Competition for black voters may tip scales

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — In this urban city with a water crisis as a backdrop, Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debated Sunday in part with a specific electorate in mind: the souls of black voters in Michigan and beyond.

Since the lead contamination crisis in this black-majority city went national with Gov. Rick Snyder’s declaration of a state of emergency two months ago, both the former secretary of state and U.S. senator from Vermont have been ratcheting up their efforts to highlight the plight of Flint residents and meet the needs of black voters.

This effort is critical because Clinton has maintained her front-runner status by winning in states with large populations of African-Americans or Hispanics, such as South Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Georgia. Sanders has won in states with larger majorities of white voters, such as New Hampshire, Kansas and Colorado, but has made a concerted effort to gain more endorsements from black leaders and voters.

Michigan is viewed as a critical state for Clinton because of Detroit, which was 83 percent African-American in 2010, and Flint, which was 57 percent black in the same year, as well as overwhelming support from black elected leaders including the state’s two African-American members of Congress and Flint’s mayor. Actors Morgan Freeman and Kerry Washington have done television and radio spots that have aired in Detroit and Flint.

Black voters are perhaps “the most important component of Hillary Clinton’s coalition,” said Larry Sabato, director for the Center of Politics at the University of Virginia.

Sanders faces a tall order in wresting that away given Clinton’s longstanding history with black voters, he said.

“African-Americans have been essential to Clinton, and they account for her victories in the South so far and Louisiana today,” Sabato said on Saturday. “She has been garnering 80-90 percent of the black vote. Sanders represents the very white state of Vermont, and so he’s not as connected to minority communities as Clinton. The Clintons have long had close ties to minority communities.”

But the self-proclaimed democratic socialist isn’t giving up. Several hours before the debate, Sanders brought to Detroit prominent black Princeton professor Cornell West and former NAACP leader Benjamin Jealous to speak to voters at a town hall.

“In this country it’s enormously important. It’s a significant part of the Democratic vote, no ifs, buts or maybes about it,” Sanders said about the African-American electorate an hour before the debate. “We are making progress in improving support (and) receiving from the African-American community and from the Latino community.”

Sanders said he’s seeing more of a “generational distinction” where younger voters, including youthful, 20-something blacks, are supporting him while older voters support Clinton.

“But we’re working on that, too,” he said.

Sabato said Sanders will have a “difficult” time overcoming Clinton’s name identification with Michigan’s black voters.

“Look at the number of states having contests in the next month,” he said. “You can’t be everywhere all at once. Hillary Clinton has been to these places many times, starting with the campaign of 1992,” when her husband Bill Clinton won the presidency.

Clinton was the first presidential candidate to come to Flint last month. But the Sanders campaign says it was the first to open an office in Flint following the crisis and was until the debate the only candidate who called for Gov. Rick Snyder to resign. Clinton said Snyder should quit or be recalled in Sunday’s debate.

Wallace Elliott, 65, of Grand Blanc who is retired from General Motors, said that while Sanders is winning the minds of younger voters, mature African-Americans like him are very familiar with Clinton going back decades and believe in her.

“It’s how far you can go to get things done in the system. I see Clinton, she can get a little bit more done than Sanders,” Elliott said. “Some of the Republicans are not going to let (Sanders) do what he wants to do.”

He said people are beginning to understand that “some of the stuff Bernie is talking about is just not going to happen. Nothing against him.”

But his 31-year-old son “loves Bernie, and he can’t stand Hillary. He still blames her husband for sending the jobs out of the country,” Elliott said.

The Clinton campaign, while acknowledging the familiarity advantage with black voters, says the former U.S. senator from New York isn’t taking them for granted.

“They know Hillary Clinton. They trust Hillary Clinton,” said Marlon Marshall, the director of state campaigns and political engagement for Clinton. “And our job is to continue to earn that trust and let the community know what she will do for them as president.”

Marshall said Clinton has also spoken about issues of interest to black voters, such as protecting voting rights and addressing the Black Lives Matter movement.

Christale Spain, national political outreach director for Sanders, acknowledged Clinton’s advantage. But she said she is beginning to see African-American voters learn more about Sanders’ marching in the 1960s for civil rights and that his approach is genuine.

“It’s huge fighting this powerhouse,” Spain said on Sunday during a surrogates-only town hall for Sanders. “It’s really been a complete introduction to Bernie Sanders.”

West, who has endorsed Sanders, warned Sunday that black voters shouldn’t take Clinton on her word when she has “tried to undercut welfare and calling brothers and sisters ‘super predators,’ ” referring to the controversial comments she made about two decades ago about the fear then among some crime experts that crack cocaine could lead to the emergency of a worse kind of criminal.

“And what the young people think of older black folk who are singing her praises and she’s used that language about them?” West asked.

Jewell Bell, 22, of West Bloomfield, said she supports Sanders because he’s a politician who is “looking out for me” with issues such as speaking out on racism and inequality.

“Personally, for me, he’s one of the only candidates that has been so vocal about police brutality and used words such as racism or discrimination,” Bell said of Sanders.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

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