SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Thursday announced endorsements from seven black lawmakers in the critical early voting state of South Carolina, a show of force in the first place where African American voters feature prominently in next year's primary elections.
Sanders' 2020 campaign made the announcement just ahead of a Spartanburg town hall meeting with members of the state's Legislative Black Caucus. The backing represents the biggest number of black lawmakers to back a 2020 hopeful to date in this state, which holds the first primary in the South.
The support is part of Sanders' attempt to turn things around in South Carolina, where his 47-point loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016 blunted the momentum generated in opening primary contests and exposed his weakness with black voters. Sensing the coming defeat, Sanders left South Carolina in the days leading up to the state's 2016 vote, campaigning instead in Midwestern states where he hoped to perform better.
Sanders, a senator from Vermont, has taken a different approach this time, working to deepen ties with the black voters who comprise most of the Democratic primary electorate in the state and pledging to visit South Carolina much more frequently. Our Revolution, the organizing offshoot of Sanders' 2016 campaign, has an active branch in the state, holding regular meetings and conferences throughout the state. Sanders addressed the group last year.
The campaign recently hired a state director and, according to adviser Jeff Weaver, is putting together a "much stronger team on the ground, much earlier in the process."
Last month, Sanders made his first official 2020 campaign stop in this state, holding a rally at a black church in North Charleston. Attracting a mostly white crowd of more than 1,500 that night, Sanders recounted many of the efforts of his previous presidential campaign, noting that some of his ideas had since been adopted by the Democratic Party and supported by other candidates vying for the party's nomination.
On Thursday, the pews of Mount Moriah Baptist Church were filled with a diverse crowd of several hundred as Sanders took to a lectern and addressed his ideas for criminal justice reform, issues that he said disproportionately affect the African American community.
"We understand that we are just denting the surface," Sanders said, going on to discuss racial discrepancies in arrests for traffic violations and marijuana possession. "I think a new day is coming."
Applauding Sanders' attention to the needs of the black community, Spartanburg Councilman Michael Brown reminded the crowd of Sanders' participation in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and encouraged him to stay the course in terms of his efforts to reach out to the black voters here.
"Thank you, sir. Keep the conversation going," Brown said. "Remain unapologetic in what you have to say because your message is resonating in our community and throughout this land."
The South Carolina lawmakers endorsing Sanders are state Reps. Wendell Gilliard, Cezar McKnight, Krystle Simmons, Ivory Thigpen and Shedron Williams. He's also being backed by state Reps. Terry Alexander and Justin Bamberg, both of whom backed Sanders in 2016 and served as national surrogates for his campaign.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP