Sen. John F. Kerry pledged Tuesday to increase the number of minorities and women who graduate from college, particularly in math and science, outlining a plan that would give $10 billion to states that keep their college tuitions down.
Starting his campaign day with a speech to a predominantly black audience -- part of a recent effort by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to rally party loyalists -- Kerry bemoaned rising tuition costs and what he termed a drop in America’s technological leadership.
He later flew to Phoenix, where he focused on immigration reform in speaking to a Latino group, the National Council of La Raza.
In his Chicago speech, Kerry said he would improve pay and training for math and science teachers. He also pledged to create a $100-million fund that would reward schools for the number of underprivileged students who graduate.
“In the last 30 years, we’ve fallen from third in the world to 15th in the number of new scientists and engineers in our work force, and women and minorities particularly are choosing other careers,” he told a cheering audience at the Rainbow/PUSH conference.
Citing statistics that campaign aides said came from the National Science Foundation, Kerry said, “Women make up only 10% of engineers and only 15 blacks and eight Hispanic Americans received PhDs in computer science last year.” (According to material supplied by the campaign, the figures on PhDs actually applied to 2001.)
Marking the 40th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Kerry declared education a battleground in the fight for equality. “Our workers, our children, all across the country, of every color, race, creed or background, all deserve a 21st century education,” he said.
Kerry’s speech to the group headed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson was part of a stepped-up effort by him to appeal to core Democratic constituencies, less than a month before his party’s national nominating convention gathers in Boston.
His remarks to the National Council of La Raza, at its annual convention, was his second appearance before a Latino group in less than a week. On Saturday, he spoke to the National Assn. of Latino Elected Officials in Washington.
Latinos traditionally give a majority of their votes to Democrats. But President Bush has aggressively pursued Latino support, hoping to capture a larger share of it than most Republicans.
Kerry favors “earned legalization” for illegal immigrants, a position he emphasized in his Phoenix speech.
“Hundreds of people seeking only a better life for their children die terrible deaths in the desert, often at the hands of cruel smugglers,” the Massachusetts senator said. “It is time to fulfill the promise of America, so that those who work hard and take responsibility and build a better life for themselves and their families ... have a right to share in America, in its citizenship.”
Kerry enjoys strong support among African American leaders -- he drew nine standing ovations during his Chicago speech. And black voters strongly support Democrats: Al Gore, the party’s 2000 presidential nominee, won 90% of their vote.
But some analysts said Kerry must work to ensure a significant black voter turnout in November.
“The support he has is based on the fact that he’s a Democrat, and black voters want to get rid of Bush,” said David Bositis, a senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington research group that focuses on the black community. “He has to make sure he has the right people on board who are going to give him the right advice about mobilizing black voters, and he needs to put resources into mobilizing black voters.”
Apparently sensitive to criticism that his campaign lacks diversity, Kerry traveled Tuesday with his newest domestic policy advisor, Brian Burke, an African American.
In Chicago, Kerry strayed repeatedly from his prepared text as the crowd warmed to his words.
He recalled his years as a prosecutor and the lost youths he met in the Massachusetts prison system, whom he called victims of “neglect, abuse and abandonment.” He rued the fact that black unemployment was double the rate for whites and received one of many standing ovations when he referred to the disputed 2000 presidential election.
“We live in the greatest democracy in the world,” Kerry said. “We have to make sure not only does every vote count, but that every vote is counted.”
In detailing his education proposals, Kerry declared the country needed “a revolution, a GI Bill for the new century and the next economy.”
He said rolling back tax cuts for households that earn more than $200,000 a year would pay for the $10-billion fund to control college costs -- one of many programs Kerry would finance by rescinding the Bush-backed tax reductions.
Under Kerry’s plan, the $10 billion would be available to college and universities that kept their tuition increases in line with inflation.
Kerry aides said the $100-million college completion fund would be paid for by revamping the federal student loan program.
The Bush campaign responded to Kerry’s program by saying progress was being made to slow the rate of tuition increases. Steve Schmidt, a Bush spokesman, said Kerry’s “cynical attacks are at odds with the fact that more Americans have college degrees than ever before.”
Kerry on Tuesday also continued getting help from several independent groups opposed to Bush’s reelection.
The Sierra Club announced a Spanish-language television campaign that criticizes Bush administration environmental policies.
The ad, scheduled to run nationally on the Univision network, was the latest anti-Bush commercial aimed at Spanish-speaking voters. Others have been aired by the New Democrat Network, a centrist group that is also separate from the Kerry campaign.
Times staff writers Nick Anderson in Washington and Mark Z. Barabak in San Francisco contributed to this report.