Democrats court black audience

Times Staff Writers

Setting aside their discord on the Iraq war, eight Democratic presidential candidates presented a largely united front in their third debate Thursday night, vowing to fight racial bias and improve day-to-day living conditions for all Americans.

The debate at Howard University on issues considered key to black voters came hours after a Supreme Court ruling that barred the use of racial guidelines to integrate public schools, a decision roundly condemned by the candidates.

“To say today that you’re going to exclude race as a means of allowing for the diversity in our communities is a major step backwards,” Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut said, “and as president of the United States, I would use whatever tool is available to me to see to it that we reverse this decision today.”


Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who would be the country’s first black president, invoked Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights lawyer who became the first African American on the U.S. Supreme Court. Obama credited his own rise to the work of Marshall and others who waged the legal battle that culminated in Brown vs. Board of Education, the court’s 1954 ruling banning school segregation.

“If it hadn’t been for them, I would not be standing here today,” Obama said. “And it was their fundamental recognition that for us to achieve racial equality was not simply good for African Americans, but it was good for America as a whole, that we could not be what we might be as a nation unless we healed the brutal wounds of slavery and Jim Crow.”

As they pledged steps to relieve the disproportionate effect of poverty, AIDS and other ills on African Americans, several candidates portrayed racism as an enduring fracture in American society that a president must take action to repair.

“The march is not finished,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

The debate, nationally televised on PBS and moderated by talk-show host Tavis Smiley, offered the Democrats a forum before a predominantly black audience to court one of the party’s most loyal constituencies. Nationally, about one in five Democratic primary voters is black, although the proportion varies widely by state.

African Americans are especially influential in South Carolina, one of the first states to hold a presidential primary; they account for about half the vote in the Democratic contest there.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a South Carolina native, used the occasion to stress his plans to fight poverty, calling that struggle “the cause of my life.” He also reprised his theme of an America divided into haves and have-nots, a split he defined in large part by race.

“The truth is that slavery followed by segregation followed by discrimination has had an impact that still is alive and well in America, and it goes through every single part of American life,” Edwards said. “We still have two public school systems in America. These two Americas that I’ve talked about in the past -- man, they are out there thriving.”

Two candidates -- Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel -- promised a large shift of funding from the military to public schools.

“I’m ready to see at least a 15% reduction in that bloated Pentagon budget,” Kucinich said. “Stop funding war. Start funding education. That’s where we get the money.”

“Dennis, you’re a little too modest on that,” Gravel said. “I think we can cut a little more than 15% -- very much so.”

A question on the high rate of HIV infection among African American teens triggered the liveliest exchange when Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware said: “I spent last summer going through the black sections of my town, holding rallies in parks, trying to get black men to understand it is not unmanly to wear a condom, getting women to understand they can say no, getting people in the position where testing matters. I got tested for AIDS. I know Barack got tested for AIDS.”

At that, Obama shot Biden a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding glance. A television camera caught the Rev. Al Sharpton in the audience looking appalled. (In January, Biden nearly derailed his campaign by referring to Obama as the first “clean” and “articulate” African American to seek the presidency.)

When the laughter died down and it was his turn to speak, Obama countered: “I want to make clear, I got tested with Michelle.... I don’t want any confusion here about what’s going on.”

Obama and his wife, Michelle, both took HIV tests on a visit last year to Kenya, a gesture meant to show there was no stigma in being screened for the virus.

Most of the candidates agreed that the government must spend more on AIDS research and treatment.

Clinton suggested racial prejudice was to blame for the outsize impact of HIV on African Americans. If AIDS “was the leading cause of death of white women between the age of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country,” she said.

Urging a more aggressive national commitment to finding an AIDS cure, she said that if “we don’t begin to take it seriously and address it the way we did back in the ‘90s, when it was primarily a gay men’s disease, we will never get the services and the public education that we need.”

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson offered a rare note of praise for President Bush, saying White House spending on global AIDS relief was “relatively impressive.”

Turning to Hurricane Katrina, the candidates seemed united in their outrage over New Orleans’ slow recovery. The Bush administration “has basically neglected with almost criminal indifference the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, in particular New Orleans and the parishes,” Clinton said.

Edwards said that if he was elected, a White House official would report to him daily on the pace of New Orleans’ recovery.

The candidates largely agreed that the criminal justice system was overly punitive when it comes to African Americans. Asked about the disproportionate share of blacks who are imprisoned, several candidates called for an end to racial profiling, a rollback of mandatory minimum sentences, and alternatives to incarceration.