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Detroit Democratic presidential candidates — and one Republican — accused President Donald Trump of stoking racial tensions and used Wednesday's national NAACP forum to outline plans for investments in minority communities and criminal justice reforms.

“Donald Trump is a raging racist, OK,” GOP former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld said to applause at the close of a candidate forum at the Cobo Center in Detroit. “He made that choice a long time ago,” Weld said, noting housing discrimination claims against Trump in the 1970s.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden received two standing ovations during the forum as he joined other Democrats in agreeing that Trump poses a threat to race relations and must be voted out of office. The crowd at the convention of the nation's oldest civil right organization roared in approval during each speech.

The national economy is stacked against the working class, particularly voters of color, said Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. A country that elected Trump “has serious problems” that warrant “structural change,” Warren said.

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren answers questions from the media during a visit to the NAACP convention at Cobo Center in Detroit. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

More than a thousand African American leaders and activists gathered for the Cobo Center forum, which occurred a day after NAACP delegates unanimously approved a resolution encouraging Congress to impeach Trump, joining calls from Democrats like Detroit's U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

"Trump’s misconduct is unmistakable and has proven time and time again that he is unfit to serve as the president of this country," NAACP President Derrick Johnson said Tuesday.

Trump has touted the effects of an improving economy on African Americans, but he’s ramped up his appeals to white working-class voters through controversial comments that have polarized the electorate along racial lines.

“Unsurprising to anyone, 2020 Democrats at the NAACP conference mischaracterized our booming economy and largely ignored President Trump’s massive successes for the African American community," Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Joyce said in a statement.  

Biden, Booker spar 

Biden, who has defended his civil rights record against criticism from other Democratic candidates, received a warm welcome at the convention. 

The fight for civil rights propelled Biden into politics, and "they remember," he said after the forum. "They don't wonder."

But Biden faced continued criticism from Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who called the former Delaware senator "an architect of mass incarceration" for his role in helping pass a 1994 crime law.

"Cory knows that's not true," Biden told reporters later Wednesday, swiping back at Booker over stop-and-frisks performed by the Newark police department during his tenure as mayor. 

"If he wants to go back and talk about records, I'm happy to do that, but I'd rather talk about the future," Biden said. 

On stage, the former vice president said it is time to reform the 1994 law to focus on rehabilitation instead of incarceration. He emphasized the importance of the upcoming election.

 “We have the opportunity to change the landscape in America” and that includes “getting rid of Donald Trump,” Biden said.

The country is at an “inflection moment,” Sen. Kamala Harris of California said in her own remarks, telling the NAACP crowd she is focused on issues like education, housing and economic security important to black voters and beyond. 

“This is a moment in time where we must fight for the best of who we are, and fight we will,” Harris said.

The 54-year-old senator sparred with Biden on race issues in the first Miami debate but did not reference him Wednesday.

A former prosecutor, Harris said she would require independent federal investigations in police shooting cases like Eric Garner’s in New York “to ensure there is justice unimpeded by justice, unimpeded by past relationships.”

Harris also described a proposal to fight housing “red-lining” and said citizens previously arrested for marijuana crimes should be “first in line” to join the expanding legal pot industry. 

“Those young men and women who for years were selling it on the streets and are now felons for life have been excluded from this industry, and now a lot of people are making money doing the exact same thing,” said Harris, the only African American woman running for president. 

Big fans

Biden noted that President Barack Obama "is a close friend" and said he is proud to have served with America's first black president. 

Janice Caldwell, 72, of Trenton, New Jersey, said that Biden “today solidified my vote.”

“I’ve always been a fan of his, I’ve always supported him,” Caldwell said. “I know he made some mistakes in his life with criminal justice reform, but he’s been a senator, he’s been a vice president, and he’s always been involved in African American support. I just think he’s ... more qualified than anybody that’s running.”

But Pleas Thompson, 75, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, said Harris is the better candidate because she’s a “new face” and Biden is a familiar face who may not be able to beat Trump.

“He’s taken for granted that he was Barack Obama’s vice president and he’s going to automatically get the support of the NAACP and the black community as a whole,” Thompson said of Biden. “I think a lot of us are leaning toward Sen. Harris.”

“He hasn’t let anyone down, but we’re looking for someone who can soundly defeat Trump and I think Harris has the best opportunity to do that,” Thompson said.  

Mueller report

Democrats took the stage while Special Counsel Robert Mueller was testifying before a congressional committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and attempts by Trump to obstruct the investigation. 

Warren praised NAACP delegates for supporting Trump's impeachment, saying she read the Mueller report and quickly concluded that Trump broke the law and should be held accountable by Congress. Mueller did not charge the president. 

“I understand there are people who for political reasons say it’s not where we want to be, but in my view, some things are above politics, and one of them is our responsibly to do what is right," Warren said that the forum.

