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  • Writer's pictureMichael McAuliff

Candidate Racial Repair On MLK Day

While former prosecutor and current Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris rolled out her bid for the presidency on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, two of her potential rivals, Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg, rolled on down to Washington, D.C., to take leading roles in the Rev. Al Sharpton's King Day breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel.

Another New Yorker and White House contender, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, was a featured guest at Sharpton's other MLK event, in New York in the afternoon.

What all four of those politicians have in common, and what they were trying to address in the context the 2020 Democratic primary, was potential weakness with African-American voters, who are a key part of any winning Democratic campaign. It's still only potential for the two men, of course.

The flaws for Gillibrand, Bloomberg and Biden are reasonably well-known. Bloomberg's NYPD was an aggressive practitioner of stop-and-frisk tactics that disproportionately targeted young black men. Biden was a tough-on-crime lawmaker in the era when he and people like him were ratcheting up penalties that disproportionately affected African-Americans. Gillibrand started her career as a pro-gun, tough-on-immigration politician in a relatively conservative upstate congressional district.

For Harris, who is only the second black woman to serve in the Senate, you have to dig a little deeper. But if you scroll through the clips just a little bit, she's got similar policy problems. Indeed, as a district attorney and then attorney general of California, she often embraced the law enforcement perspective.

“She was known as a fair prosecutor,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi told the Sacramento Bee recently. But “she was definitely a law-and-order type of prosecutor.”

Among issues likely to detract from her appeal to the left and to African Americans, were unconstitutionally concealing information about tainted drug lab evidence, defending a case made on a false confession, opposing the release of non-violent inmates to ease prison crowding, and a not-so vigorous embrace of criminal justice reform. Reason recapped a lot of those issues.

This led to all four of the candidates and maybe candidates spending MLK Day trying to show how they have learned, how they understand past errors, and what they want to do to be better.

Harris kept with the theme in her recent book, casting herself as a progressive prosecutor, someone who went into the system, despite its problems, to fix it.

Biden has the enormous benefit of having been Barack Obama's Vice President, and can at least point to being part of an administration that signed into law measures easing the disparity between crack cocaine sentences and powder cocaine sentences. But he was part of the cadre of lawmakers who led the way with get-tough-on-crime and sentencing laws. The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald tweeted out C-Span clips -- after Biden spoke -- of Biden pushing in 1989 for the ramp up in the war on drugs that ended up disproportionately incarcerating a generation of young black men.

So Biden said this: "I've been in this fight a long time. The struggle's not just voting rights, the struggle's the criminal justice system. I haven't always been right. I know we haven't always gotten things right. But I've always tried." [Note: live, I thought he said struggle, but on my recording the word is garbled under crowd noise, and could be goal]

He also went where, until recently, white politicians have been reluctant to go in denouncing endemic racism. "The bottomline is we have a lot to root out, most of all the systematic racism that most of us whites don't like to acknowledge even exists," he said. "We don't even consciously acknowledge it, but it's been built into every aspect of our society," he said, pointing to disparities between white and black schools, property values, and even car insurance costs.

"There's something we have to admit -- not you -- we, white America, has to admit there still is systematic racism, and it goes almost unnoticed by so many of us," Biden said.

Bloomberg, who got a warm introduction from Sharpton if not the glowing praise Biden received, will have to explain his long support of the stop-and-frisk program that he oversaw, and which, like Biden's laws, disproportionately targeted people of color.

He didn't address it directly. Instead he pointed boosting education funding, juvenile justice reform he did with Sharpton, and the anti-gun violence campaign which he has spent hundreds of millions of his own dollars on.

Bloomberg did hint that he was aware people in the black community might hold some of his tougher law enforcement initiatives against him, like stop-and-frisk, which a judge eventually ended. But he said it was to save lives, especially black lives.

"I can't stand up here and tell you every decision I made as mayor was perfect," he said. "But I can tell you we were always guided by the goal, first and foremost in all cases, of saving lives of those who faced the greatest risk of gun violence -- young men of color. And by cutting murders in half, I'm glad to say some 1,600 people are alive today who otherwise would not be. And most are young men from black and Hispanic communities."

Up in New York, Gillibrand avoided her past pro-NRA, anti-immigration stances from 2006 -- she's talked about those quite a lot elsewhere. She took an approach similar to Biden's focus on systemic racism, with an added inclusion of sexism, owning that white people have not been there for black America.

"We have to have an honest conversation about the systemic, institutional and daily individual acts of racism in our country that hold people and their families back for generations," Gillibrand said. "We also have to recognize that there are many layers of bias in this country. Women of color face even greater challenges because of the intersectionality of both sexism and racism."

"Fighting against this will take all of us," she added. "It is wrong to ask men and women of color to bear the burdens of every single one of these fights over and over and over again. White women like me must share in this burden and commit to using our voices to amplify yours. And, we must join you on the battlefield for social justice."

Those four weren't the only 2020 figures looking to improve their standing with black voters on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who struggled to win over African-Americans against Hillary Clinton in 2016, marched at a parade in early primary state South Carolina with New Jersey's Sen. Cory Booker. The former crusading mayor of Newark, who also is believed to be weighing a 2020 run, may be the only member of the Democratic primary pack so far who has an unabashedly strong record on black issues.

Trump is a useful foil for all the Democratic candidates. I wrote for the Daily News about the case Biden made at Sharpton's breakfast that Trump legitimizes hate.


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