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Former DNC leader Don Fowler dies; was mainstay of politics

Meg Kinnard
Associated Press

Columbia, S.C. — Don Fowler, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee and mainstay of South Carolina and national politics for decades, has died. He was 85.

Trav Robertson, chairman of South Carolina's Democratic Party, said on Twitter that Fowler died Tuesday night, calling him “the ”Democrat's Democrat." No cause was mentioned, but Fowler's wife said on Facebook that he had been in the hospital this week.

Former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Don Fowler takes the oath as he appears before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs in Washington, in this Tuesday, Sept. 9, 1997.

DNC Associate Chairman Jaime Harrison said Fowler had leukemia.

Fowler, a native of Spartanburg, attended Wofford College, where he played basketball and baseball, and earned master’s and doctorate degrees in political science from the University of Kentucky.

He led the state party from 1971 to 1980, overseeing the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.

Fowler served as national chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1995 to 1997, running the party's day-to-day operations. Part of that tenure also included defending an unsuccessful legal challenge from candidate Lyndon LaRouche, whom Fowler said was not a “bona fide Democrat” due to anti-Semitic expressions and other activities, instructing state parties not to vote for him.

Fowler was also accused of but not charged with contacting the CIA about a businessman and party donor, notably telling U.S. Senate inquisitors, “I have in the middle of the night, high noon, late in the afternoon, early in the morning, every hour of the day, for months now searched my memory about conversations with the CIA. And I have no memory, no memory of any conversation with the CIA.”

After decades of acquaintance, including working together at the DNC and his communications firm, Fowler and his wife, Carol, married in 2005. Two years later, Carol Fowler would become chair of the state party.

Their home near Columbia’s Five Points district became a regular stop for many of the Democrats vying for their party’s attention in the prolonged run-up to the pivotal Feb. 29 primary, the first balloting to take place in the South. Each event, which felt like a fundraiser but was free to anyone to attend, featured the couple introducing a candidate like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar or Bill deBlasio to dozens of people crowded into their living room, often spilling into a front hallway.

Don Fowler remained a mainstay in Democratic politics, serving as a sounding board for chairmen including Robertson and Harrison, who chaired the party during the 2016 president cycle and mounted a fundraising record-shattering challenge to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina this year.

“He and I were plotting, if I become DNC chair, the things that we'd need to work on,” Harrison told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “I said if that does happen, I’m going to have to lean on you and Carol like I always do. ... It's just going to be hard not having Don around.”