NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – Sen. Amy Klobuchar told a group of black ministers here Wednesday that to win the presidency in November, Democrats need a fired-up base, “which has always had its roots in the African-American community.”
For the Minnesota senator, fighting to stay competitive in her party’s presidential contest, South Carolina’s primary on Saturday stands as the first-ever major test of her appeal in the black community, a vital Democratic constituency.
Black voters make up about 60% of the Palmetto State’s Democratic electorate. Klobuchar lacks the kind of deep ties with black activist groups enjoyed by rivals like former Vice President Joe Biden, a weakness that could come under a spotlight in South Carolina just ahead of the 14-state Super Tuesday primary.
“I don’t know her or her record that well,” said Tyrone Sanders, the business manager at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, which hosted the breakfast event.
Convened by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, the breakfast was a chance for the leading Democratic candidates to pitch their candidacy to a group of influential black leaders.
Sanders — “No relation to Bernie,” he said — expects to vote for Biden, who won the coveted endorsement Wednesday of South Carolina U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, one of the state’s leading black political figures.
While Biden is well known in the state, Klobuchar is not. Sanders said he gets discouraged by the feeling that the concerns of black Democrats get “a lot of lip service” every four years when a presidential cycle comes around.
“That’s not Senator Klobuchar’s fault, but you do get jaded when another newcomer comes along who talks the same kind of good game we’ve heard before,” Sanders said.
Black voters make up a much smaller portion of Minnesota’s electorate. And some of the state’s best-known black figures, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, have been campaigning for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.
Klobuchar’s previous job as Hennepin County attorney also has brought up uncomfortable questions about the controversial murder conviction of a black teenager and a series of police-involved deaths that resulted in no charges. Some black activists in Minneapolis have called on her to quit.
“There’s no agenda for us to latch onto. There’s no one speaking on her behalf,” said Bakari Sellers, a prominent South Carolina Democrat who has publicly criticized Klobuchar’s efforts in the state. “You’ve got her home-state NAACP saying she should drop out of the race.”
The president of the civil rights group’s Minneapolis chapter aired that demand this month after an Associated Press investigation raised questions about the murder conviction of Myon Burrell, whose case was featured this week on ABC News. Klobuchar has called for the case to be reviewed, but Mike Freeman, the current Hennepin County attorney, said this week that he’s not seen new evidence that would persuade him to reopen the case.
At the minister’s breakfast, Sharpton introduced Klobuchar with words of praise — though not in the glowing terms that he reserved for Biden and Sanders.
“Our Washington bureau has reported that every time we called, she was there,” Sharpton said of Klobuchar. “Way before she ran for president.”
Another Midwestern candidate, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, has faced similar questions about shallow support from voters of color. Klobuchar and Buttigieg were both received politely at Mount Moriah, though Biden got a warmer reception by far.
“You’ve got to talk to the black press,” Sharpton counseled Klobuchar and Buttigieg from the stage. Klobuchar immediately proceeded to an interview with Roland Martin, a prominent black journalist and CNN contributor who was in the audience.
Upcoming primaries around the country include a number of states with large black constituencies. In the crowd at Mount Moriah was Melanie Campbell, the president and CEO of the Washington-based National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and the Black Women’s Roundtable.
“Our goal is to leverage the black vote, and specifically black women, to make sure our issues are addressed,” said Campbell.
Campbell’s group isn’t endorsing a candidate, but she said Klobuchar’s campaign recently disappointed her.
“We do a presidential candidate questionnaire,” Campbell said. “Most of the candidates responded. Issues of justice, racial justice and hate crimes, economic issues, health care are all part of it. And she didn’t respond. They didn’t respond until after we released it last Tuesday.”
A spokeswoman for the campaign did not offer an immediate explanation Wednesday.
In her speech to the minister’s breakfast, Klobuchar pitched herself as the candidate who could help connect black Democrats with the broader coalition she has promised to harness: independents and swing voters, even moderate Republicans disaffected with President Donald Trump.
“My argument is you’ve got a lot on your shoulders. You’ve carried that torch for a long time,” Klobuchar said after she noted the importance of black voters to the Democratic base. “And maybe you need some friends.”