Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders vie for black voters on BET

Clinton's new pitch to African-American voters
Clinton's new pitch to African-American voters

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    Clinton's new pitch to African-American voters

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Clinton's new pitch to African-American voters 01:03

(CNN)The legacy of Bill Clinton took center stage as the Democratic Party's two presidential candidates made their case to African-American voters during a town hall special that aired Sunday on "BET."

In two separate interviews, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton each discussed issues related to criminal justice and poverty while touting their records of helping the black community.
Sanders told BET host and CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill that he opposed the 1996 welfare reform bill signed by former President Clinton, calling it "an attack, by and large, on low income African-Americans."
"Not only did I vote against it, but I spoke out strongly against it," Sanders told Hill.
Sanders sounded a plaintive note when discussing why the Clinton administration supported measures that many progressives consider abhorrent.
"The answer is, sadly, there are elements of the Democratic Party, historically, that have worked too closely with the big money interests that have made the agreements that were really not in the best interest of the constituents who supported them," Sanders said.
But during her own interview with journalist Jeff Johnson, Hillary Clinton pointed out that Sanders supported many of her husband's policies, including a crime bill that has been criticized for producing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
The former secretary of state said she agreed with some parts of that bill and disagreed with others, but she suggested that she had no choice but to throw her support behind the measures.
"Yes, I supported my husband's policies. My opponent, Sen. Sanders, voted for them," Clinton told Jones. "I did not have a position where I could express myself independently. He did."
Clinton also accused some critics of "cherry picking," saying there were also "good things that took place during the Clinton administration," including the lowest black unemployment in history.
The BET special, titled "Black Votes Matter," provided another opportunity for the two candidates to reach African-Americans, a crucial Democratic voting bloc that largely favors Clinton over Sanders.
Clinton claimed the support of 76% of African-American voters on Saturday, according to entrance polls, en route to her victory in Nevada's Democratic caucus. She has also won endorsements from top black lawmakers like South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress.
Clinton has counted on that robust support to provide her campaign with a "firewall" as the Democratic race shifts from overwhelmingly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire to more diverse southern states like Nevada and South Carolina, which will hold its Democratic primary next Saturday.
"I feel very supported by the large majority of the African-American community," Clinton said in the interview Sunday. "I feel trusted by them."
Sanders, meanwhile, has tried to slice into Clinton's dominance among black voters with an ad featuring the daughter of Eric Garner, and by campaigning alongside the rapper Killer Mike. But Clinton's campaign has repeatedly highlighted Sanders' criticism of President Barack Obama, who is hugely popular both with African-Americans and Democratic voters in general.
In an excerpt released by BET earlier this week, Sanders said that Clinton is cozying up to Obama in order to pander to African-Americans.
"Hillary Clinton is trying to embrace the president as closely as she possibly can. Everything the president does is wonderful. She loves the president, he loves her and all that stuff," Sanders said. "And we know what that's about. That's trying to win support from the African-American community where the president is enormously popular."
A spokesman for Clinton's campaign struck back at those comments after they were released by BET, saying it's "disappointing that Sen. Sanders thinks the only reason a Democrat would be proud of President Obama's work would be a political ploy to court African-American voters."
BET didn't air that part of Sanders' interview on Sunday. In the portion that did make it to air, Sanders passed on taking a direct shot at either Obama or Clinton when asked why he would be the best to deliver justice to African-American voters.
He said simply that "fighting for the oppressed" has been his "life's work."
In her interview on Sunday, Clinton insisted that she's courting every voter the same way.
"I am not tailoring my message in any way. I'm talking to the younger voter, the middle age voter, the older voter, the New York voter, the South Carolina voter, in exactly the same way because I don't want to make promises I can't keep," she said.