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Democratic Presidential Contenders Court Voters Of Color

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Democratic presidential candidates here in this country are each making the case they have got the best chance to mobilize voters of color to the same degree that President Obama did in 2008. Candidates took part yesterday in the Iowa Brown & Black Forum, which focuses attention on issues that directly affect African Americans and Hispanics in that state. NPR's Juana Summers was there.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: On the day celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr., the Brown & Black Forum hosted eight candidates. Four of them had just flown in from South Carolina, where they walked arm in arm and honored King's legacy. Democrats were appealing to voters of color here in Iowa just two weeks before voting begins, as a debate plays out over whether a state that doesn't reflect the racial diversity of the Democratic Party or the country should vote first.

WAYNE FORD: The political element here in Iowa, all - black and white people - are the most astute political people in the country.

SUMMERS: That's Wayne Ford, one of the Brown & Black Forum's founders. He's a retired longtime lawmaker from Des Moines. He says, pay no mind to the fact that this conversation is happening in a very white state. And he recalled a conversation he had with a candidate a few caucuses ago.

FORD: President - Senator Obama called me one day and said - I said, Senator - he said, Wayne, if I can win Iowa - if white folks vote for me in Iowa, the rest is history. So the fifth-whitest state gave America its first black president. That negates anything.

SUMMERS: At the event, the candidates took questions from journalists with Vice and people who attended the forum. Some of the moderates were met with strong skepticism. Pete Buttigieg faced familiar questions about his record on policing during his eight years as mayor of South Bend, Ind. He was specifically asked why there were fewer black officers there today than when he took office. This is from Vice News.

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PETE BUTTIGIEG: This is an area where I've admitted we're not where we want to be.

SUMMERS: Buttigieg went on to say that he met with black officers all the time and that the criticisms lacked context.

Former Vice President Joe Biden holds a wide lead among black voters nationally. At Monday's forum, he was asked why he thinks that is.

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JOE BIDEN: I'm not saying I am black, but I want to tell you something. I have spent my whole career with the black community.

SUMMERS: And Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was asked if she was one of the white moderates that King was so frustrated with in his famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail." Klobuchar said no.

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AMY KLOBUCHAR: At the time, there were plenty of whites that would perhaps profess to be helpful to African Americans but were actually holding back on a lot of civil rights legislation. That is not me.

SUMMERS: It wasn't just Iowans tuning in. Many of the people who showed up at the forum came in from outside the state. Sarah Carpenter is an activist from Memphis, Tenn. She's a member of a school choice group, the Powerful Parent Network, that supports access to charter and private schools. Carpenter hasn't backed a candidate yet but has been frustrated with the lack of focus on education issues.

SARAH CARPENTER: I want to know - how would they fix our failing school system? And it's not with money. I heard one say we - they're going to pour money into our school system. Money is not fixing our school system.

SUMMERS: Gabriel De La Cerda (ph) is a full-time student and works at a call center. He lives in Des Moines. The 41-year-old supported Bernie Sanders in 2016. Sanders has been polling well with Hispanics and with younger voters of all races. De La Cerda likes the candidate's economic message and consistency. He says he's even more enthusiastic about Sanders in 2020.

GABRIEL DE LA CERDA: I am a father now. My son is 2 years old. The man sitting in the White House should not sit there, and we're in a position now where apathy is not an option. So I need to get in the game for myself, for my son and for my family.

SUMMERS: Both Carpenter and De La Cerda have come to the same conclusion. They want to support a Democratic candidate who is promising a better future for their children and grandchildren - and can back it up with action.

Juana Summers, NPR News, Des Moines, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROWNOUT'S "FIGHT THE POWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.