Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro (left) speaks Friday as Pastor Leah Daughtry and Pastor Michael McBride, co-founders of the Black Church PAC, interview him during the 2020 Presidential Candidate Forum at the Young Leaders Conference at the Georgia International Convention Center. Two other White House hopefuls, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg, also spoke Friday at the conference. (Hyosub Shin /

Presidential hopefuls pitch plans to black religious voters in Atlanta

At a conference packed with thousands of young religious black voters, three presidential candidates pitched their proposals for voting rights, gun control and economic equality as they rushed to stand out in a claustrophobic primary.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker used the occasion to urge church leaders to take a more active stance in the 2020 elections “or we will never make it to the promised land.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., highlighted his plan to dismantle the “wall of mistrust” between police departments and communities over officer misconduct.

And former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro drew a roar of applause with his quick response to a question about how he would curb white nationalism.

“The first thing we have to do is get the white nationalist that’s in the White House out,” Castro said.

They each spoke at the Young Leaders Conference, an event put on 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.”

U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders will be interviewed onstage Saturday. They’ll also be joined by Killer Mike, the Atlanta hip-hop star who made his political debut in 2015 at a Sanders event in Atlanta.

Related: Sanders, Warren address black Christian voters at presidential forum

Election 2020: Georgia Presidential candidate visit tracker

The candidates are scrambling to emerge from a pack of roughly two dozen Democrats competing to challenge President Donald Trump, and each is hoping to vault ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner.

Castro, a former San Antonio mayor, promised to address the issues that challenge poor and minority communities, such as fighting poverty and withholding federal funds from police departments that do not adopt strict use-of-force policies.

“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.

Buttigieg, too, stressed the need for new measures to bring more accountability to police officers who use excessive force, and he pressed for new firearms restrictions to curb mass shootings and gun violence.

“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.”

Booker trumpeted his $2 trillion infrastructure plan to expand broadband internet and build new bridges and roads in rural areas.

“It’s time we had a Marshall Project in the United States of America where we invest in ourselves and our future,” he said.

Each of the candidates called for new voting rights protections, using last year’s razor-thin election between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp in Georgia’s race for governor — and the swirl of legal challenges surrounding the contest — to make their case.

“Stacey Abrams would be the governor of Georgia if not for what Kemp did and kicked people off the rolls,” Castro said. Kemp — who during the election remained secretary of state, making him Georgia’s top elections official — has countered that he merely followed state laws, some supported by Democrats, that were designed to prevent voter fraud.

For many in the audience, it was a chance to hear an unfiltered message from presidential candidates — even if they weren’t quite sure whom to support yet.

Eric Winn, a security guard from Chicago, said he was impressed by the focus on gun violence and poverty.

“The candidates usually go after the rich and middle-class voters. What we’re starting to hear is them going after the poorer class,” said Winn, who is searching for a candidate with urgent solutions to gun violence, such as the massacres this month in Ohio and Texas.

“These last two mass shootings could have been prevented,” said Winn, who sees expanded background checks as a bipartisan solution. “I just don’t comprehend why we aren’t doing anything about it.”

Others in the crowd were harder to impress. Yvonna Williams, who works in health care in Atlanta, said the candidates were “skirting around” giving specifics about their policies — particularly on the issue of tackling growing student debt.

“We’ve told people for generations to go to college, but the debt is crushing,” she said. “I mean, I’m 51 and I’m still facing student debt.”

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