Clinton apologizes for 1996 remark on ‘superpredators’; Sanders visits Flint
February 26, 2016 1:03 AM
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton appears onstage with recording artist Charlie Wilson during a "Get Out The Vote" concert at The Music Farm in Charleston, S.C., on Thursday.
Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press
A man from Flint, Mich., voices his concerns about contaminated water to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, during a community forum at Woodside Church in Flint, Mich., on Thursday.
By Anne Gearan and John Wagner / The Washington Post
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Hillary Clinton expressed regret Thursday for 20-year-old comments about young, black “superpredators” as she and Democratic rival Sen. Bernie Sanders appealed to black voters likely to decide the upcoming South Carolina primary.
Ms. Clinton campaigned before largely African American audiences across South Carolina, while Mr. Sanders went to Flint, Mich., the majority-African American city suffering from a contaminated-water crisis that has prompted accusations of racism and government neglect.
Black voters, and her family’s long association with them, are the linchpin of Ms. Clinton’s strategy for winning the first Southern primary Saturday. The winner will have a strong claim to momentum going into the next round of voting in Southern and Midwestern states with sizable African American populations — starting three days later, on Super Tuesday.
“My life’s work has been about lifting up children and young people who’ve been let down by the system or by society, kids who never got the chance they deserved,” Ms. Clinton told Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart.
Mr. Sanders spent the day outside South Carolina, focused on three states with contests on the calendar in March: Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.
The senator from Vermont drew a raucous crowd of 3,600 to a packed university gymnasium in a suburb of Cleveland. Recent polls in Ohio, which holds its primary March 15, have suggested a tight race. Mr. Sanders also stopped at a church in Flint, where he convened a forum on the water crisis.
At the end, Mr. Sanders tried to broaden the implications of a city with crumbling infrastructure, where a government decision led to poisonous levels of lead in the water.
“As a nation, we have got to get our priorities right,” he told an audience that was majority-white. “This is the richest country in the history of the world.”
“My hope is that the American people will look at Flint and say ‘never again,’ ” Mr. Sanders also said, adding the country needs to invest $1 trillion into improving the country’s transportation and water infrastructure. “And while Flint may be the canary in the coal mine, there are a whole lot more canaries across the country.”
His appearances came as an Associated Press review of contemporaneous news coverage and interviews with former University of Chicago classmates of Mr. Sanders showed that it was clear that he was at least a local civil rights leader, taking action on campus and in Chicago neighborhoods at a time when such activities were primarily happening in the South.
They recall a student who was serious-minded about politics, if not his studies, and inclined toward long discussions of public policy. He once wrote more than 1,500 words critical of campus rules forbidding students from having sex that filled a full page of the school newspaper.
He became active in the campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality after arriving in Chicago in the fall of 1961 and before the academic year ended was voted the group’s chairman. In 1963, two weeks before Martin Luther King Jr.‘s march on Washington, D.C., Mr. Sanders was arrested at a demonstration against segregation in Chicago schools.
As a U.S. senator from Vermont, which has a tiny black population, Mr. Sanders has faced skepticism from black voters about his longstanding involvement in race relations. Earlier in the primary he tangled with Black Lives Matters protesters, who complained at the time that his message of addressing economic inequality would not always serve as an antidote to systemic racism.
Ms. Clinton was confronted with her own 1996 comments about gang crime during a videotaped encounter with a young African-American activist Wednesday evening, and the tense exchange hung over the Democratic contest Thursday, although Ms. Clinton did not address it during her public events.
Ashley Williams, a 23-year-old activist from Charlotte, interrupted Ms. Clinton during a private fundraiser in Charleston, S.C. Ms. Williams stood and demanded an apology from Ms. Clinton for the high incarceration rate for black Americans, and told the candidate: “I am not a superpredator, Hillary Clinton.”
At issue was a quotation from Ms. Clinton in 1996, at the height of anxiety during her husband’s administration about high rates of crime and violence. During his presidency, Bill Clinton shepherded a sweeping crime bill through Congress that was heralded at the time but has since been widely criticized for increasing incarceration rates and sentence durations, notably among black inmates.
“They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘superpredators,’ ” Ms. Clinton said then. “No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
Ms. Clinton has disavowed much of the 1994 crime law.
