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Bernie Sanders struggles with new path to black voters

Bill Barrow, Associated Press | 4/7/2018, 7:06 a.m.
As Bernie Sanders contemplates making another president bid in 2020, the Vermont senator still is searching for the right way ...
In this April 4, 2018 photo, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, left, listens as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., answers a question during a town hall meeting examining economic justice 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Mississippi — As Bernie Sanders contemplates making another president bid in 2020, the Vermont senator still is searching for the right way to attract more black voters who backed Hillary Clinton and effectively denied him the Democratic nomination in 2016.

His challenge was on display in Mississippi this week, where he traveled to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination but along the way managed a clumsy critique of the Democratic Party under the nation's first black president

Former President Barack Obama, Sanders said, was a "charismatic individual ... an extraordinary candidate, a brilliant man." But "behind that reality," Sanders said, Obama led a party whose "business model" has been a "failure" for more than a decade.

It served as the latest confirmation that Sanders, even as he tries for new footholds in the black community, hasn't mastered his precarious relationship with a key Democratic Party constituency that he will need if he hopes to reshape the party going forward, much less make another presidential run in 2020.

Sanders, who is elected in Vermont as an independent but caucuses in Washington with Democrats, has been spending more time in places dominated by black voters, including Southern states where African-Americans shape Democratic primaries.

He went to Memphis this week to remember King's assassination alongside Martin Luther King III; then he moved on to Jackson to join the first-term mayor whose candidacy he endorsed last year.

Sanders and Chokwe Antar Lumumba have become a sort of political odd couple: the white 76-year-old democratic socialist with his rumpled suit and untamed hair, preaching in his Brooklyn vernacular, and an impeccably clad 35-year-old black attorney-turned-politician smiling his way through calm expositions sprinkled with the occasional "y'all."

But they share a common vision. Lumumba expresses hopes to make Jackson "the most radical" of U.S. cities.

Besides campaigning for Lumumba, Sanders came to Mississippi last year to lobby workers to unionize a Nissan auto plant.

The senator backed another black millennial in neighboring Alabama, helping Randall Woodfin to the mayor's office in Birmingham. In New Orleans, Our Revolution, the spinoff of Sanders' presidential campaign, tapped the eventual winner of a crowded mayoral race. LaToya Cantrell will be sworn in May 7.

On Capitol Hill, Sanders aides say he huddles more routinely with black lawmakers to discuss shared priorities.

In an interview in Mississippi, Sanders brushed back "the myth" that he has little black support, noting 2016 primary exit polls showing he won voters under 30 across racial lines. But he mostly shuns most race-based analysis and casts his post-2016 maneuvering as ideological: He wants to move public policy leftward on everything from health care and college access to criminal justice and labor policy, and he argues the way to do that is increase voter turnout across demographic groups.

"My goal is to bring forth a progressive agenda that speaks to the needs of working people, whether they are black, white or Latino, and get people involved in the political process in a way we have not seen in a very long time," he said in an interview before his event with Lumumba.