Democrats court black voters at South Carolina forum

Four Democratic presidential candidates pitched wholesale changes to the federal government’s approach to African-Americans on Saturday, using a forum here in South Carolina to woo the state’s crucially important electorate.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke all discussed their plans to combat gentrification, increase capital flowing to minority- and female-owned business, and remake the judicial system at the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Forum, an event aimed squarely at black voters, with a focus on the economy, jobs and business.

Each candidate’s message will be heard beyond South Carolina, too: The forum — moderated by journalist Soledad O’Brien — will air Sunday on BET.

Black voters make up more than 60% of the electorate in the Democratic primary in South Carolina, making the state a key testing ground for candidates looking to court African-American voters.

While there was clear agreement on the need to focus on policy proposals to boost African-Americans, there were also clear differences — in both style and approach — in how the four candidates would accomplish their goals.

Here is what each candidate proposed on Saturday:

Elizabeth Warren:

Warren used Saturday’s event to highlight her plan to offer $7 billion in grants to black, Latino and Native American entrepreneurs through a newly proposed Department of Economic Development.

For Warren, the need for such a program was urgent, as the Democrats told voters here that the American dream is largely out of reach for black Americans.

“Yes, I think it is really, really tough,” she said in response to a question from O’Brien. “And I think if we don’t acknowledge that, straight on, than we can’t diagnose what is wrong.”

One key issue, Warren said, is access to capital, a problem she blamed on largely white, male bankers for failing to make enough money available to minority- and female-owned businesses.

The people who often get loans, Warren said, “tend to be people who look like themselves and that is a problem when most of these investors are white and nearly all of them are men.”

Warren initially rolled out her plan on Friday, ahead of the event in South Carolina. Her campaign believes that such an influx in government funding — which would be paid for by a tax on the rich, Warren said — could impact “100,000 new minority-owned businesses, which together would be expected to provide 1.1 million jobs.”

“I really want to underscore,” Warren said, “this is different from the other plans that are out there.”

Warren has been on a rise of late, experiencing a boost in both national and statewide polls.

Asked about that boost on Saturday, Warren said it is “way too early to talk about polls.”

Pete Buttigieg:

Buttigieg used the event on Saturday to detail what he is calling his Douglass Plan, a host of policy proposals aimed at combating inequality in minority communities that the mayor compares to the Marshall Plan, the 1948 plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.

Buttigieg said that his plan is founded on the idea that the United States “can’t take racist policies and replace them with neutral policies” and just expect things to even out, because of the country’s history of racism.

“The philosophy of our plan is you that can’t take racist policies and replace them with neutral policies and expect things to get better. We have to be intentional,” he said.

Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan — named after Frederick Douglass, the famed American abolitionist — would increase the federal business going to minority-owned companies to 25%, reduce the number of people incarcerated by 50% and reform credit scoring.

Pushed by O’Brien about the fact that the federal government doesn’t have as much power on incarceration, Buttigieg said, as president, he would have a “carrot and stick relationship with the states.”

Buttigieg referenced his interaction with the Trump administration on immigration, where the administration threatened — via a letter — to cut funding to the city over the way Buttigieg was handling immigration policy.

“We told them what they could do with that letter,” Buttigieg said to big applause.

Buttigieg has risen in the polls over the last three months. But his rise has largely been powered by white voters, with his support among African-Americans falling behind many of his comparable opponents.

“A lot of it is because I am new on the scene and I am not myself from a community of color,” Buttigieg said Saturday before describing how his campaign is working to reach out to minority communities.

He added that black voters he has talked to often feel burned by candidates who have made lavish promises, took voters for granted or only showed up right before an election.

Buttigieg has held a series of private meetings with black leaders over the last month, and he told reporters after the event that those meetings have taught him “the importance of showing up and making sure that we are spending quantity time engaging with voters from every background.”

“It’s one of the reasons that South Carolina presents such a great opportunity as a candidate for president to engage with voters of color and speak about what a meaningful agenda for black America is going to have to look like,” he said.

Cory Booker:

Booker spent most of his time on stage in South Carolina describing — and, at times, defending — his baby bonds proposal, a policy that would open a $1,000 savings account for every child born in America, with additional money being deposited based on parents’ income.

Booker said the plan would “virtually eliminate the racial wealth gap” in the United States for young people.

“Let’s make sure, as a birthright in America, every child has a chance of creating wealth,” Booker said. “Paychecks help us get by, but wealth helps us get ahead.”

O’Brien brought up the program but noted that it has been criticized because the money deposited into the account couldn’t be accessed until age 18.

After a lengthy defense of the program — “we need to plant lots of seeds in the garden of our democracy,” Booker said — the former mayor of Newark added, “I stand by the plan.”

“This is actually a piece of policy that we know changes those outcomes,” Booker said.

Booker’s appearance comes in the midst of a longer trip to South Carolina. The New Jersey senator announced on Saturday that he would be going to Mother Emanuel AME, the site of a racially motivated church shooting in 2015 that left nine dead, for services on Sunday.

Booker has yet to break out in state or national polling. But the senator drew parallels between his campaign — and the position he is currently in — and former President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, especially in regard to acceptance from the black community

“Barack Obama was polling way behind in this state, you all know that, look at the numbers, until he showed he could win in Iowa.” Booker told reporters after his speech. “I think African-Americans are very, very … they guard their vote. They want to beat Donald Trump like we all do, they want to see the viability of the candidate. When we show, in those first two states, our ability to be very successful, I think it’s going to help us have, grow even more in the polls.”

He added: “We’re going to win in those early primary states and come down to South Carolina with a head of steam, and I will win this state.”

Beto O’Rourke:

O’Rourke, a former member of the El Paso City Council, spoke at length about combating gentrification on Saturday, telling host O’Brien that he sees a role for the federal government in fighting the gentrification of neighborhoods.

“I see the federal government’s role as a partner toward local and state leadership and making sure we are maximizing the taxpayer’s investment,” O’Rourke said, adding that he would look to “complement extraordinary local leadership with federal resources and funding.”

O’Brien pushed O’Rourke about some development decisions that were made while the former congressman was on the city council in El Paso. Asked if casting those voters was a mistake, O’Rourke bluntly said, “No, it wasn’t.”

His primary proposal for combating gentrification was expanding the use of Community Development Block Grant and tying them to inclusionary zoning and creating “millions more units of housing so that it is affordable, so folks can live closer to where they work.”

Like Buttigieg, O’Rourke, too, has struggled to garner much support from black voters. The former congressman said his campaign is “intentionally going everywhere and intentionally asking everyone to participate and to come in because intentionally we understand that for this country to be successful, everyone must be included, especially those who’ve been marginalized, locked out of this country’s success in the past.”

“So, yeah,” he said, “I want to see everyone.”