Warren argued that race "lies right at the heart" of structural economic unfairness in the United States. The 70-year-old senator touted plans for new federal housing construction and a $7 billion equity program for entrepreneurs who want to start companies in the United States, which she said she would pay for through a wealth tax.  

“The federal government subsidized housing purchases for white people while it discriminated against housing purchases for African Americans,” she said, describing her plan to build 3.2 million new housing units for low- and middle-class families. “And that shows up through generational wealth.”

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said his campaign is "about bringing people together."

"We have a president who is a racist, a president who is a pathological liar, a president who is trying to divide the American people up based on the color of their skin,” he said.

The 77-year-old self-declared democratic socialist said he would unite blacks, whites, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans "around an agenda that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent."

Sanders said his goal as president would be to put “massive amount of money into distressed communities” to “end the kinds of inequities that currently exist."

But he stopped short of supporting reparations.

“Here is my fear: The Congress gives the African American community $20,000 checks and says thank you. I think that’s wrong.”

Sanders said he doesn't think Trump has been "exonerated” for his conduct involving the Russian election interference probe and definitely obstructed justice.

After his appearance, Sanders told reporters that he is confident he could beat the president in general election based on recent poll results, including a May survey in Michigan that showed him with a 12-percentage-point edge over Trump.

"We’re going to beat him in Michigan, we’re going to beat him in Wisconsin, we’re going to beat him in Pennsylvania, we’re going to beat him in Florida. We’re going to win the election,” he said.

Police relations

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg stressed the importance of police and community relationships in the wake of a fatal shooting in his city. Trump’s Department of Justice hasn’t supported cities in trying to deal with racial injustice, particularly in police departments, he said.

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Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at the NAACP convention in Detroit. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

“As long as there is a wall of mistrust between communities of color and police departments, everyone is worse off,” the mayor said.

Buttigieg also outlined his plan to fight systemic racism, saying that replacing a racist policy with a neutral one “is not enough to deliver justice and equality” because harm has already been done.

"We are better off with a higher minimum wage," he said, dismissing arguments that a $15 hourly rate would hurt the national economy and stifle growth.

Booker told convention-goers that his mother grew up in Detroit and that this is where his story started.

"We must have leaders who don’t just come to our communities and ask us for their vote but they know our communities and partner with our communities," the 50-year-old New Jersey senator said.

“Beating Donald Trump is not enough. It’s get us out of the valley,” Booker said, but not out of the problems the country faces.

He spoke about gun violence and other problems that plague the country.

“I believe this election has to be not just about what we are against, but what we are for,” Booker said.

Voting rights

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas praised the NAACP and said the organization's fight for voting rights inspired his 2018 campaign against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and efforts to increase voter turnout.

O’Rourke said he would push for full restoration of the Voting Rights Act, including pre-clearance requirements to prevent racial gerrymandering.

“If we had that, Stacey Abrams would be governor of the state of Georgia right now,” he said, referencing the black Democratic leader who narrowly lost the gubernatorial election last year. “We would not have racist voter ID laws in my home state of Texas.”

Julián Castro, former U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama, said he would encourage the Department of Justice to combat the rising tide of white supremacy. Castro touted his police reform plan that would set a national standard for appropriate use of force.

“I’ve was the first candidate to go to Flint and say we need to put forward resources to eliminate lead as a major health threat,” said Castro, who visited the city in June. Under his watch, the federal government would spend billions of dollars on infrastructure improvements and “target vulnerable community that have often been left behind,” Castro added. 

Asked about reparations, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said she favors “investing in impoverished and under-served communities” and looking at issues of past racial inequities in a broader way.

She also touted the work of historically black colleges, calling them a “centerpiece” of African American education that deserve continued federal funding.

“And I think it gets to the bigger issue of college in this country,” Klobuchar said. “It’s getting harder and harder for people to go to college.” she said.

The 59-year-old senator called Trump’s inauguration a “dark day” for the country but noted marches, protests and Democratic election victories in the following days, months and years.

“We are on a march to justice,” Klobuchar said.

Trump declined

Trump declined an invitation to participate in the NAACP forum, saying he had agreed to deliver a speech, but organizers wanted him to do a question-and-answer session like the other candidates. He also said the NAACP changed an agreed-upon date for his appearance.

Weld called on Republicans to reject Trump and his antics.

“It’s not a political choice, it’s a moral choice,” said Weld, who was the Libertarian Party's vice presidential nominee in 2016 with presidential candidate Gary Johnson, who won 3.6 percent of the vote in Michigan.

“Any vote for me is a vote right out of Donald Trump’s hide," he said.

Rev. Jesse Jackson, who won Michigan’s 1988 Democratic presidential caucuses, addressed the crowd ahead of the forum, urging black voters and women to rally around four Democratic congresswoman of color under attack by Trump, including Tlaib of Detroit.

“Don’t leave four women in isolation,” Jackson said, suggesting that by demonizing the congresswomen, Trump has “put them in danger.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

lfleming@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Evan Carter contributed.

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