Black votes matter to Bernie Sanders campaign in Maryland

While Bernie Sanders enjoys popularity among young voters, Hillary Clinton has the edge when it comes to black voters. Sanders has made efforts to appeal to them and on Saturday he brought his campaign to Baltimore, a city whose population is mostly African-American, in a state that votes Tuesday.

Democratic candidate looking to increase support among black voters in remaining primaries

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders toured the site of Baltimore's riots when he visited the city in December. Sanders was back in Baltimore on Saturday ahead of Maryland's primary on Tuesday. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

Bernie Sanders brought his call for a political revolution to Baltimore this weekend, a city that was rocked by riots one year ago and where struggling residents are desperate for their lives to change. 

Baltimoreans will have their chance to vote for change on Tuesday when Maryland holds its Republican and Democratic primaries and there are also competitive races for mayor and the U.S. Senate.

At two appearances in the Charm City on Saturday, Sanders cited bleak statistics on poverty levels and poor health outcomes, on hungry children and youth who can't find jobs. 

"In Baltimore, poverty is a death sentence," Sanders told a crowd at an event billed as a "community conversation on young men of colour."

The event was another outreach effort by Sanders to African-American voters, a demographic where he has struggled to gain support compared to his rival Hillary Clinton. She's crushed him in states like South Carolina, where she won 86 per cent of black voters.

She again outperformed Sanders with black voters in last week's New York contest, and with the primary season winding down, his campaign knows he has to do better with black voters in the remaining states.

Clinton's name recognition

They are working hard on that front, particularly in Maryland, which has the country's sixth-largest black population. About 40 per cent of Democratic primary voters there are black. Sanders recently released two new ads airing in the state that target black voters and Saturday night's event in Baltimore, where 63 per cent of the population is black, is also part of his strategy.

The hour-long panel discussion included actor Danny Glover, one of several black celebrities who campaigns for Sanders. Others included Harry Belafonte and Spike Lee, who has produced multiple ads for him.

Vernon Carter, 28, sat with a friend in a pew of the church waiting to hear from Sanders.
Kenneth Robinson and Malissa Wilkins were selling Bernie Sanders merchandise outside a rally in Baltimore on April 23. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

"People want to see how he has our best interest at heart," said Carter, an undecided Democrat. "I want to hear it in his own voice."

Ben Jealous, former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a Baltimore resident who works on Sanders's Maryland campaign, said Sanders is making progress with black voters.

 "We have more black support, a higher percentage in Maryland than we've seen in any southern state," Jealous said in an interview ahead of the event.

In explaining why Clinton is more popular with black voters, Jealous and other Baltimore voters said her name is a huge advantage.

Her husband, President Bill Clinton, was nicknamed the first black president and some believe she is just as strong a supporter of the African-American community.

"I think she'll be better for us," said voter Renee Lawson. "I think she's the only one who is going to get in there that's going to try and help bring us up a little."

Generational divide

Natarsha Malone, a 24-year-old Sanders fan, said there is a generational divide among black voters.

"If you ask my mother, it's because that's what they know," she said referring to Clinton. "She has the name recognition, they know who she is."

Malone, who had just come out of a Sanders rally at a downtown arena Saturday afternoon, said the Vermont senator is more active than Clinton in courting the black vote.

"I don't feel like she's doing anything. She knows she has the votes so is just going to sit back and collect them," the college student said. "I feel like he's trying to have that conversation, sit down and figure out what's in our community that is hindering us or helping us."
Earl Williams and his granddaughter, Joeleah, sit on his front stoop in Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighbourhood where riots broke out last April. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

Marissa Wilkins, another Sanders supporter, thinks he's genuinely interested in the issues facing African-Americans, he's not just playing politics.

"It's not a façade, it's something that is genuine," the 24-year old said. "I think he really understands what we go through."

The generational divide among black voters played out on Earl Williams's front stoop Saturday afternoon. "My man Bernie!" his daughter said when asked who would get her vote. But for Williams, Clinton is the better bet for black voters. "She's white on the outside but she's got a little soul on the inside," he said as his three grandchildren scampered around him.

