Administration

Sanders urged to woo black voters

As Bernie Sanders considers another White House bid, advisers and confidants are urging him to spend more time in the South in an effort to woo black voters.

While Sanders won over many white working-class and millennial voters in his 2016 campaign, he failed to secure black voters - and particularly support from older black women - when he challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"There's a narrative that follows him from the campaign that he doesn't care about the South," said Symone Sanders, who served as the senator's spokeswoman during the campaign. "He needs to physically show up so people feel differently."

Bernie Sanders appeared at the NAACP national convention in Baltimore late last month, where he criticized Senate Republicans' healthcare bill, which ultimately failed.

He also stopped in states like Kentucky and West Virginia for rallies slamming Republicans on the issue.

Last month, he endorsed former NAACP chief Ben Jealous for governor of Maryland, a move one Sanders confidant said was "no accident."

In March, Sanders also marched in Mississippi with thousands of Nissan workers at a rally for organized labor. At the rally, he congratulated the workers for "standing up for justice."

People close to Sanders want him to spend more time in Alabama, Tennessee and other Southern states, where Sanders took a beating in last year's primaries.

In Tennessee, Clinton won 82 percent of the black vote, while Sanders received 12 percent support, according to a CNN exit poll. In Virginia, Clinton won 84 percent of the black vote, while she took 83 percent in Georgia. She coasted to huge victories in all of these states, running up her delegate lead on Sanders.

In 2020, if Sanders runs, he is unlikely to have to face the Clinton machine. But he'll have to do better with black voters regardless of the competition.

"Bernie Sanders was popular with white intellectuals and with many white liberals, but he didn't have much of a brand with older African-Americans," said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons.

"The real challenge with Sanders is how to court older black voters," said Simmons, who called them the "bedrock" of Clinton's campaign.

Even if Sanders doesn't run for president, broadening his base could give him more political power and influence. Simmons noted that black voters propelled former President Barack Obama's campaign but that his coalition was broad.

A new GenForward survey obtained by The Hill shows that millennial voters are divided when it comes to who should lead the Democratic Party.

African-Americans and Asian-Americans would like to see Obama lead the party, while white and Latino voters prefer Sanders.

Sanders has represented the largely white state of Vermont during his congressional career, first in the House and then in the Senate.

The reality of being elected by a state with lax gun control laws led Sanders in 2005 to support legislation preventing victims of gun violence from suing companies making and selling guns. Clinton used this against Sanders during the campaign, particularly as a wedge issue with blacks.

Before the senator launched his 2016 presidential bid, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, told Sanders he needed to make inroads with black communities.

"I just want to be really frank," Lee told Sanders in one small meeting in late 2014 with other Sanders supporters, according to attendees. "You are someone who represents a white state and you don't have any connection to the African-American community, and that will hurt you."

The advice stuck with those in the room and replayed over the course of the campaign, sources close to Sanders say.

At one 2015 event in Seattle, Sanders was confronted by three Black Lives Matter protestors who wanted him to focus on the anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The protestors confronted Sanders and demanded to speak and the moment caused headlines, portraying Sanders as out of touch with the needs of some African-Americans.

"It's a soft spot," one Sanders adviser acknowledged. "He's gotta work on it and repair it."

Symone Sanders, who is black, has been one confidante who has been getting in her former boss's ear about what he needs to do to fix his 2016 mistakes.

"I think he's been receptive to this idea," Sanders said. "He's someone who is clearly keen on what he wants, but he is definitely open to sound and concrete suggestions and advice especially to help bridge some of these gaps."

Another confidant added that Bernie Sanders is aware that he lacked support from black voters in 2016 and "is more intentional" about issues serving the black community.

"He knows that as a country we have to work on it and not just check the box and say 'oh we took care of that,'" the confidant said. "He believes we need to find issues that link us together and stay on those issues."

In his speech to the NAACP, Sanders kept the focus on the Republican healthcare bill, calling it one of "the most destructive and irresponsible pieces of legislation brought to the U.S. Senate in the modern history of our country."

He touched briefly on the need to fix a broken criminal justice system along with "the outrageously high level" of youth unemployment. He also mentioned the need for police reform "and the need to cut back on the use of lethal force, so that innocent people, often black, are not shot down in cold blood."

Those close to Sanders say he'll increasingly speak about issues important to black communities - from racial justice issues to the economy. And he'll look to talk to voters not just at rallies but in smaller settings in churches and colleges.

"I think it would behoove him and other folks in the party to go out there and talk to various parts of the electorate," Symone Sanders said. "It's only logical."

This story was updated at 9:23 a.m.

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