A trio of Democratic presidential hopefuls highlighted their policies to appeal to young religious African American voters Friday at an Atlanta conference organized by black church leaders.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.; and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro spoke at the Young Leaders Conference. U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders will be interviewed onstage Saturday.
The event is organized by Black Church PAC, a group of church groups that aims to elect “progressive leaders committed in ridding us of mass incarceration, voter suppression and gun violence.” It endorsed Stacey Abrams in last year’s gubernatorial race.
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Here are some highlights from each of the candidates at Friday’s event, in order of their speeches:
The former San Antonio mayor drew a burst of applause when asked how he would respond to the surge in white nationalism.
“The first thing we have to do is get the white nationalist that’s in the White House out,” he said.
He trumpeted his proposal to withhold federal funds from police departments that do not adopt strict use-of-force polices and his plan for a federal database meant to discourage local agencies from hiring officers with a pattern of using excessive violence.
“As you try to decide which candidates to support in this very talented field, I have been bold and fearless when it comes to addressing the issues that often go untalked about but especially poor and minority communities grapple with every day,” Castro said.
Asked about his proposal to ensure voting rights, Castro said he would appoint an attorney general focused on expanding protections. Echoing other presidential candidates, he blasted Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who was the state’s top elections official during last year’s campaign.
“Stacey Abrams would be the governor of Georgia if not for what Kemp did and kicked people off the rolls,” he said. (The Republican has countered that he merely followed state laws, some supported by Democrats, designed to prevent voter fraud.)
Buttigieg said Washington must focus on eroding the “wall of mistrust” between police departments and communities, and he pressed for new firearms restrictions to curb mass shootings and gun violence.
“It’s about values and making sure we’re not repeating ourselves,” Buttigieg said. “I get why voters are cynical right now. A lot of promises have been made – promises have been made to black Americans, and they have not been kept.”
Buttigieg cited polls that show broad support for expanded background checks and so-called “red flag” laws that allow courts to permit authorities to take weapons away from some dangerous individuals.
“For every shooting that shocks the conscious of our nation, we lose as many people every day,” he said. “It’s almost always youth, and it’s almost always people of color. This is an epidemic, and we have to act.”
He said he would be unafraid to revive a federal fight against poverty, partly by pushing an increase in the minimum wage and encouraging more unionization.
“It’s time to take on poverty – it’s time to act on poverty. Some of this stuff is basic – we’ve got to pay people more,” he said. “One of the reasons a greater social safety net hasn’t happened ... is because of race.”
And he said he would chart a way to push for bipartisan compromise on urgent issues where other presidents have failed.
“The biggest thing we’ve got to do is build the political and civic muscle to make sure our representatives in Washington actually have to do what they’re sent to do,” he said.
The New Jersey senator received the biggest response of any of the candidates with a rousing opening that included recitations of Bible verses and a call to action from the faith community to lead “or we will never make it to the promised land.”
He trumpeted his $2 trillion infrastructure plan to expand broadband internet and build new bridges and roads in rural areas.
“This is an immediate crisis. Every day that goes by and children are drinking dirty water and breathing in dirty air, it’s permanently doing damage to their health,” Booker said. “It’s time we had a Marshall Project in the United States of America where we invest in ourselves and our future.”
As part of his economic platform, Booker said he would aggressively use antitrust protections to break up enormous corporations and support more paid family leave.
“We have changed the bargain here. We need to restore the bargain,” he said. “You honor work and dignity and give people that kind of respect in a society that honors people and not corporations.”
He praised Abrams’ new voting rights initiative, Fair Fight 2020, which will train activists in a group of 20 mostly battleground states to protect against any threat of voter suppression.
“This is a crossroads in our country,” he said. “We need to get folk woke to understand the power they have – and the most common way we give up our power is not recognizing that we have it in the first place.”
Thousands of black millennials are set to attend the conference over two days at the Georgia International Convention Center to sound out how each candidate plans to engage African American voters on criminal justice, gun control and other issues.
The candidates will be joined Saturday by Killer Mike, the Atlanta hip-hop star and fierce supporter of Sanders. Killer Mike, also known as Michael Render, made his political debut in 2015 at a Sanders event in Atlanta.
Mark Moore Jr., the Atlanta-based pastor who is hosting the conference, said having five presidential candidates in attendance “demonstrates the inherent power and potential of our black church millennials and the unique appeal of our gathering.”
It is Warren’s second visit to Georgia since launching her presidential campaign. Ditto for Sanders, who swung by Augusta in May.