Sandtown struggles

Williams lives in Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighbourhood, the epicentre of last April's riots following Freddie Gray's death. He knew Gray, and on the day he was arrested, he heard Gray's screams.

Williams's home is a few metres away from the intersection where the police van carrying Gray stopped on the way to the police station. It is believed Gray, 25, suffered a spinal injury while riding unsecured and shackled in the back of the vehicle. He died a week later.
Kisha Newsome stands in front of a mural of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died after suffering an injury while in police custody in April, 2015. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

"They had him right here on this corner, I heard all the hollering and screaming," said Williams.

A few blocks up the street is the spot where Gray was arrested. A large mural of the young man's face now adorns the side of a building there.

Kisha Newsome, who was walking by it, also knew Gray. "He was a good kid, good heart," she said, adding he was like many other young men from the neighbourhood, struggling to find their way.

She intends to vote on Tuesday, but said many in Sandtown won't because they feel like their votes don't matter, nothing ever changes.

"For the African-American community, the promises that people make them, they're just so tired of being disappointed," said Newsome.

Anger and frustration in the community boiled over after Gray's death last April and peaceful protests gave way to violent riots.

Voter turnout expected to be up

There were clashes with police, businesses vandalized, looted and set on fire, then the National Guard was brought in and a city-wide curfew imposed to try and restore calm. A CVS pharmacy was destroyed, forcing seniors in the home next to it to go much further for their medication and other needs for a year.

It was rebuilt and re-opened a few weeks ago, but Sandtown residents say not much else has improved. Drugs, crime, murders and gun violence still plague the community and the streets are full of boarded-up abandoned homes.

Sanders toured the neighbourhood during a Baltimore visit in December and on Saturday he recalled how struck he was by the dilapidated homes and noted there isn't a grocery store or major bank in sight.

Outside the new CVS store, Terrence Bert had one plea for those on the ballot on Tuesday: "Bring jobs to the neighbourhood, and stop closing down the recreation centres for the kids."
Terrence Grant stands outside the newly re-opened CVS pharmacy that was destroyed one year ago during Baltimore's riots. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

Baltimore has a history of low voter turnout, but Bert and others predict it will rise this year, because of what happened in the city 12 months ago.

"I think it's going to be different this year," said Pierre McMillan, as he washed his car outside his Sandtown row-house. "We've got to make some changes."

He said he can't stand when he hears people say they won't bother voting. "The vote counts, so use it," said McMillan, 58. He hasn't decided yet between Sanders and Clinton.

Tamierra Stridiron will be exercising her democratic right for the first time. The 25-year-old became politically active this year and is volunteering for Sanders in Baltimore. She appreciates his efforts to reach out to the black community, she said after his event Saturday night.

Fighting for every vote

Sanders's challenge is educating black voters on his long history of fighting for civil rights, combating racism and on his vision for the country, she said.

"If they knew what Bernie was doing, they'd get on Bernie's team," said Stridiron.

Inside the church, Sanders was cheered on by the crowd when he talked about the need for affordable college and housing, criminal justice reform, investing in jobs not jails, supporting African-American business owners, raising the minimum wage, demilitarizing local police forces and ensuring they are more diverse, and overhauling drug laws.

Sanders has an uphill battle in Maryland though, where Clinton is beating him by 25 percentage points according to the latest Monmouth University poll. Among black voters in the state, she's also creaming him, 64 per cent to 20.

His campaign isn't predicting he can close those gaps, but Jealous said his supporters want to narrow them so Sanders remains competitive, all the way until California, the last primary in June.

"We are going to fight for every vote here," said Jealous. Will his efforts with black voters pay off? "We'll find out Tuesday," he responded.
Ben Jealous, former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, works on the Bernie Sanders campaign in Maryland and was at a rally in downtown Baltimore on April 23, 2016.


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multiplatform reporter with CBC News in Toronto. She joined the CBC in 2011 and previously worked in the Parliament Hill and Washington bureaus. She has also reported for the CBC from Hong Kong. Meagan started her career as a print reporter in Ottawa.


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