HAT TIP: AP, Click on Detroit, Paula Mooney
DETROIT — Presidential hopeful Barack Obama drew the loudest cheers of the eight Democratic candidates at a civil rights forum as he assailed the Bush administration’s record on race relations.The candidates shared the stage Thursday at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s 98th annual convention.Obama, seeking to become the first black president, drew the strongest applause from the 3,000 people at the event.
“I know what you know, which is that despite all the progress that has been made we still have more work to do,” said the first-term Illinois senator. Black voters are a core party constituency. Candidates are in a fierce struggle to capture their support and are refusing to cede it to Obama. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner, enjoys strong support in the black community and is married to former President Clinton, who was wildly popular among black voters. John Edwards has won praise from black leaders for his commitment to fighting poverty.
After the forum, microphones picked up Clinton and Edwards discussing their desire to limit future joint appearances to exclude some rivals lower in the crowded field. “We should try to have a more serious and a smaller group,” Edwards said. Clinton agreed. “We’ve got to cut the number. … They’re not serious,” she said, then thanked Obama and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich as they walked by. Turning back to Edwards, she added that she thought their campaigns had already tried to limit the debates and “we’ve gotta get back to it.”Obama’s performance was the first time he has managed to outshine Clinton in a candidate’s forum. That includes last month’s debate at Howard University, a historically black college in the nation’s capital.
At the forum, each candidate responded to five questions from NAACP delegates on topics including health care, gun violence and voting rights.All the candidates were warmly welcomed in Detroit. Even before Obama spoke, the crowd at Cobo Center was clearly in his corner. Obama derided President George W. Bush’s commutation of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s prison term, noting black men routinely serve time.
“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. Aides said Obama was referring to Genarlow Wilson, a Georgia man serving a 10-year prison sentence for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. A judge last month ordered Wilson to be freed, but prosecutors are blocking the order. Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of lying and obstruction of justice in the CIA-leak case. He received a 30-month prison sentence, which Bush commuted last week.
“I’d like to thank the NAACP for letting me follow Barack Obama,” joked Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who delivered his opening remarks after the Illinois senator.Obama, 45, said he was too young to have participated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but said he was inspired by it. That comment prompted a mild dig from Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who stressed his long career in public life.”I’ve been around a while, and I’m old enough to remember the civil rights movement,” Biden, 64, said, adding he was the best candidate to bring an end to the Iraq war.
Clinton said the forum would cover more issues of importance to the black community than the administration had in six years.”We have a president who does not see what you and I see. … With your hard work, we will render the people that you and I see visible once again,” the New York senator said. She cited “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison’s classic novel of black alienation. She also thanked the organist, whose music helped fill the gaps between programs on the stage, for providing a spiritual dimension to the forum.”I think we needed to have a little uplift here,” she said. “If we’re going to win this election, it’s going to be because we have faith.”
Edwards emphasized his commitment to fighting poverty, calling it “the cause of my life.” He plans to begin a multi-state tour Monday in New Orleans to spotlight the millions of people who live in poverty.Edwards’ call for felons’ voting rights to be restored also received loud cheers.Yet as a senator from North Carolina in 2002 he voted against a bill allowing felons the right to vote in federal elections. The topic of voting rights drew an impassioned response from the candidates, many of whom spoke of the disputed 2000 election in Florida that saw many black voters disenfranchised.”The American people don’t feel that when they go vote their vote counts,” New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said.
Dodd praised the NAACP for holding a burial ceremony for the “N-word” earlier this week.”We ought to have more burials. Why not bury neglect? Bigotry? The failed policy in Iraq?” Dodd asked, adding that he believed every Democrat on the stage would be a better president than Bush.
Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel also participated.Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo was the lone GOP candidate and said he accepted the invitation because his message is for all people in the U.S. A vociferous foe of illegal immigration, Tancredo said the wages of black workers suffer because of illegal workers.