Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders met with black leaders in Baltimore on Tuesday
He toured the sites of unrest following the death of Freddie Gray
As Bernie Sanders toured the neighborhood here where violence erupted earlier this year after the death of Freddie Gray, he seemed appalled by the conditions.
“Anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighborhood would not think you are in a wealthy nation,” Sanders said on Tuesday. “You would think you are in a third world country.”
The political goal of Sanders’ visit to West Baltimore was clear as he tries to make inroads with black voters, who have appeared to be firmly behind Hillary Clinton in most early-state polling.
If he’s going to succeed in the South, he will have to overcome Clinton’s edge – something his top aides have made clear. He punctuated that point two weeks ago with an Atlanta rally headlined by rapper Killer Mike. His campaign went on-air with radio ads targeting black voters in South Carolina Tuesday.
In Baltimore, he reflected with pastors gathered at the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center after the tour Tuesday.
“It probably costs more to eat here,” Sanders said, noting that he didn’t see a grocery store in the community. “What are you supposed to feed your kids? Potato chips?”
He even got some laughs from the room when he said, “The point is, it’s very expensive to be poor.”
To make his case to Baltimore’s black community, and a larger group of national leaders, Sanders brought some assistance in the form of former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, who was a lead activist after the Tamir Rice shooting in Cleveland and a high-profile defector from the Clinton team.
Her pitch to the black pastors: the Democratic establishment has treated the black community like its “mistress” for too long.
“For far too long the African-American community has been the mistress of the Democratic Party. I’m gonna put that out there,” Turner said in a meeting with the pastors after Sanders left. “I’m a proud Democrat. I am loyal, but I am not blindly loyal.”
The pastors were clear that they weren’t making any endorsements Tuesday – they’re still shopping.
Some of that apprehension came from watching Donald Trump’s controversial rollout of a series of endorsements from black religious leaders two weeks ago, said Rev. Delman Coates, a pastor in suburban Washington and former candidate for Maryland’s lieutenant governor. Trump said he was receiving an endorsement from more than 100 evangelical pastors, but some in the group said they were simply meeting with the billionaire businessman – not formally backing him.
“That concerned a lot of people in the African American community, (the) religious community in particular,” Coates said of the Trump meeting. “So this was an opportunity for us to talk substantively about policy issues affecting the populations we serve. I’m not so certain that was the focus of the Trump meeting.”
Sanders walked through “Ground Zero,” as one organizer put it Tuesday when he took the short trek from the site of the CVS in West Baltimore that was burned down during riots and looting over to the Freddie Gray mural painted on the side of a home at the corner of North Mount and Presbury Streets, where Gray was arrested this past April. He later died in police custody.
As Sanders walked through the empty streets and block after block of boarded-up row houses that have long been a hallmark of West Baltimore’s chronic poverty, he was surrounded by a throng of national media and pastors.
Some of the pastors meeting with him after the tour hung at the fringes of the pack, walking casually along the streets they know well.
Rev. Patricia DeGrafenreid, a pastor at Mt. Pisgah C.M.E. Church in West Baltimore, said she wanted Sanders to address the structural problems which underpinned much of the unrest that garnered national attention and many of the continuing protests.
The tour wasn’t without some hecklers, including one community leader aligned with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has endorsed Clinton.
“Tell me, how can you care about people when you didn’t walk through Gilmor Homes to see these terrible, horrible conditions?” asked Lucky Crosby Sr., a leader with Sandtown Winchester United, referring to a public housing development near the Freddie Gray mural where Sanders was speaking.
As Crosby stood across the street from the Sanders throng, he also heckled the preachers with Sanders.
“Then you bring these carpetbagger preachers in here who don’t know nothing, who couldn’t find this community with a GPS,” Crosby said.
But Marques Dent, a Democrat running for Baltimore City Council in the district represented by the brother-in-law of Martin O’Malley, said Sanders took a big step simply by showing up. Clinton has yet to visit here, he noted.
“He’s here in Baltimore right now and that speaks volumes,” Dent said. “Coming right to ‘Ground Zero,’ to use the military analogy. We definitely respect that, we definitely appreciate that.”
After his Baltimore tour, he headed to New York for a series of interviews, including a taping of NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” But his staff reminded the pastors that Sanders would host a national call with them and others Wednesday night.