NEW YORK — Beto O’Rourke made a pitch to black voters Wednesday with a speech to African-American activists and church leaders in which he decried systemic racial injustices and praised the civil rights movement.
While critics have accused the former House member from Texas of lacking substance, O’Rourke offered some specific policy proposals aimed at black Americans, including support for reparations, police reform and a new iteration of the Voting Rights Act.
O’Rourke began his speech before the annual convention of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in Manhattan by sharing stories of individuals who fought for civil rights in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. While praising their efforts, O’Rourke also decried the lack of progress in the past 50 years.
“I have thought for a long time that that is the history of change and civil rights and the path forward, a courage, a perseverance that leads to success,” O’Rourke said. “But when I look at the facts and I listen to those whom I wish to serve as president … I see something different, something foundationally, systematically wrong in this country.”
While the subject matter was not new for O’Rourke, the prominence of Sharpton and his organization in the black community drew a crush of media attention.
O’Rourke went on to rattle off a series of issues to illustrate his point that racial equity in America remained an elusive goal.
“We have an infant mortality discrepancy between white and black America that is worse today than it was in 1850, 15 years before the abolition of slavery. We have a maternal mortality crisis in this country that is three times as deadly for women of color,” the presidential candidate said.
O’Rourke then turned to criminal justice reform.
“We put more of our people behind bars per capita than any other country on the face of the planet, disproportionately black and brown,” he said. “Now, we are arresting people for possession of a substance that is legal in more than half the states of the country.”
O’Rourke also pointed out that marijuana convictions can prevent people from obtaining employment as well as from receiving financial aid for their education.
“This schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline and this problem of mass incarceration is much deeper than our police and our courts. It is our country, and we absolutely must face it,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke then addressed the issue of voting rights, a major concern of civil rights activists. He framed the issue by criticizing voter ID laws, gerrymandering and dark money as an effort by some to “aggregate” power. “Democracy,” O’Rourke continued, was the “only response to this concentration of wealth, and power, and privilege” in the country.
“Not only must we sign into law a new Voting Rights Act so that every single American’s vote counts and they count equally, not only must we end gerrymandering and big unaccountable money in our politics, we must make sure that we have same-day and automatic voter registration in every single county and every single state throughout the United States of America,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke wrapped up his remarks after about 11 minutes, but before he left, Sharpton pressed him with a pair of policy questions that seemed to be a nod to O’Rourke’s reputation for generalities.
“Before he leaves — and I think he was specific — I want to ask one or two questions,” Sharpton said.
The reverend noted that earlier this year, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, introduced legislation to establish a commission that would consider reparations proposals for African-Americans to mitigate the impact of slavery and segregation. Sharpton asked O’Rourke if, as president, he would sign that bill if it passed.
“Yes,” O’Rourke said, prompting cheers from the packed hotel ballroom.
O’Rourke pointed toward someone who yelled at him from the crowd and said, “I appreciate the woman who asked me to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Noting his group’s work on cases of police violence, Sharpton then pointed to President Trump’s decision to cut the use of consent decrees between the Justice Department and police departments. These agreements allowed the federal government to push for court-enforced changes in local police departments that were found to have persistent civil rights issues. Sharpton asked O’Rourke if he would “bring back” the practice.
“The answer to this one is also yes,” said O’Rourke.
O’Rourke stressed “support” for police officers and sheriff’s deputies and their “incredibly difficult job,” but emphasized the need for “accountability for the enforcement of law.”
“There must be accountability for use of force,” O’Rourke said. “Federal funds to local police departments and sheriff’s departments must be tied to accountability, fully transparent reporting for use of force, and justice for those who use force illegally.”
O’Rourke is one of 12 Democratic candidates who are scheduled to speak at the National Action Network convention this week. Before O’Rourke spoke, Sharpton noted his organization has played a role in the Democratic primary since 2000.
“People running for office come. We’re not here to heckle them. We’re here to hear them. We’ll heckle them at the polls if we’ve got to, but they need to all respect us … to come and address us. Anybody that does not address us does not respect us,” Sharpton said.
In his introduction, Sharpton referenced the widespread attention O’Rourke received during his unsuccessful campaign for Senate in Texas last year. Sharpton said O’Rourke “emerged as a rock star” during that race. O’Rourke earned his “attention,” Sharpton said, by speaking out in support of athletes’ right to kneel during the national anthem.
“That was not a politically expedient statement,” Sharpton said, adding, “Then I caught him talking about white privilege, and I had never seen a major white candidate for president talk about white privilege.”
Despite saying O’Rourke had caught his eye, Sharpton expressed skepticism about the candidate.
“I’m suspicious of rock stars,” Sharpton said. “You know James Brown raised me. … I know the difference between what’s live and Memorex.”
After O’Rourke’s speech, he had clearly earned some fans in the room. One woman in the audience shouted “Yes!” Some in the crowd broke out into a chant of “Run, Beto! Run!” Sharpton acknowledged the reaction.
“You didn’t hear the rest of the candidates yet!” Sharpton said to his audience before turning to O’Rourke.
“Beto, you done come in here and wiped out my board!” Sharpton said.
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