Racial Politics Dominates Debate with Sanders and Clinton
Election 2016

Racial Politics Dominates Debate with Sanders and Clinton

© Darren Hauck / Reuters

With two vital primary contests looming in South Carolina and Nevada that likely will be decided by African American and Latino voters, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont staked out their claims to the allegiance of minorities during a sometimes bruising two-hour Democratic debate Thursday night.

Clinton, 68, boasted of decades of service championing educational and health care reforms to help struggling black families, her support of tighter gun laws, and most recently her efforts to highlight the drinking water crisis for black residents of Flint, Mich.

Related: Clinton Scrambles as Sanders Puts the Black Vote in Play

She also invoked the tragedy of mounting gun-related violence in black communities and sniped indirectly at Sander’s comparatively weak record on gun control -- which includes his vote in 2005 to provide gun makers, sellers and trade associations with significant protection against lawsuits.

While acknowledging that Sanders has been right to crusade against Wall Street, campaign finance abuses and middle class income inequality, Clinton said she would go much further. “I want to tackle those barriers that stand in the way of many Americans right now,” she said. “African Americans face discrimination in the stock market, education, housing and the criminal justice system.”

Then, addressing Nevada’s large Hispanic population, she committed to comprehensive immigration reform including a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants. “Hard working immigrant families living in fear need to be brought out of the shadows so that they and their children can have a better future,” she said.

Sanders, 78, gave no quarter in his commitment to minorities and the plight of illegal immigrants. He said that his drive for a higher minimum wage, a national health care program, paid family leave, and free college tuition dovetails with his efforts to assist economically disadvantaged blacks and other minorities.

Related: How Bernie Sanders Just Shook Up the Democratic Primary. Again

And he denounced the criminal justice system that sends too many black men to prison and   police departments around the country that have used excessive force that has led to the deaths of scores of  young black men, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo, and Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina.

“The American people are looking around and they see a broken criminal justice system,” he said. “They see more people in jail in the United States of America than any other country on earth – 2.2 million. We spend $80 billion a year locking up fellow Americans.”

Then, in a deft move that linked injustices in the black community with criminal acts on Wall Street, Sanders decried “kids getting arrested for marijuana, going to prison, getting a criminal record, while they see executives on Wall Street who paid billions of dollars in settlement get no prosecution at all.”

“No criminal record for them,” he added.

South Carolina and Nevada have long been viewed as friendly terrain for Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Clinton’s campaign has also viewed the two states as a “fire wall” of sorts against a surging Sanders, whose experience in civil rights causes and racially diverse politics is thinner than that of the former first lady and New York senator.

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But both campaigns hit the reset button after Sanders’ historic 22-point victory over Clinton in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, with Clinton now scrambling to retain dominance among minority voters while a highly energized Sanders is aggressively seeking to split the black vote while continuing to run well among white and younger voters.

The ultimate breakdown of minority support will be crucial to the outcome of the contests. During the 2008 campaign, 30 percent of the electorate in Nevada was black or Hispanic, while 57 percent of the electorate in South Carolina was black, according to exit polls.

Clinton and Sanders met last night for a two-hour PBS NewsHour Democratic debate that was simulcast on CNN in Milwaukee, while Donald Trump and the other GOP candidates are scheduled to debate in Greenville, South Carolina, on Saturday.

Clinton renewed her criticism of many of Sanders’ big-ticket campaign promises, including a single-payer national health program and free tuition for all at state operated colleges and universities. She warned voters that “the numbers don’t add up and people will be worse off than they are now,” especially if Sanders’ “Medicare for all” proposal undermines the long-term success of the Affordable Care Act.

Related: Get Ready for Sweet Tea and Dirty Politics in South Carolina, Y’all

Sanders dismissed her criticism as misguided, insisting that all of his proposals would be paid for, primarily by significantly raising taxes on wealthy Americans and imposing trading fees on Wall Street. “Yes, I will do away with the outrageous loopholes” that allow U.S. corporations to shield their income and profits overseas in tax shelters.

Related: Sanders' Landslide Win in New Hampshire Puts Huge Pressure on Clinton

Sanders spent his political career as a mayor, House member and senator representing a predominantly white, rural, pro-gun state. He has skyrocketed in popularity and fundraising prowess with his progressive, anti-establishment appeal to largely white, younger and better educated voters – including the nearly 60,000 voters who backed him over Clinton in New Hampshire.

Now he is pivoting from New England to the more racially diverse South and West, with his campaign war chest brimming from the $5.2 million he raised on line in the first 18 hours after the New Hampshire polls closed. And with a score of prominent black figures climbing aboard his bandwagon – including former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, actor Danny Glover, singer and activist Harry Belafonte, and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates – Sanders aides are confident they can cut deeply into Clinton’s minority support.

But Clinton’s bench strength among minorities is strong, and African-American luminaries like former attorney general Eric Holder, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC spoke out in her defense yesterday.

During a news conference on Capitol Hill, Lewis insisted he never met Sanders at any major civil rights events. Sanders has frequently cited his history as a young activist at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and touted his work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

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Lewis, a legendary civil rights activist, close associate of Martin Luther King Jr. and a leader of SNCC, said he never saw Sanders at any events.

"I never saw him. I never met him," Lewis said. "I was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, from 1963 to 1966. I was involved with the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery and directed the voter education project for six years. But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton."