Politics & Government

2020 hopefuls Booker, Sanders evoke MLK’s vision while courting SC’s black voters

U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders did their best to stir a frigid Columbia crowd Monday, evoking the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a unified, integrated America as they courted S.C. Democratic primary voters.

Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, repeatedly exclaimed “we are dissatisfied” with an economy that, he said, favors the rich over the poor and a federal government that spends heavily to drop bombs in faraway countries but doesn’t take care of the poor and vulnerable.

“This is the moment in America where we don’t just celebrate King’s holiday, but where we recommit ourselves to be agents of change,” Booker said in a speech that focused more on values than proposed reforms.

Sanders, a Vermont independent, called President Donald Trump a racist and repeated his proposals for universal health care, free college and a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Sanders, who marched on Washington with King in 1963, reminded the crowd of thousands that King fought three evils — racism, poverty and war — and implored his listeners “to have the courage to take on the economic and political establishment.”

Neither Booker nor Sanders formally has announced plans to run for president in 2020.

But there was little doubt why they were in Columbia for Monday’s annual King Day at the Dome rally, 13 months before South Carolina hosts the first-in-the-South Democratic presidential primary.

Both 2020 contenders had good reason to be in the Palmetto State, which features a sizable bloc of traditionally Democratic black voters. Presidential contenders who can’t win those voters seldom fare better elsewhere across the deep South.

A strong showing in South Carolina could lend legitimacy to Booker’s campaign.

Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, must improve on his 2016 blowout loss in the S.C. primary to eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Sanders lost all 46 S.C. counties, winning just 26 percent of the vote.

“I’m thankful to Sen. Booker and Sen. Sanders for being here,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said at the rally. “Make no doubt about it, the road to the White House starts in South Carolina.”

Booker’s speech touched on gun violence, unsafe drinking water, inadequate education funding and an economy that pays some full-time workers so little they depend on food stamps. Good people can’t sit on their hands and let those problems continue, he said.

“We cannot just be about words,” he said. “We must be about deeds, and every day dedicate ourselves to the work. ... We need people who are going to put the indivisible back into this one nation under God.”

Sanders, meanwhile, touted King as one of the greatest leaders “in modern world history,” while positioning himself as the modern-day champion of King’s “radical” vision.

“Many of the demands that King made are still demands that we have to fight for today,” including a living wage, adequate education and affordable housing, Sanders said. He recommended the federal government invest billions of dollars in social programs that it now spends on the military and a possible border wall.

“We cannot have failing underfunded public schools, while we increase military spending by $165 billion over a two-year period,” Sanders said.

The pair’s speeches won ovations Monday from voters who came from across the state to the NAACP’s annual rally.

Columbia resident Henry Wilson said he liked both senators equally. “Everything they said is true,” he said. “I hope that they will practice what they preach.”

Heather Hester Ramsey, a 46-year-old Sanders supporter from Myrtle Beach, said the Vermont senator’s proposals might have seemed pie-in-the-sky in 2016 but they now are picking up steam across the country.

“He has inspired young people to run for office that are now serving like (Democratic U.S. Rep.) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” Ramsey said. “He’s a mover and a shaker. It’s not all talk. He’s teaching us how to take back our country.”

Later Monday, at a round-table discussion at Zion Baptist Church, Sanders was asked if he will run for president again in 2020, a question that drew cheers and applause.

Sanders said many good Democratic candidates have announced their plans to run, adding he is assessing whether there is enough grassroots support for his candidacy.

”They’re friends of mine,” Sanders said of the Democrats who have declared they plan to run. “I’ve known Elizabeth Warren for 20-some odd years. ... I know all of these people. They’re good people.”

“Run, Bernie, run,” one woman shouted from her pew.

Sanders said he is more optimistic about his progressive platform.

New Jersey is set to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, making it the fourth state in the country to do so, reflecting a growing national movement to address economic inequality, he said. Sanders, too, pointed to a 2018 Reuters-Ipsos survey that found 70 percent of Americans now support Medicare-for-all, otherwise known as single-payer health care.

“The assessment I’ve got to make: Is there a willingness in this country at the grassroots level to take on” special interests, citing the energy, drug and insurance industries.

”We’ve got to come together to fundamentally change national priorities,” Sanders said. ”This is not easy stuff. Is there a willingness to do this?”

Many in the audience of about 150 shouted back, “Yes.”

Staff writers Tom Barton and Maayan Schechter contributed to this story.
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Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.