Thompson: Flint debate should address millennial risk

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Hillary Clinton has garnered the black vote, winning the South Carolina primary and the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and its most visible icon, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who has vocally denounced any ties of her Democratic opponent to the civil rights movement.

That opponent, Bernie Sanders, has established credibility in the progressive white community espousing a political and economic revolution at rallies that are drawing thousands around the country.

Most young people, including blacks and Latinos, aren’t tied to the civil rights generation or the Democrats, so their votes are in play, says the Rev. Charles Williams II.

Heading toward the March 6 Democratic debate in Flint and looking at the candidates’ polling numbers and the last presidential elections, the issue or element of the election that is missing in the discussion is capturing the youth coalition that was instrumental in securing the two-term presidency of Barack Obama.

“What a lot of the millennials are saying is that they don’t have a reason to be loyal to either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Hillary can’t depend on the older black political and civil rights establishment to win an election and Bernie needs to know that white progressives are not enough to win this election,” said the Rev. Charles Williams, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network.

Williams, 35, was among a group of millennials from various civil rights groups around the country invited to New York to a meeting Feb. 16 with Clinton at the headquarters of the National Urban League. He said he left the meeting disappointed.

“My understanding is that this was going to be a meeting that would grant us the opportunity to have real dialogue with Hillary Clinton and address some of our issues, like criminal justice reform,” Williams said. “The meeting lasted only for 10 minutes. She came in and gave a stump speech and that was it.”

Williams said most young people, including African-Americans and Latinos, are not bound by the relationships in the older civil rights generation or in the liberal progressive wing of the Democratic Party. They should not be taken for granted.

According to the Center for Research and Information on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, Obama won more than 60 percent of the youth vote nationally in the 2012 election.

“In the (2008) election, the younger generation turned away from John Lewis — who endorsed Hillary Clinton then — and they went with Barack Obama. I met Obama many times before he became president,” Williams said. “I like the energy behind Sanders because he is anti-status quo. And I don’t know Clinton because there is no relationship.”

Alex King, 24, a volunteer for the Clinton campaign in Michigan, agreed, adding the youth vote is key for Democrats to take the White House.

“The candidates should definitely talk more about how young people can manage their current student loan debt with the existing $1 trillion that college graduates and former students owe,” King said. “They should also discuss and advocate for young people to participate in domestic national service programs like AmeriCorps and Teach for America that offer student loan forbearance.”

Collin Mays, 25, a Democratic youth activist who is undecided, said: “Economic justice and equal access to capital will play a big role among young voters this year because social justice is a vital focus with many protests happening across the country on a daily basis.” He wants the Flint debate to first focus on the challenges the state is facing as well as Flint.

“I also anticipate both candidates discussing the Detroit Public Schools and tying it into the larger debate of public education,” Mays said.

Pageant Atterberry, 26 who operates PBA Royal, a performing arts and training school in Detroit, said to make a play for the youth vote the candidates have no choice but to listen to millennials.

“Their views are what politicians want to hear. They are the target,” Atterberry said. “Young people are living in a time when the color of their skin is a constant conversation and the issues that are centered on racial issues are so important.”

Atterberry said she is leaning toward Sanders because he is speaking more to her.

“When it comes to his proposals or ideas on criminal justice and equality, he is thinking of me and those who look like me,” Atterberry said.

Macie Tuiasosopo, 28, a lawyer, said while the intergenerational rift playing out in the support for Clinton and Sanders remains a threat for the Democratic Party, it should not be a big issue if it is addressed.

“It is appropriate to have a contested Democratic primary. Sanders’ political movement has been thrusted by millennials, but it only matters if they vote,” Tuiasosopo said. “While the age split (among supporters) is important, race is as well and the South Carolina primary placed Clinton in a very strong position.”

Macie Tuiasosopo, 28, said the intergenerational rift playing out in the support for Clinton and Sanders remains a threat for the Democratic Party.

In the Republican contest, Marco Rubio has wide appeal among young people evident in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last December where he tied with Clinton 45-45 for the youth vote.

On Sunday, when Clinton and Sanders take the stage in Flint, an urban city in crisis and further challenged by the lead-poisoned waters that existed for nearly two years, the candidates will have to face up to the issues of college tuition, criminal justice reform and other matters that concern most youth because, according to Williams, “I’m afraid we will not get the kind of turnout we got in 2008, and we would be living in the naivety of a Donald Trump or Marco Rubio presidency.”


Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9 FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.