Democratic presidential hopefuls pushed personal appeals to black voters with a string of appearances in Atlanta Thursday, capping a November that gave Georgia a few moments at center stage of the 2020 election campaign.
Most of the 10 candidates stuck around who appeared on stage at Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate as they outlined plans for criminal justice reform, voter rights protection and easing economic inequality at events sprinkled throughout the heart of the black community in southwest Atlanta.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont visited Morehouse College to tout plans to inject billions of dollars into historically black colleges and universities, just days after South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg did the same.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called for a “full-blown national conversation” about reparations while at Clark Atlanta University. Former Vice President Joe Biden met with southern black mayors.
And U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey brought a crowded room of black ministers to their feet at Paschal’s Restaurant with a rousing call for economic equality.
But Democrats are not alone in courting black voters, who make up about one-third of the electorate in Georgia. President Donald Trump chose Atlanta as the launchpad for a new “Black Voices for Trump” coalition earlier this month. Just 8% of black voters backed him in 2016, according to exit polls.
“We’re going to campaign for every last African-American vote in 2020,” Trump said at the time.
Recent elections in Louisiana, where a Democratic governor was just reelected, and in Kentucky, where a Democrat ousted an incumbent Republican governor, are reminders of black voters’ influence, said billionaire Tom Steyer.
“This is about people of the United States showing up at the polls and taking back the country,” Steyer told the group of black ministers gathered at the National Action Network breakfast Thursday. “And that turnout starts in this room with this community.”
Andrew Yang, a former tech executive, was more blunt with the group.
“Why are we all here talking to you all? Because we all know that black people are going to choose the next president of the United States. It sure as heck will not be Asians,” he said to a mixture of applause and laughter.
“So the question is, ‘What are you going to do with your vote? What are you going to do with your power? How are we going to rewrite the rules in the 21st Century economy to work for you all?’” Yang said. “You all are going to be the tip of the spear in the vanguard.”
‘Black voters are pissed off’
Two black candidates on the debate stage at Tyler Perry Studios Wednesday night are struggling, though, to gain traction on the campaign trail. Booker made a direct appeal during the debate to donors who would like to see him stick around.
“I have a lifetime of experience with black voters. I’ve been one since I was 18,” Booker said at the debate, referring to efforts to engage black voters.
“Black voters are pissed off and they’re worried. They’re pissed off because the only time our issues seem to be really paid attention to by politicians is when people are looking for their vote,” he said.
Kamala Harris said Thursday she’s not flustered by polls showing she’s behind most candidates, or the numbers suggesting black voters aren’t flocking to back her.
Mobilizing black voters was on the minds of people at a Thursday breakfast event for Harris attended by several hundred black women at the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel.
While Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have been in the national spotlight longer, Harris says she’ll gain momentum as more people find out about her accomplishments, including the criminal justice reform model she created.
The U.S. senator and former California Attorney General said she’s been able to overcome some of the biases a black woman faces when running for elected office.
“There is nothing we have ever achieved that’s been about progress that came without a fight and, in particular, black women know that,” Harris said.
The Democratic candidates spent this week and throughout their months of campaigning paying homage to the perseverance of black people, while also pushing for sweeping changes to eliminate institutionalized racism.
And on Thursday, Bernie Sanders unveiled his ambitious HBCU plan before a crowd of hundreds gathered outside the Morehouse College chapel named after civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.
Sanders promised to eliminate existing student loan debt for everyone and for HBCUs to become tuition free.
The Vermont senator says he’ll also provide historically black colleges with $10 billion for teachers, medical and dental training programs, $5 billion for infrastructure and will end federal loan debt for capital projects.
“We understand the enormous impact that HBCUs play in this country,” Sanders said. “All over this country HBCUs have struggled financially from a lack of federal resources and a dropping enrollment and crushing institutional debt. Today, the need for HBCUs and the education they provide has never been greater.”
‘Black history is American history’
Warren wrapped up her time in Atlanta with a fiery rally at Clark Atlanta University, although school choice advocates forced her to briefly pause her speech focused on a group of 19th Century black “washerwomen” in Atlanta who labored in poor conditions before forming a union.
Warren used the speech to take direct aim at institutionalized racism and pitch her solutions for making amends, including a student debt cancellation plan that she should would begin to erase the racial wealth gap.
“Black history is American history,” she said to cheers. “And American history teaches us that racism has for generations shaped every crucial aspect of our economic and political system.”
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota argued for measures to ease voter access, such as allowing young people to automatically register when they turn 18. She also called for independent commissions to draw district lines as a way to rid politics of gerrymandering.
“I am appalled by what has gone on in this state and states across the country,” Klobuchar said at the National Action Network breakfast, referring to last year’s bitterly fought governor’s race in Georgia.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seen as the frontrunner and who has cobbled together more than 150 endorsements from black leaders, trumpeted his membership in the legendary Obama coalition that put the country’s first black president in office.
But he stumbled into a now-highly publicized gaffe along the way, accidentally counting the “only African American woman” ever elected to the U.S. Senate among his supporters as Harris stood a few podiums down at Wednesday’s debate.
“My point is that one of the reasons I was picked to be vice president was because of my relationship, long-standing relationship with the black community. I was part of that coalition,” Biden said.
‘We don’t have an epidemic of homophobia’
This increased focus on the black community is surfacing what some say are unfair stereotypes. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who founded the National Action Network, forcefully pushed back on one of them Thursday.
“We don’t have an epidemic of homophobia, but we have some homophobes just like any other community,” Sharpton said. “It is a process that America needs to deal with, both in the black and white community.
“If we support or don’t support Pete Buttigieg, it has nothing to do with LGBTQ. He is as welcome in our community as anybody else,” Sharpton said as he introduced the South Bend mayor on Thursday.
Buttigieg, who is gay, is surging in some Iowa polls but he has struggled at times to connect with black voters. That shortcoming came to the fore after a June police shooting that killed a black man focused national attention on racial tensions in South Bend. His campaign was also recently criticized for using a stock image of a Kenyan woman to illustrate his plan to fight racism, and he has found himself fending off criticisms for drawing comparisons between LGBTQ and Civil Rights struggles.
At the Thursday event, Buttigieg lauded former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson’s economic initiatives and vowed to steer one quarter of the federal government’s work to minority-owned businesses, among other plans to expand economic opportunity.
“Taking a racist policy structure and replacing it with a neutral one is not enough to deliver equality,” Buttigieg told the crowd. “Just the same as a dollar saved compounds so does a dollar stolen, and when the generational wealth of some people in this country had been stolen for 400 years it will take intention to do something about it.”
Georgia Recorder reporter Beau Evans contributed to this report.