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Bernie Sanders tests presidential appeal with students, African-Americans at Benedict College

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders poses for photos with freshman Saja Hargrow at a college town hall meeting Saturday morning at Benedict College.
Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders poses for photos with freshman Saja Hargrow at a college town hall meeting Saturday morning at Benedict College. Special to the State

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders tried out his fiery populist message at Benedict College on Saturday – part of the U.S. senator’s efforts to broaden his appeal to African-Americans and Southern Democrats.

About 1,000 people came to hear the U.S. senator from Vermont speak at the historically black college in Columbia – his first in a few stops planned around the state Saturday.

The crowd was diverse and mostly enthusiastic, giving Sanders several standing ovations.

But overall, the audience was more subdued than the nearly 3,000-person crowds that packed a steaming hot conference center in Columbia and waited in a long line to hear Sanders speak in Greenville last month.

Scattered in the bleachers at Benedict were a few clusters of young adults watching from the rear who appeared disinterested in Sanders’ outrage over income inequality and other plights of the working class. Some sat looking down at their phones. Others clapped occasionally.

But Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, succeeded in reaching a group of Benedict freshman who said, after hearing him speak, they could vote for him.

Dajana Baker, a freshman from Greenville, said Sanders came off as sincere to her and acted as though he really cares about people.

He's doing it from his heart, not because someone is paying him to do it.

– Dajana Baker, Benedict freshman

“He’s doing it from his heart, not because someone is paying him to do it,” Baker said.

Sanders faces a tough battle to win over Democratic voters in South Carolina, where African-Americans traditionally make up a large part of that electorate.

To begin that work, Sanders had Cornel West, a professor, writer and national civil rights activist, introduce him. West touted the senator’s civil rights record and his commitment to helping the working class and the poor.

“He’s going to win because he represents so much of the best of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.,” a vociferous West said, his booming voice energizing the crowd.

“The condition of truth is to always allow suffering to speak ... That’s what brother Bernie Sanders stands for. That’s why we are here.”

The condition of truth is to always allow suffering to speak ... That’s what brother Bernie Sanders stands for. That’s why we are here.

– Cornel West

In a speech similar to the one he gave in South Carolina last month, Sanders decried income inequality and the concentration of most of the nation’s wealth among the top 1 percent of Americans. He vowed to reverse the flow of dollars to the benefit of working-class people.

He said he would push for a trillion dollars to create jobs rebuilding the nation’s transportation infrastructure. He also wants to establish a $15 minimum wage, the key to boosting the economy, he said, by giving the nation’s lowest wage earners some disposable income.

Sanders directed parts of his speech toward college students, calling for free public college, criminal justice reforms and telling them that they are essential in forcing his so-called “political revolution.”

Baker, the Benedict student, and three of her freshman classmates were among the last people to leave the school’s gymnasium.

Saja Hargrow from Aiken said she appreciated Sanders talking about “people in jail, how when they come out, they go right back in, because we don’t really have a plan for them.”

Sanders “spoke really well, he connected to us,” said Marc Walker, drawn to the senator’s promise to fight for free-tuition at public colleges.

Walker’s mother is paying for his college education, he said, “and she’s a single parent,” so Sanders’ promise could really help his family.

After leaving Columbia, Sanders had stops in Florence and at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. Sanders said he has a lot of work to do in South Carolina to get his message to young and minority voters.

In a recent poll, Sanders edged Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton for the first time in Iowa, beating her by 1 percentage point, and he is almost eight percentage points ahead of her in New Hampshire. But in South Carolina, Sanders trails Clinton by 45 percentage points, according to a recent poll.

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An EXCLUSIVE Q&A

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders sat down with The State newspaper for a quick Q & A. Here’s what he said.

On the state of his S.C. campaign:

“We’ve only been in this race for four and a half months. .. The support we’re seeing is growing faster than our political infrastructure. We are in the process of hiring a number of young people, black and white, and they’re going to be knocking on a lot of doors. ... We do well because we believe in grassroots politics, and we’re hiring people in South Carolina to do that.”

On gaining support among S.C. Democrats and African-Americans:

“We will be meeting with the religious community, with the business community and the political community ... It’s fair to say we’re in the beginning stages of this effort. ... The message that we have for the people of South Carolina – black and white – in terms of creating decent paying jobs, raising the minimum wage, making sure that healthcare is a right, making sure that public colleges and universities are tuition free, those are issues that will resonate all across the state. And furthermore, in the African-American community, when people get to know the fact that I have one of the strongest civil rights voting records in the United States Congress, and I have a history of fighting for civil rights and racial justice, the more people that know that, the better we’re going to do.”

On whether he can work with Republicans to get things done:

“On a number of occasions, I have crossed the aisle, worked with Republicans,” Sanders said, referring to working with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other conservatives on legislation aimed at improving veterans’ healthcare. “Second ... to bring about real change in this country, we need millions of people to be involved in the political process. None of the ideas that I talked about today are radical ideas. They are mainstream ideas. These are what the American people want.”

On overcoming the “socialist” stigma:

Sanders said he will do what he did in Vermont, tell people what the word means. “What it means is that if you go to countries around the world that have had social democratic governments ... in most cases voter turnout is stronger than in the United States. But second, healthcare is a right of all of those people. College education is often free. The childcare system is often high quality, inexpensive. ... They have created governments which work for their middle class rather than just their wealthy and powerful.”

On his relationship with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination:

“Obviously Lindsey and I disagree on everything, but personally, we’re friends and I think we like each other.”

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