DETROIT - Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., on Thursday decried the lack of outrage over gun violence in urban America and criticized President Bush’s decision to commute the sentence of former White House aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby while black men serve prison time for lesser crimes.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., suggested the solution to urban violence is providing hope of a brighter future to young men, through better education as well as the occasional second chance after a run-in with the criminal justice system.
In fact, throughout a two-hour forum before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the full field of Democratic presidential candidates spoke about issues of poverty, justice and equality in the clearest terms of the campaign to date.
It wasn’t hard to see why. Such a large-scale gathering of the black establishment always presents a target-rich environment for Democrats, who routinely court African-American voters as an active part of their party’s base.
But there was a heightened sense of confidence among those in attendance, many of whom seem well-aware of their potential to have greater influence over the selection of the next Democratic presidential nominee than at any time in recent history.
The decision to make the South Carolina primary one of the first in the nation next year gives new power to that state’s large black population. And many of the states holding early - and, as a likely result, influential - primaries have large African-American populations.
At the same time, black leaders say the community is excited about the field of candidates, which includes not only Clinton and other longtime friends of the community, but also Obama, who wants to be the country’s first black president. That could translate into a more engaged - and potentially more powerful - black electorate in the next presidential election .
“This is an unprecedented opportunity for black voters,” said Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP. “It’s such a radical departure to have South Carolina as an early state, when in the past, what we’ve had are heavyweight states that are demographically so unrepresentative of the United States. It’s an amazing chance for black voters to weigh in.”
The NAACP event offered candidates the chance to try and win over key members of the African-American community, and the Democratic hopefuls were clearly speaking directly to the touchstone issues important to those opinion leaders.
During a recent candidate forum at Howard University, Obama spoke in mostly lofty terms about domestic issues, leaving some to think the evening had seen Clinton express more moral outrage over social injustice.
But on Thursday, Obama combined his intellectual assessment of social problems with a stronger dose of personal feeling, as when he suggested that Libby got off easy compared to others who are sentenced to prison.
“We know we have more work to do when Scooter Libby gets no prison time and a 21-year-old honor student, who hadn’t even committed a felony, gets 10 years in prison,” Obama said.
Later, an aide to Obama said the senator was talking about Genarlow Wilson, who is serving time in Georgia for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17 years old. The law Wilson was convicted of breaking was a felony, but has since been changed by Georgia lawmakers. Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice, but Bush commuted his sentence last week.
Obama also suggested that society isn’t angry enough about urban violence.
“You know, when the massacre happened at Virginia Tech, I think all of us were grief-stricken and rightfully so,” Obama said. “We were shocked by the carnage. But in this year alone, in Chicago, we’ve had 34 Chicago Public School students gunned down and killed ... and for the most part, there has been silence.”
The answer, said Obama, “is to make sure that we change our politics so that we care just as much about those 30-some children in Chicago who’ve been shot as we do the children at Virginia Tech.”
In response to the same question about how to deal with gun violence, Clinton said, “We do have to give young men particularly a better chance for the future.”
That includes education, she said, and “second chances when they get caught by the criminal justice system.”
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson spoke openly about issues of diversity and equality, at one point pointing out to the crowd that the sole Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, takes a hard-line approach to immigration. Richardson’s mother is Mexican and he spent much of his childhood in Mexico.
“I have a beef to pick with you,” Richardson told the group, smiling. “You just invited Tom Tancredo, who I think said he wants to send me back to Mexico.”
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said during the debate that he plans to launch a tour next week starting in New Orleans and winding through the South, evoking comparisons from some in the crowd to Robert F. Kennedy’s tour of Appalachia.
“Doing something about the `two Americas’ is the cause of my life,” Edwards said. “We want America to see the other America. We want America to understand the struggles that are going on.”
All of the Democratic candidates received ovations and applause, with perhaps the loudest responses going to Obama. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware have a long history with the NAACP and its leaders.
Still, NAACP officials said no one candidate or party can take for granted to votes of African Americans.
“African-Americans in general are just really tired of presidential candidates on either side, Democrat or Republican, assuming that their vote is going to go in one direction,” said Erica McLaughlin, a member of the National Board of Directors for the group. “That kind of mentality (means) candidates don’t really address the issues that African-Americans face.”