By: Michael Bailey
Representative Jermaine Johnson is exactly what the South Carolina Legislature needs at this exact time in history.
I say this not based on observation, but based on my own career in South Carolina politics which spans nearly 20 years. Representative Joe Neal first introduced me to South Carolina politics at the hopeful age of 27. He was the first politician I’d met who was truly in office for the sole purpose of serving the people and being a courageous voice for the voiceless. He was admired by friends and allies, and revered and respected by opponents. Much like many of the young people I meet today, when I first went to work in the South Carolina Legislature under the tutelage of Joe Neal, I was wide-eyed, eager, and optimistic. I was ready to serve and eager to make an impact.
Fast forward 18 years. Now, I’m about as cynical and pessimistic as you can get. I deal in reality and hard truths. I’ve been part of too many back room deals, I’ve seen too many leaders fail to live up to their potential or squander countless opportunities to make real change. I’ve had to bite my tongue far too many times and watch disingenuous elected leaders tell untruths to a naive but ever-hopeful constituency. And honestly, after Rep. Neal died, I lost my faith in elected leadership as a means to bring about real change. Now, at my age, I’m far too astute and have been in the game far too long to believe in something as dangerous as hope.
But, as I stood and watched the Honorable Dr. Jermaine Johnson sworn in as the newly elected representative of South Carolina House District 80, I found myself renewed with hope. That fire in my belly has been reignited. There is a crystal clear glimmer shining in my eye now that is reminiscent of the old gleam that shone as a young man walking onto the chamber floor of the South Carolina House of Representatives for the first time.
Rep. Johnson’s triumph was no easy victory and I tip my hat to a job well done, my brother.
Johnson first had to win a primary to unseat a beloved incumbent and powerful member of the state legislature who had held the seat for over two decades. Next, he had to run a grassroots campaign in the middle of a global pandemic, with a large portion of the campaign season being disrupted by a mandatory national lockdown and social distancing restrictions. Finally, he had to win a general election contest during the most divisive presidential election in recent history. All of this while voters had to combat unprecedented challenges just to cast their ballots.
It is an understatement to say Rep. Johnson has undergone a “trial by fire.” Yet, through it all, he stood fast and stayed the course. He ran an impressive back-to-basics grassroots campaign and focused on the issues that were important to the residents of district 80 and on his plans to make life better for them and all South Carolinians. His unwavering determination was accompanied by an infectious smile and a commanding composure. And he consistently exhibited irreproachable character. In my mind, there is no question of the legacy that Rep. Johnson inherited. It is a legacy that is a part of both him and me.
It is that same legacy which makes Johnson’s swearing in bittersweet because, along with the hope that Rep. Johnson brings to the seat, he is also a reminder of what a giant we lost with Rep. Neal’s passing. When the Honorable Rep. Joseph H. Neal passed away on Tuesday, February 14, 2017, he left the legislature without a conscience, our community without a champion and Jermaine and me without a mentor and friend. It is a day I’ll never forget. It was the day I lost hope in politics.
It’s hard to articulate or measure the magnitude of Rep. Neal’s influence on me and so many other young black leaders in this state. I am who I am because of who Rep. Neal was. Rep. Johnson can stand in the sunlight today because of the long reaching shadow Rep. Neal cast.
When Rep. Johnson was sworn in, I was reminded of one of the last conversations I had with Rep. Neal. He asked me if I knew a young man by the name of Jermaine Johnson. I replied that I did not. Neal told me that Johnson was someone that I needed to meet. He said, “Jermaine is a young man with a powerful story who is doing some admirable work in the community, he’s one of Us.”
“Us.” Meaning those who honor our ancestors by continuing in their ‘Beautiful Struggle’ of fighting hate and oppression with love and hope.
I never got the chance to meet Jermaine while Rep. Neal was alive but after his passing I sought him out and introduced myself to him. Today I’m honored to call him a friend and brother.
Although I was saddened that Rep. Neal was not here to see Jermaine be sworn in, I was certain that Neal was looking down on him with pride. I am comforted by knowing that Jermaine is an extension of Neal’s legacy and he will keep that legacy alive by building a new legacy of his own.
It is because of this new legacy in the making that I am once again optimistic about elected leadership. I can honestly say with unwavering conviction that I’m filled with a new hope because of Rep. Johnson and his vision of a New80.