In a written response to Mr. Capehart on the issue Thursday, Ms. Clinton said, “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”
She also told NBC host Chuck Todd that her remarks had been “a poor choice of words.”
Her campaign did not respond to a separate request for comment on the encounter with Ms. Williams or explain whether the candidate disavows the idea of “superpredators.”
In an interview Thursday, Ms. Williams said she wants all candidates to be held accountable for their past actions and statements that touch on racial justice.
“All the candidates who are running for president need to be held to the same kind of scrutiny in terms of the way that they have been complicit in mass incarceration and damaging communities of color across the United States,” Ms. Williams said. “Bernie can get it, too. They can all get it.”
The Clinton campaign has criticized Mr. Sanders for his support of the 1994 crime bill when he was a congressman. In a statement, Mr. Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver said that Mr. Sanders voted for the bill to protect provisions embedded in it that preserved the assault-weapons ban and included domestic-violence protections for women.
Mr. Weaver noted that Mr. Sanders criticized mass incarceration at the time that the bill was being considered.
“When this so-called crime bill was being considered, Bernie Sanders criticized its harsh incarceration and death penalty provisions,” Mr. Weaver said. “Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, resorted to dog-whistle politics and dehumanizing language.”
Ms. Clinton has also sought to put a spotlight on Flint, squeezing in a visit to the city in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, which she lost to Mr. Sanders.
Michigan holds its Democratic primary March 8.
Mr. Sanders was also scheduled to appear Thursday night at a large-scale rally in Chicago. Illinois is among the states that vote March 15.
In two stops in rural South Carolina communities, Ms. Clinton billed herself as a unifier who would solve the intractable partisan ills of Washington in order to solve the painful ills of South Carolina’s impoverished and under-educated.
Hours from any major city, Ms. Clinton sought to speak to the South which those in rural communities know all too well, addressing the lack of good schools or educational opportunities, health-care availability and rising prescription drug costs.
In drawing a contrast with Mr. Sanders, whose campaign has focused on the power of big banks and Wall Street, Ms. Clinton said she was ready to lead on the enormous issues facing many Americans. “We are not a single-issue country, and I am not a single-issue candidate,” Ms. Clinton said.
At the same time, an Associated Press-GfK poll released Thursday showed that many Americans had doubts on Mr. Sanders’ idea of “Medicare for all,” a cradle-to-grave government-run health system.
And an analysis by Kenneth Thorpe, a public-health expert at Emory University, showed that for at least 72 percent of households enrolled in Medicaid — in which someone is working — the costs of Mr. Sanders’ plan would exceed the benefits.
Also Thursday, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said that they are preparing to endorse Ms. Clinton for president in an effort to help her campaign secure critical Hispanic votes in next week’s Super Tuesday primaries.
Meanwhile, a day after Mr. Sanders sharply criticized Ms. Clinton for supporting a welfare overhaul bill in 1996, former Mr. Clinton mounted a detailed defense of the law Thursday while restraining himself from attacking his wife’s opponent.
Repeatedly saying that the law did “way more good than harm,” Mr. Clinton, in brief remarks to The New York Times, offered a striking contrast to his fiery outbursts against Barack Obama in South Carolina before the state’s primary eight years ago. Back then, Mr. Clinton sharply defended himself and Ms. Clinton from attacks by supporters of Mr. Obama, comments that upset many black Democrats who liked the Clintons but were supporting Mr. Obama.
With Ms. Clinton in far better political shape heading into the South Carolina primary Saturday than she was in 2008, Mr. Clinton surely saw less need to lace into Mr. Sanders. But his care with his words was notable given the harshness from Mr. Sanders, who said Wednesday that Ms. Clinton had rounded up votes for a welfare bill that, in his view, harmed “some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in this country.”
Mr. Clinton noted that during his presidency, median incomes for African-Americans rose sharply and the poverty rate declined; a record number of African-American-owned businesses opened; and the homicide rate for African-Americans tumbled. But he bemoaned cuts in federal subsidies to state assistance programs, which had been promised stable financing in the law.
“What happened was, the people who still needed some assistance didn’t get it,” he said. “We were able to restore virtually all the cuts to legal immigrants that the Republicans demanded, we kept the guarantee of nutrition and health care. But the law needs to be changed to help the poorest of the poor.”
The New York Times and Associated Press contributed.