With both candidates scrambling to win over African-American voters ahead of primary and caucus contests in Nevada and South Carolina, Sen. Bernie Sanders has said that his rival Hillary Clinton’s outspoken support of President Barack Obama amounts to transparent pandering to black voters.
Sanders has largely closed the gap in polls between himself and Clinton among likely participants in the Nevada Democratic Caucus set for Saturday. The Vermont senator made the statement in an interview with the BET network, set to air Sunday night — less than a week before the Democratic Primary in South Carolina, where Clinton leads Sanders by double digits among voters overall, and among African-American voters as well.
"Hillary Clinton now is trying to embrace the president as closely as she possibly can. Everything the president does is wonderful. She loves the president, he loves her and all that stuff,” Sanders said, according to CNN, whose correspondent conducted the interview.
“And we know what that's about. That's trying to win support from the African-American community where the president is enormously popular,” Sanders added.
Yvette Williams, chair of the Clark County Black Caucus (CCBC), which recently voted to endorse Sanders, said she agreed with the senator’s assessment, and that she was speaking for herself and not representing the caucus. Clark County is home to the state's largest city, Las Vegas.
“In my personal opinion, it appears she has done a lot of pandering to the African-American community for votes,” Williams told Al Jazeera.
Williams added that she had been a Clinton supporter until she heard Sanders speak in person, delivering a message of battling joblessness and poverty that afflict African-Americans in Nevada.
She said Clinton’s campaign had reached out to the CCBC for a meeting last summer, but then never got back to the group to follow up on ways of addressing the concerns they raised about jobs, voting rights and education.
“I have seen a lot of her messages change and redirect their focus on black issues as the black electorate has become more important,” Williams said.
“Sanders’ message hasn’t changed. It’s been consistent since day one,” she added, saying that Clinton has simply tried to “use” the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead-tainted water hit communities of color hard. Williams said Bill Clinton’s legacy in the White House — including making welfare harder to access and promoting policies that drove mass incarceration — also gave her pause.
In recent debates, Clinton has attacked Sanders for questioning Obama’s decisions and policies. Sanders reminded Clinton in the sometimes testy exchanges that she, not he, choose to challenge Obama in the then-Illinois senator's successful 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sanders said that the he bears the president no ill will, and that they have worked together in the past.
"I think he has done a great job in many respects," Sanders said. "But you know what? Like any other human being, he is wrong on certain issues."
The Clinton campaign blasted back at Sanders early Friday, after the news of his accusation came out.
"It's disappointing that Senator Sanders thinks the only reason a Democrat would be proud of President Obama's work would be a political ploy to court African-American voters," Clinton’s office said, according to Politico.
"We know Senator Sanders believes the President has shown failed leadership, but like Hillary Clinton, most Democrats have a different view. We are proud of President Obama's work to rescue the economy from the brink of collapse, pass landmark health reform and reform Wall Street,” the Clinton office’s statement added.
Issues that affect the African-American community have taken center stage in this year’s contest for Democratic primary votes, more so than in 2008. In the last two years, controversial killings of unarmed black men and women by law enforcement — with some such deaths captured on now-ubiquitous cell phone cameras — have drawn calls from black civil rights activists for changes to how police treat members of their communities.
Both Clinton and Sanders have planks in their platforms devoted to police reform and expanding social welfare programs to low-income African-American communities — including a $125 billion plan Clinton announced Wednesday in Harlem. Sanders has said that through his push to reduce income inequality and expand access to education, life will improve for people of color.
Williams said she feels that Clinton’s campaign seems to revolve too much around the candidate herself, while Sanders is bringing a message of collective civic action that is larger than him as a politician.
"With Bernie Sanders it's about 'we,'" she said.