AP NEWS

Bernie Sanders courts black voters in South Carolina with long record of civil rights support

March 12, 2019

Sen. Bernard Sanders is set to make his first trip to South Carolina this week as an official 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, looking to prove his campaign can do better among the black voters who generally shunned his last run in 2016.

His campaign says he has a good story to tell, with a lengthy record of civil rights support.

They’re determined to do a better job this time around, beginning with Mr. Sanders’ kickoff this month in New York City to a far more diverse crowd than his 2016 kickoff in Vermont.

“If you look at him historically, the things he has done in college up until now, he has been very down with the civil rights movement,” South Carolina state Rep. Terry Alexander, a Sanders supporter, told The Washington Times. “So he is not a Johnny-come-lately. He just didn’t know how to present it last time around and he learned from that.”

Mr. Alexander was on stage for the campaign rollout in Brooklyn, with former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King, who told the audience that Mr. Sanders, unlike most white Americans, refused to remain silent about the prejudice and violence that Martin Luther King Jr. drew attention to during the civil rights movement.

“It was that silence in the face of evil that Dr. King said actually tells us more about the soul of America than the brutality itself,” Mr. King said. “Bernie loved Dr. King, young Bernie, and long before we used the phrase white privilege, Bernie had the notion that he had to use his own white privilege to fight back against racism and bigotry and inequality. He’s been doing it.”

It remains to be seen whether the approach will pay off in a what is shaping up to be a much more competitive field than in 2016. The candidates include at least two black candidates, Sens. Kamala D. Harris of California and Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, who also are putting an early focus on black voters in South Carolina.

“I would say for the first time I think ever candidates are coming to South Carolina just as often they go to Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Jaime Harrison, former chairman of the South Carolina Democrats and likely Senate candidate. “It is a dramatic shift.”

Mr. Harrison said there is an understanding that these communities “make up the base of the Democratic Party and if you are going to beat Donald Trump you have to make sure the base of your party is energized and engaged and focused.”

Mr. Alexander predicts 60 percent of South Carolina Democratic primary voters will be black, making them the dominant factor in the biggest contest of the four early voting states.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried 86 percent of the black vote in the state’s primary, on her way to defeating Mr. Sanders by a whopping 47 percentage points there.

That win helped stabilize her campaign, and she went on to dominate contests across the Deep South, cutting off Mr. Sanders’ underdog bid.

This year, Mr. Sanders leads among the declared candidates nationally and in the early primary states, and among Latino and black voters, said Ben Tulchin, his campaign pollster.

“Bernie is starting with a base of African-Americans that he didn’t have last time, and it puts him in contention in states with large African-American populations,” Mr. Tulchin said. “So Sanders comes into this campaign in a very, very, different position with voters of color than he did in the previous campaign.”

Yet Mr. Sanders has found himself ensnared in a debate over reparations to descendants of slaves. He has refused to back cash payouts, instead favoring changes aimed at lifting up impoverished communities more generally.

Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir said anyone claiming reparations is a magic bullet “is lying to you,” and said using the issue against Mr. Sanders “does a disservice to the fact that Sen. Sanders has been a lifelong advocate for racial and economic justice.”