If former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders were trying to be polite before, then they clearly called a time-out on the niceties as they engaged in a swift, cutting sparring match during Thursday night’s showdown in Brooklyn, the last one before the New York Democratic Primary.
Clinton leads in the polls in New York getting 57 percent of likely primary voters to Sanders 40 percent, according to a WNBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll. However, Sanders has picked up significant momentum having won eight of his last nine Democratic contests against Clinton.
It’s a high stakes game, and the outcome in New York is likely to be very telling for how many delegates each candidate will carry into the Democratic National Convention this summer in Philadelphia.
Their televised debate covered a broad swath of issues from economics, to social security, to foreign policy, but the two grazed over the subject of race, only lightly discussing economic disparities in African American communities. Somehow they found a way to do so without addressing the police violence that pervades Black communities.
The candidates did deliberate other issues that directly affect African Americans including the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (the 1994 crime bill) and the potential for a nationwide $15 minimum wage increase, which Sanders pledged to deliver.
“While it is true we may end up paying a few cents more for a hamburger in McDonald’s, at the end of the day, what this economy desperately needs is to rebuild our manufacturing sector with good-paying jobs,” said Sanders, insisting that the wage should be spread to all 50 states, and accusing his opponent of dragging her feet.
But Clinton said she supports an increase to $15 and would sign a federal bill to make it law, but insisted there must first be a strategy in play.
“What I have…said is that we’ve got to be smart about it, just the way Governor (Andrew) Cuomo was here in New York. If you look at it, we moved more quickly to $14 in New York City, more deliberately toward $12, $12.50 upstate then to $15. It’s a model for the nation and that’s what I will do as president,” said Clinton.
Although gun violence in inner cities was not specifically brought up, the candidates addressed gun control. While both blame the gun lobby for adversely affecting the safety of American citizens, Clinton continued to attack Sanders on his record.
“Senator Sanders voted against the Brady Bill five times,” said Clinton. “He voted for the most important NRA priority, namely giving immunity from liability to gun-makers and dealers, something that is at the root of a lot of the problems that we are facing.”
First Sanders responded by boasting about how his aversion to the gun lobby actually cost him the 1988 election in Vermont and then he went further to point out how he’s earned a D minus rating from the NRA because of his outspoken disdain.
“Now, I voted against this gun liability law because I was concerned that in rural areas all over this country, if a gun shop owner sells a weapon legally to somebody, and that person then goes out and kills somebody, I don’t believe it is appropriate that that gun shop owner who just sold a legal weapon [ought] to be held accountable and be sued,” said Sanders. “But what I do believe is when gun shop owners and others knowingly are selling weapons to people who should not have them [and] somebody walks in and they want thousands of rounds of ammunition, or they want a whole lot of guns, yes, that gun shop owner or that gun manufacturer should be held liable.”
Clinton, who has recently taken jabs from detractors over statements made in the past about the 1994 crime bill, which her husband, former President Bill Clinton defended last week, was careful not to bolster that same defense. She even appeared to comprehend the long term effects the bill has had on Black communities.
“The original idea was not that we would increase sentences for non-violent low-level offenders, but once the federal government did what it did, states piled on,” explained Clinton. “I want White people to recognize that there is systemic racism. It’s also in employment, it’s in housing, but it’s in the criminal justice system as well.”
Not letting an opportunity to point out her past controversial statements slip, Sanders pounced on Clinton’s use of the term “super predator” when describing the kind of lawless young offender (presumably Black) for which the bill was created. Sanders explained why he called Clinton out on it.
“Because it was a racist term, and everybody knew it was a racist term,” he said. “Where we are today is we have a broken criminal justice system. We have more people in jail than any other country on Earth. And in my view, what we have got to do is rethink the system from the bottom on up. You got 51 percent of African American kids today who graduated high school who are unemployed or underemployed. You know what I think? Maybe we invest in jobs and education for those kids, not jails and incarceration.”
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who attended the debate, said he wished more diverse topics were discussed.
“They argued about how much they agreed,” said Baraka. “They didn’t talk about housing, the affordability of college, rent. They had questions that made the debate more entertaining. I didn’t see a lot of differences between the two, they accused each other, but came back and wound up agreeing. But compared to the other side, the debate was far more substantive and devoted more energy to important things.”
The New York primary is Tuesday, April 19.
Follow Madison J. Gray on Twitter @madisonjgray.