BY DAVID SMILEY AND ALEX DAUGHERTY
MIAMI – Fresh off the debates in Detroit where race and immigration were frequent themes, three leading Democratic presidential candidates will head to Florida next week to talk to a national convention of Black journalists about how the 2020 elections will affect communities of color.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Cory Booker and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg will address the National Association of Black Journalists in Miami after two nights of debates that exposed fissures in the Democratic Party.
On stage Tuesday and Wednesday, the three candidates positioned themselves as champions for immigrants demonized under the Trump administration and as change agents in search of a more equitable justice system for people of color.
And at times, former Vice President Joe Biden — easily the front-runner nationally and in Florida — helped frame those arguments Wednesday as he was forced to defend his decades-long record and a platform situated firmly in the center.
OBAMA’S POLICIES SLAMMED
Booker, who was onstage with Biden on Wednesday, repeatedly criticized the former vice president over deportations that took place when he was in the Obama administration.
Immigration advocates have often slammed President Barack Obama as the “deporter in chief.” At issue was Biden’s opposition to a proposal to decriminalize border crossings — and his attempts to distance himself from Obama’s policies.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Booker said. “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”
Booker said that Biden’s suggestion of favoring immigrants with certain qualifications would be “playing into Republicans’ hands,” and then he evoked a phrase — “s–thole countries” — that President Donald Trump used in January 2018 in the Oval Office as he was expressing frustration with people coming to the U.S. from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries.
Responding to his critics, Biden said that making illegal border crossings a civil crime would effectively create open borders.
“If you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back,” he said.
But Booker’s attacks on Biden are unlikely to hurt the Democratic front-runner, according to Antjuan Seawright, a Black Democratic strategist from South Carolina — though he said Booker was “impressive” Wednesday.
“The attacks on him (Biden) have backfired to this point,” Seawright said.
BIDEN AND BLACK VOTE
In South Carolina, recent polls have found Biden pulling about half of the Black vote, which makes up a majority of the Democratic primary electorate. And a poll conducted in Florida at the end of June by St. Pete Polls showed Biden with a commanding lead in the battleground state, and with voters of color.
Booker, Buttigieg and Sanders will be part of a presidential candidates’ forum in Miami Aug. 8. The conference comes two days after Trump is scheduled to visit The Villages retirement community in Central Florida for an official White House event.
During Wednesday’s debate, much as in Miami last month, Biden faced blistering criticism over his record on race relations and criminal justice.
Booker, who has in the past called Biden the “architect of mass incarceration” for writing a sweeping 1994 crime bill that President Bill Clinton signed into law, continued to pelt Biden with barbs.
The 1994 crime law was a massive piece of legislation that drew support from Democrats and Republicans in Congress at the time and imposed tougher federal prison sentences and encouraged states to do so as well.
“This is a crisis in our country because we have treated issues of race and poverty, mental health and addiction with locking people up and not lifting people up,” Booker said.
Biden shot back at Booker, saying he allowed police to use stop-and-frisk tactics when he was mayor in Newark, N.J.: “The Justice Department came after you for saying you engaged in something inappropriate.”
BUTTIGIEG ON RACE
The issue of race also came up Tuesday, when the first 10 candidates debated.
Buttigieg was pressed by CNN’s Don Lemon about his handling of controversial racial issues in the city. The mayor of South Bend has repeatedly been forced to answer questions about his firing of a Black police chief early during his first term as mayor.
Buttigieg said race relations have improved under his watch.
“I’m not saying that I became mayor and racism or crime or poverty ended on my watch. But in our city, we have come together repeatedly to tackle challenges, like the fact that far too many people were not getting the help they needed in their housing and so we directed it to a historically underinvested African American neighborhood.”
Buttigieg has barely registered with black voters in polls. But Seawright, the strategist from South Carolina, said the South Bend mayor has the money to make up the difference.
“I just don’t know how he cracks the nut,” Seawright said of Buttigieg, “but he has the resources to tell his story unlike some of the other candidates.”
Buttigieg has hoped to break through with the help of policy.
MEDICARE FOR ALL
Last month, he released his Douglass Plan, a “comprehensive investment in the empowerment of Black America” named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass and aimed at enticing Black voters to his campaign.
The plan, which he talked about in-depth at the Essence Festival in New Orleans earlier this month, proposes new investments in health care, education and a goal to reduce the American prison population by half.
On health care, Buttigieg advocates the creation of a public option, which he calls “Medicare for all who want it.” The difference in position is one of the clearest divisions between the candidates in the field, and could potentially have the greatest consequences for Florida voters.
On Tuesday, Sanders laid out the case for a dramatic overhaul of the national health care system that would abolish private insurance in favor of a government-run program and trade higher taxes for lower out-of-pocket health expenses.
Sanders says his “Medicare for All” plan would cover everyone after four years, and obliterate an industry that he blames for widespread bankruptcies and thousands of deaths each year.
“There are millions of people who have insurance and can’t go to the doctor and when they come out of the hospital they go bankrupt,” Sanders said Tuesday. “What I am talking about is no deductibles and no co-payments.”
FLORIDA AND HEALTH CARE
Whether to preserve and improve the Affordable Care Act or scrap it altogether is one of — if not the most — important issues in the Sunshine State and in the Democratic presidential primary contest. And Sanders’ signature policy proposal has big stakes for Florida, where nearly 1.8 million people signed up for an Affordable Care Act plan in 2019 — the most in the country.
Among those Floridians who selected coverage for 2019, more than 420,000 live in Miami-Dade, and another 242,000 in Broward. But 445,000 adult Floridians remained uninsured due to the state government’s disinterest in expanding Medicaid.
Booker tried Wednesday to thread the needle between Obamacare and Medicare for
All, saying that the manner by which the U.S. gets to universal health care is less important than getting there.
More important, he said, is the recognition that the federal government has filed a lawsuit that could strip Obamacare’s coverage of preexisting conditions — a lawsuit that the state of Florida has joined.
“(Donald Trump) is working right now to take away America’s health care,” Booker said. “In the United States of America, every Democrat should stand with the belief that everyone should have access to health care. How we get there is to be to end this broken system.”
Smiley reported from Miami and Daugherty from Washington. Herald reporters Daniel Chang, Samantha Gross and Monique O. Madan contributed to this report.