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Hillary Clinton fights to secure black vote in New York in face of recent racial missteps

Hillary Clinton fights to secure black vote in New York in face of recent racial missteps
Black voters’ familiarity with Hillary Clinton gives her an edge, though some fear being taken for granted. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Hillary Clinton and her surrogates have courted African American voters across New York in advance of Tuesday's Democratic primary. The results: a mixed bag of comfortable alliances and uncomfortable stumbling.

Black voters will make up about 1 in every 5 Democrats casting ballots here, and Clinton spent part of Wednesday delivering a speech honed by repetition and necessity before activists at a Manhattan convention of the National Action Network, a group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

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She recounted her long involvement in African American politics. She outlined an expansive plan to fight against racial, economic and environmental woes that disproportionately affect minorities. She scorned Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas as having unleashed "ugly currents" with their controversial proposals about immigrants and Muslims.

"Democrats have a special obligation if we are going to ask African Americans to vote for us," she said. "We cannot take you or your vote for granted. We can't just show up on election time and say nice things and think that's enough.... We have to demonstrate a sustained commitment to building opportunity, creating prosperity and righting wrongs."

"I have worked on these causes all my adult life," she said. "I'm going to keep going at it no matter what."

The roar of the crowd underscored a sensitivity among black voters this campaign season. They have long been one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocs, but because of that, many also have felt taken for granted. The sensitivity is all the more acute as the tenure of the first African American president winds down, leaving some wondering about their importance to the next White House occupant.

That has been the undercurrent to Clinton's events here. She and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have coursed through African American churches and community centers ahead of the primary, working off of relationships built up through the years. Influential pastors and political figures like New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel have stood with the Clintons to try to blunt momentum from her challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Sanders has experience in African American politics dating back decades to his activism in the civil rights movement as a college student. But he has fewer existing relationships than the Clintons. His inroads among minority voters have been generational, the result of his sweeping popularity among younger Americans.

Michigan's primary last month demonstrated the importance of black voters in the Democratic race; Clinton's advantage among them slumped somewhat from her normal heights and the result was her first — and so far only — loss in a big, diverse state.

Here in New York, what should be a slam dunk for Clinton — given her alliances, residency and time as a U.S. senator representing the state — has been marred by two incidents in the last week.

The candidate appeared in a racially tinged skit at a Saturday night black-tie dinner appearance with Mayor Bill de Blasio. In it, De Blasio joked that he had belatedly endorsed her because he was "on C.P. time" — a reference to age-old gibes about African Americans.

"Cautious politician time," Clinton responded. "I've been there."

When criticism erupted, De Blasio, whose wife is black, said that "people are missing the point" and that the skit was not based on stereotypes. Clinton said she deferred to the mayor and that he "is perfectly capable of speaking for himself."

A few days before the skit, Bill Clinton got into a finger-wagging verbal exchange with Black Lives Matter protesters at a campaign event in Philadelphia. The group has regularly criticized both Clintons for the effects of the 1994 crime bill, which they blame for higher incarceration rates among black men.

"I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African American children," Bill Clinton said to the protesters. "You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter. Tell the truth."

Sanders has criticized Hillary Clinton for her support of the crime bill — which he voted for as a member of Congress, he says, because of measures to rein in violence against women and assault weapons — and her use at the time of the term "superpredator" to describe those spurring what was then an explosive crime rate.

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Clinton has said repeatedly that using the term — which she says she did once — was inappropriate. She and her husband also have acknowledged some unintended negative consequences of the crime bill. But they continue to stand by many of its components, including a ban on assault weapons and money for an infusion of police officers into urban communities.

At the Sharpton group's convention, the topic arose with a bit of mockery from a member of a panel that was held just before Clinton spoke. "I'm neutral right now" in the presidential race, said Angela Rye, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. "I don't want any of my family members to be called superpredators."

Sanders brought up another sore subject when he spoke to the convention on Thursday. He reminded the audience of the welfare reform bill pushed by Bill Clinton in his 1992 campaign and enacted during his presidency.

"That was an easy bill to be for because it scapegoated the poorest people in America…. all of the 'welfare queens,' remember that?" he said, drawing on Reagan-era language used to criticize some welfare recipients. "A very easy bill to go for -- but I didn't go for that. I voted against that bill."

Despite the recent dust-ups, polls of voters in New York have consistently shown Clinton winning at least six or seven of every 10 African American voters in the state. The personal nature of her appearances — and the fact that she is not a new presence to the black community — seems to have helped her standing.

"My commitment to issues about how we work and live together is rooted deep in my experience and in my heart," she told attendees at Sunday morning services at New Greater Bethel Ministries in Queens, where she knew not only the pastor but his father.

At Antioch Baptist Church near Harlem that same day, Bill Clinton, himself extremely popular among African American voters, cast his wife as an extension of President Obama in terms of priorities.

"You can't get over the blow we suffered overnight," he said of the economic crash that opened Obama's tenure. "We got the jobs back; we got to raise the incomes. Then we got to educate people to do those jobs, then we have to learn to live together and be citizens together. Hillary's the best to do that because she's the best change-maker."

The tie-in with Obama was not accidental. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, 58% of New York voters surveyed approved of how Obama has done his job. And the Clinton campaign is counting on black voters being loyal to her much as she has been loyal to Obama.

The importance of African American and other minority voters will only increase at this stage of the campaign. Besides New York, coming up are states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California, where black and Latino voters represent big chunks of the Democratic electorate.

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Their impact in the general election is just as acute: Democrats have lost ground among white voters in recent years but have more than made up for it by expanding their support from African American, Latino and Asian American voters.

"Democrats are winning on the backs of increased minority turnout," Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist, said at a panel at the Sharpton group's conference.

Which was why Clinton made one explicit promise at the end of her remarks Wednesday. If she is president, she said, "You will always have a friend and a partner in the White House."

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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