Home Politics Alabama’s Black Politicians Divided Over Clinton, Sanders

Alabama’s Black Politicians Divided Over Clinton, Sanders

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By Barnett Wright

Birmingham Times Staff

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Some leading black politicians in Alabama appear divided over whether Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, or former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should be the Democratic nominee for president.

Voters in the state will head to the polls on March 1, to cast ballots in either the Democratic or Republican primary — and Clinton and Sanders could give blacks in Alabama one of the more difficult presidential choices in years. This isn’t an election where the ballot features the first African American candidate (President Barack Obama) or a white candidate (President Bill Clinton) with an uncanny ability to connect with non-white voters.

Strong arguments can be made for both Clinton and Sanders as the next president, according to local politicians.

Both candidates seem to be serious about the black vote in Alabama and have visited the state over the past two months. In December, Clinton, accompanied by Civil Rights luminaries, spoke in Montgomery. In January, Sanders spoke to an overflow crowd at the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham.

As the election season progresses, there is enthusiasm on both sides.

Team Clinton says …

Clinton supporters are excited about their candidate’s potential to build on President Obama’s legacy.

Last week at the opening of a Clinton campaign headquarters in downtown Birmingham, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell said, “I am convinced that in order to build on the foundation of President Barack Obama, there’s only one candidate that has that ability to do it not only domestically but also in foreign affairs, as well as ensure that all the gains we’ve made do not retrench. That person is Hillary Clinton.”

Another Clinton supporter, State Rep. Merika Coleman, (D-Hueytown), said she wants a president who’s going to be a “fighter for women, for senior citizens, for our children, for our economy, for jobs, for healthcare … and that person is Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

Sewell pointed out that Clinton is working hard in Alabama, as well as across the country.

“Hillary Clinton was the very first person who came out with a press release after we called out our governor for having the pernicious requirement that voters must have a photo ID in order to vote and then systematically closed down 31 DMVs in areas” where it was hard to use transportation to go and vote, said Sewell (D-Birmingham). “If ever I’m needed in a battle, I want Hillary in the fox hole next to me. She has shown at every level that she is committed to the values we hold dear.”

Team Bernie says …

Sanders supporters are excited about their candidate’s potential to spark change because he is not tied to the establishment, they say.

“He’s open to different ideas, and he’s more open to change,” said Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin. “Hillary Clinton is the Democratic version of the establishment. Bernie is an agent for change, and his campaign is preaching that.”

Birmingham City Council Member Steven Hoyt said, “[Sanders] understands the significance of the middle class. He offers universal healthcare. He takes care of veterans. He has the pulse of America. I like what he has to offer in terms of equal pay for equal work. I think he gets it. I believe he’s a viable candidate who can make a difference. He’s accountable and transparent, and he’ll make a great president.”

Sanders supporters also question whether Clinton is taking the black vote for granted, given the popularity of her husband in the black community.

“We don’t owe Hillary anything,” Hoyt said. “There is no entitlement. You have to earn the vote of the African American community. No one dose cures all. She has to work as hard as Bernie to get the African American vote.”

Austin added, “She may take the Democrat vote for granted. It appears Hillary would be the natural selection for the nomination, and she’s not campaigning in some areas like Bernie. I think after what happened in Iowa (and now New Hampshire), they’ll have to readjust their strategy. And Bernie’s message is resonating.”

National Support

Blacks are the majority of the voters in many Democratic primaries in the South and a huge segment of the electorate in other areas. And both candidates are vocal about their support for black causes.

Sanders has said he is a lifelong Civil Rights advocate who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is proposing economic policies that he believes will deal with income inequality and injustice. He has met with Black Lives Matter activists and has adopted many of their ideas. He has made a number of campaign stops at historically black colleges. And he has a growing stable of hip hop artists in his corner, including Antwan Andre Patton, better known as Big Boi of the duo Outkast, and Atlanta rapper Killer Mike.

Clinton is enormously popular with blacks and among prominent African Americans, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and former Attorney General Eric Holder. In addition, more than a dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as large numbers of black mayors, state representatives, and state senators have endorsed the former secretary of state.

President Obama has not endorsed Clinton, but he has referred to his former rival as “one of the finest secretaries of state we’ve had” and in an ABC News interview last year said she would make a “great” president. Of Sanders, the President has lauded the senator’s work on behalf of the American people but stopped short of giving his opinion on how the candidate would fare in the White House.

Where They Stand Now

Sanders lost to Clinton by a razor-thin margin in the Iowa caucuses and won easily in New Hampshire on Tuesday by 30 points.

ABC News reported this week that Clinton’s robust strong national lead over Sanders is essentially gone. According to a national Quinnipiac poll, Clinton received 44 percent of support, while Sanders received 42 percent. The last Quinnipiac poll, released on Dec. 21, 2015, showed Clinton with a whopping 31-point lead over Sanders, 61 to 30.

The New York Times, nbcnews.com, and abcnews.go.com contributed to this report.

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