Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders pitched their dueling presidential campaigns to Minnesota DFL donors Friday night at a party fundraiser, and Sanders also wooed black voters at a lively community forum in north Minneapolis.
“I am a progressive who actually likes to make progress,” Clinton proclaimed to the crowd of about 4,000 campaign donors gathered at St. Paul’s RiverCentre. Trying to fend off Sanders’ challenge from the left, the former secretary of state vowed to build on President Obama’s accomplishments and to break down what she called “barriers that hold Americans back.”
Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, delivered the critique on the influence of corporate money on politics that has helped him chip away at Clinton’s lead.
“Our government belongs to all of us, not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors,” Sanders told the crowd at the fundraising dinner. When enough voters respond to a call like that, he said, “we transform America.”
Earlier Friday, hundreds of people jammed into the gym at Patrick Henry High School to question Sanders about economic disparities facing communities of color in Minnesota, fatal police shootings of unarmed citizens, restoration of voting rights for felons and other issues.
Clinton and Sanders are locked in a heated competition for the Democratic presidential nomination, with Minnesota’s March 1 caucuses a target for both campaigns. Clinton debuted a TV ad on Twin Cities airwaves on Friday, a day after Sanders went on the air here.
Sanders’ close second in the Iowa caucuses and win in the New Hampshire primary shook up assumptions about Clinton’s formidability. His appeal will be tested against a more diverse electorate in the next two states to weigh in on the Democratic side, Nevada on Feb. 20 and South Carolina on Feb. 27.
Sanders is trying to make inroads with black voters. At the hourlong forum sponsored by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), he hit hard on his central theme of erasing income inequality. He said voting rights for felons should be restored when they leave prison, and he criticized police shootings of unarmed black people.
In at least one area, Sanders wouldn’t go as far as some in the audience sought. Rather than endorsing reparations blacks in America, he called more broadly for greater investment in economically stricken neighborhoods.
“What I believe we should do is invest most heavily in those communities most in need,” Sanders said, noting that 35 percent of black children live in poverty and that youth unemployment among African-Americans is 51 percent. “Those are exactly the kinds of communities you invest in.”
Over the din of cheers, someone in the audience yelled: “We were promised reparations! We were told we were going to get it!”
Weighing the choices
Earlier in the day, Clinton’s campaign touted her support among prominent black leaders in Minnesota, including former Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and longtime civil rights activist Josie Robinson Johnson.
At the DFL dinner, Clinton too hit on themes of racial justice. “African-American families who faced discrimination generation after generation have a fraction of the wealth as white families,” she said. They are also denied mortgages three times as often, she said: “That’s a barrier that stands in the way of their dreams and aspirations.”
King Demetrius Pendleton, a NOC member, said he’s still undecided between Clinton and Sanders. But he said he doesn’t like hearing Democrats argue that Sanders won’t be able to deliver on the progressive goals he has promised. “Anything is possible. We have to stay open-minded,” he said.
Marian Heinrichs, a program coordinator for St. Paul Public Schools, bought a ticket for the DFL dinner. She said she’s leaning toward Clinton because she thinks Sanders has over-promised.
“Bernie’s talking about a lot of things I like and make sense,” she said. But “he’s not going to get any of that. I just can’t see it, but I think Hillary can get people working together on the issues she wants to work on.”
The DFL’s Humphrey Mondale Dinner, named for the two former vice presidents from Minnesota, is the party’s big annual fundraising event. State chairman Ken Martin said about 4,000 people bought tickets, and that the party’s haul would exceed $1 million.
Martin said most guests donated $125 per seat, which came with dinner and dessert. Some paid $75 for a seat and just dessert. Bleachers in the back accommodated a group of $50 donors. And a select group bought entire tables at the front of the room with donations ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.
In addition to the dinner and forum, Sanders also spoke at a private reception held by the Minnesota Nurses Association. Its national counterpart has endorsed his campaign. The DFL dinner was Clinton’s only Minnesota stop.
In their dinner speeches, Clinton and Sanders both offered praise for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, still an icon for many DFLers more than 13 years after his death in a plane crash. Sanders recalled joining Congress the same year, 1990, and thanked DFLers “for making sure his vision is never forgotten.”
Clinton offered similar praise, in a way that echoed her campaign’s own message in the face of Sanders’ challenge: “He was a true progressive that wanted to get things done.”
Christopher Aadland, a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune, contributed to this report.