MLK Holiday Big Moment for 2020 Dems 01/18 06:24
(AP) -- Monday's observance of what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.'s
90th birthday is emerging as an important moment for Democrats eyeing the White
House to talk about one of the most divisive issues in American politics: race.
At least a half dozen declared or potential presidential candidates will
attend events and talk about what King's legacy means to Americans in 2019.
Among them is former Vice President Joe Biden, who, amid intense speculation
over whether he'll seek the presidency, will make his first public appearance
of the year at the National Action Network's annual King breakfast in
Washington with its founder, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and Martin Luther King III.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, still considering a bid, is also on
the schedule. And New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who jumped in the 2020 race
this week, will appear with Sharpton later in the day in Harlem.
Meanwhile, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont
will attend events in South Carolina, where black voters make up 60 percent of
the Democratic primary. And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is expected to
speak in Boston, where King attended seminary.
The King holiday marks the first time in the early days of the Democratic
primary that so many White House hopefuls are holding public events on the same
day. That reflects the wide-open nature of the 2020 field, which is likely to
include several candidates of color for the first time. Some Democrats say the
party's presidential nomination could ultimately go to the person who best
navigates racial issues.
"On King Day, they should all have messages for how we enable people who
live on the outskirts of hope to come back into the circle of opportunity,"
said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. "That's what Dr. King would do."
Politics loom large over this year's remembrances. In a tweet earlier this
week, President Donald Trump again mocked Warren, using the slur "Pocahontas"
and referring to the 19th-century Battle at Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee
Massacre. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, prompted bipartisan criticism
with racist remarks that questioned how white supremacy and white nationalism
became offensive terms. King has said his comments were taken out of context.
Against that backdrop, Sharpton said it's crucial for the candidates
speaking on Monday to directly address racial politics.
"It will be telling if they do not represent an alternative to the situation
we're in," he said, referring to the country's racial divisions. "They've got
to deal with the issues in a way that we know that they're not just making a
"The challenge," he added, "is how you distinguish yourself without
Last fall's midterm elections show the potential for assembling such
coalitions, with several minority congressional candidates winning in mostly
white districts. And while black Democrats suffered defeat in Georgia, Florida
and Missouri, the gains they made show promise for minority candidates eyeing
Andrew Gillum, who lost his Florida gubernatorial bid in November by 30,000
votes, has met with several potential 2020 candidates in recent weeks, and he
said the topic of race has come up. The issue was unavoidable in his own bid to
become Florida's first African-American governor.
"Under no circumstance could I deny my race and how that has informed who I
am today," Gillum said. "People aren't stupid. I don't want anyone to pull any
punches about how race shows up in society and how it impacts us."
But the balance is tricky, particularly for candidates of color, he said.
For them, navigating race "is like walking on a lake freshly frozen," Gillum
said. "You never know what step might take you under."
Regardless of their race, Democratic candidates will have to find a way to
appeal to a broad coalition of voters with a message that energizes a diverse
base without alienating whites whose support will also be crucial.
In a video accompanying the launch of her presidential exploratory
committee, Warren included a chart outlining the disparate household wealth
between white and black families and called for an economy that "works for all
A similar video from Gillibrand included broad appeals such as a pledge to
support the middle class, along with a clip of her saying, "It is outrageous to
ask women of color to bear the burdens of every single one of these fights over
and over and over again."
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who is white, defeated African-American challengers
in his primary before going on to win a special election in 2017, becoming the
first Democrat in a generation to represent the solidly Republican state. Jones
said his background as the prosecutor who brought the 16th Street Baptist
Church bombers to justice was an advantage with black voters, but added that he
also had a proven track record on issues of equality, respect and voting rights
long after that case.
"Folks are going to be looking at candidates and saying, 'Have you got a
history of this, or is it just the first time you're looking at it?'" Jones
said in an interview. "I talked about issues important to the African-American
community, but they were really a lot of the same issues that were important to
the white community: health care, jobs, education, those kitchen-table issues
that cross all manner of racial lines and get to the heart of the matter."
Authenticity will be important for candidates, regardless of color, in
delivering a message that resonates with voters, Jones said.
"If you're talking to the black preachers in the Black Belt of Alabama, you
ought not be afraid of giving the same speech to the Chamber of Commerce in
Madison County," he said. "It's a matter of messaging. You've got to be who you
are. ... Not trying to pander to anyone, not to appear that you're pandering to
anyone or not trying to minimize your support."