attention that South Carolina Democrats rarely get. There will be personal experiences like the one I had in 2003 that will become treasured memories. Many hands will be shaken. Lots of pictures will be taken, perhaps with a soon-to-be President of the United States. Some of the candidates may even do the electric slide. (It's becoming a tradition.)
When it's all said and done, all who had the opportunity to attend will have experienced something rare. And you can bet it won't be their last time at Jim Clyburn's World Famous Fish Fry.