Local Columnists

Steve Kraske: Black voters remain Bernie Sanders’ big challenge



If you believe the pundits, all Bernie Sanders has to do to move past Hillary Clinton is to score better with African-Americans, especially with election contests looming in Nevada and South Carolina in the coming days.

Simple, right? Maybe not.

A recent South Carolina poll showed that Sanders trailed Clinton among African-Americans by 57 points. That’s a whopper of a split.

So why do some black voters hesitate to embrace the senator from Vermont who espouses free college education and pledges to close the gap between the wealthiest 1 percent and the rest of the nation?

Based on conversations this week with some leading Kansas City black opinion makers, Sanders has some support in this group. Mark Bryant, a lawyer and former president of Freedom Inc., the black political club, is an unabashed Sanders backer. Besides the income gap, Bryant applauds Sanders’ stands on health care and criminal justice reform.

“There’s no dislike of Hillary at all,” Bryant said. “It’s just Bernie is willing to take stances that are necessary, and Hillary is more of an establishment candidate.”

To be sure, Clinton had more support among the black leaders who spoke with me. And she had that support for one big reason — familiarity. They’ve worked with her. There’s trust there.

“None of us know him,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a staunch Clinton backer, said of Sanders.

In fact, Cleaver said, of the 44 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including two who support the senator from Vermont, not one of them has worked with Sanders on legislation.

Donovan Mouton, a former aide to Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes, said the notion that Clinton is a known factor is huge. He’s going with her for another reason: In his view, she can win in November. He can’t.

For some, another factor looms. It gnaws at them and makes it impossible to view Sanders and Clinton as interchangeable parts. It’s something the Rev. Al Sharpton talks about, which is this notion that the challenges black Americans face go beyond the economic disparities that Sanders is so passionate about.

Racial inequality persists. Sanders, they say, doesn’t address that issue with the same vigor. He hasn’t been in the trenches.

“Opportunity and differences in opportunity still matter,” said Kansas City Councilman Quinton Lucas. “Race still matters in a lot of these outcomes in life.”

In his view, Clinton weighs into that thicket, and that’s why Lucas leans toward her.

Still, almost all said they don’t have big problems with Sanders. These days, time is his friend. As it passes, more people of color appear to gravitate toward him.

A new CNN poll out this week had the two in a dead heat in Nevada, where Democrats caucus Saturday. Clinton led there by more than 20 points around Christmas.

Sanders, it seems, is making progress.

Steve Kraske: 816-234-4312, @stevekraske

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