Gary Cunningham liked presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s recent speech committing to racial justice in the predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem.
But he also felt moved by rival Bernie Sanders’ endorsement from U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who broke from the Black Congressional Caucus PAC’s support of Clinton.
The endorsement “does a lot to say Sanders is going to do the right thing for people of color,” said Cunningham, who is black.
The contest between Sanders and Clinton for black voters has landed squarely in Minnesota. The state’s relatively small black population is not likely to swing the vote in the upcoming caucuses, but the fight reflects a larger, national battle for black voters — a coalition that quickly united behind President Obama eight years ago.
“I was looking for a candidate who was going to address what I think is the major problem facing the American people today: the yawning chasm between the rich and everybody else, which, of course, impacts the black community particularly acutely,” said Ellison, D-Minn.
Clinton has drawn on relationships with black leaders built over the last few decades, racking up several high-profile endorsements in Minnesota and nationally.
Several recent polls showed Clinton holding a strong lead over Sanders among black voters. In Nevada’s Democratic caucuses last weekend, Clinton won among blacks by 76 percent to 22 percent, according to preliminary entrance polls reported by CNN.
A Monmouth University poll found that in South Carolina, where more than half of Democratic voters are black, Clinton had 60 percent of the support of black voters under 50. Sanders had 26 percent, despite having a large base of young white voters overall.
Sanders, who appeared at a black forum in Minneapolis last week, has sought to make inroads in minority communities, especially as Clinton critics have described policies she publicly supported during her husband’s presidency as harmful to blacks.
In the Twin Cities, which faces a wide and persistent economic gap between blacks and whites, black voters are still weighing their choices.
Cunningham, a Metropolitan Council member who heads an organization that aids minority businesses, said he’s still undecided. While Sanders doesn’t stand out as a civil rights leader to him, he said that the black middle class wouldn’t grow without increasing the white middle class, too, and Sanders’ platform was “really about building the middle class for everyone, which I like.”
The Clinton campaign announced Friday the support of more than 100 Democratic leaders in Minnesota — including Cunningham’s wife, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. Also on the list are longtime civil rights activists like Josie Robinson Johnson.
“I respect Senator Sanders highly and I appreciate his enthusiasm about issues, I just think that he does not know the history of African-American people as deeply,” Johnson said.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, a University of St. Thomas law professor and president of the Minneapolis NAACP, said she turned down a call to support Clinton. She and other critics believe that the former secretary of state helped create some of the very problems she is now pledging to fix.
Former President Bill Clinton signed the “three-strikes” law in 1994 requiring life sentences for people convicted of a violent felony after at least two prior convictions and enabled sentencing disparities between possession of cocaine and crack, which have disproportionately affected black defendants.
Hillary Clinton, who promoted the laws at the time, has vowed during her campaign to reduce mass incarceration and end harsher sentences for crack possession.
“We’re still suffering the effects of those Clinton-era policies, so at times it feels disingenuous to hear Hillary Clinton talk about the need for criminal justice reform when she has continued to act in ways that support the prison-industrial complex,” Levy-Pounds said. “It feels like too little too late, and the harms can never be undone.”
But she is not sold on Sanders, either. He must do more to learn about problems affecting the black community, she said.
Ellison described Sanders as someone who has held many of the right positions all along. He’s teamed up with the Vermont senator to sponsor legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and ban the federal government from entering into contracts with private prisons.
The congressman from Minneapolis has become an active surrogate for Sanders, campaigning for him in South Carolina and introducing him during campaign stops in the Twin Cities. Sanders’ Minnesota campaign operation said it was working closely with Ellison’s staff.
During a recent forum at a north Minneapolis high school, Sanders cited statistics that he often talks about on the campaign trail.
“When you have 35 percent of black children living in poverty … when youth unemployment in the African-American community is 51 percent, those are exactly the kinds of communities you invest in,” Sanders told the crowd.
The event featured many people aligned with Black Lives Matter, which has pushed candidates nationally to talk about how they will address police brutality against blacks.
Kandace Montgomery, an organizer with the movement, said it was important that Sanders was willing to have a conversation about the needs of black Minnesotans. But after the event, she remained skeptical of Sanders’ understanding of their issues.
She’s no fan of Clinton either, citing her initial acceptance of campaign contributions from the private prison industry. Clinton has since said she’ll stop taking such donations.
Flanked by black leaders, Clinton said during her Harlem speech that the country had to face the reality of systemic racism.
“These are not only problems of economic inequality,” Clinton said. “These are problems of racial inequality. And we have got to say that loudly and clearly.”
Robinson, the civil rights activist, believes that Clinton has evolved over the last few decades.
“I don’t think we ever have candidates that are free of all kinds of criticism,” she said. “I believe for Hillary, we’re not electing Bill. … She knows the impact of policies that have a negative effect on us as a people, and I trust that she has learned and can make a difference.”