CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a humble church with a familiar name, Little Rock A.M.E. Zion, Hillary Clinton on Sunday made a passionate case for police reform and a direct appeal to the city’s black voters, whose support she needs to win this swing state.
Less than two weeks after the death of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man killed by police, Clinton arrived here Sunday morning with a message of sympathy for a grieving community and political promises, including “end to end reform in our criminal justice system — not half-measures, but full measures.”
She acknowledged that when it comes to understanding the plight of black families in America, she will never be able to replicate the symbolic empathy of President Barack Obama. “I’m a grandmother, but my worries are not the same as black grandmothers who have different and deeper fears about the world that their grandchildren face,” Clinton said. “I wouldn’t be able to stand it if my grandchildren had to be scared and worried, the way too many children across our country feel right now.”
Clinton’s visit to Charlotte was critical — she was so eager to visit that the campaign announced a trip last Sunday, when the city was still grappling with violent protests and looting. The trip was ultimately delayed by a week at the request of local lawmakers.
On Sunday, she was accompanied by her senior policy adviser Maya Harris, longtime aide Capricia Marshall and senior staffer Marlon Marshall, who is overseeing the campaign’s African-American outreach.
Clinton’s challenge in North Carolina, where current polls put her trailing Donald Trump by about 3 points, is boosting the African-American vote that landed Obama a victory in 2008, when he won a state that had gone to the Republican nominee in the previous seven presidential election cycles. The key was Mecklenburg County, which includes the city of Charlotte, where Obama beat John McCain by more than 100,000 votes.
That massive showing help boost him to a slim margin of victory statewide. In Obama’s reelection bid four years later, however, Mitt Romney won North Carolina by 2 points.
The Clinton campaign is trying to replicate the Obama ground organization at churches and on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities. “Having a presence in black churches is super, super important,” said Mitch Stewart, Obama’s 2012 battleground state director. “The central strategy is being present in the communities you are trying to engage, online and offline.”
Stewart said that 80 percent of the work to get to 51 percent in North Carolina will come down to voter registration. “Her aim is to grow the pie of young voters and make sure they take advantage of early voting,” Stewart said. “The fact that North Carolina is in play at all speaks to her strength, not weakness.”
Clinton has spoken out on criminal justice reform and “systematic racism” consistently since she launched her campaign. But she is still struggling to inspire young black voters, who remain resistant to her message of reform and lack institutional loyalty to the Democratic Party.
Democrats said they expect her to make up some of the loss with college-educated whites in the suburbs. “Trump’s racist, misogynistic message is driving college-educated whites away,” said longtime Clinton ally Paul Begala. “No Democrat has ever won them in a presidential election.”
While Clinton was making a pro-active policy pitch, Trump’s campaign was on defense, dealing with a New York Times report that revealed a portion of Trump’s 1995 tax returns and suggested that the GOP nominee could have gone nearly two decades without paying income taxes.
In her remarks, Clinton was careful to couch her call for reforms with support for law and order. “We must not forget that violence has touched the lives of police officers,” she said. “From Dallas to Baton Rouge to Philadelphia, the families of fallen officers have been dealt a great blow.”
But the focus of her address was to the hurting black community. “We need to fix a system where too many black parents are taken from their kids and imprisoned for minor offenses,” she said.
On Sunday, Pastor Dwayne Walker underscored the importance of voting, noting that stacks of voter registration cards were available at every church entrance. “Some people are just skeptical — they’ve heard so much, they’ve seen so much, and they have been hurt so many times, because people will say one thing and do another,” he said.
Clinton, sitting in a pew near the front, nodded in agreement.
Clinton has made the final chapter of her presidential campaign about children and families, what her campaign sees as the most genuine cause and common thread that connects her entire life in public service. On Sunday, Clinton tried to connect another tragic incident to that overarching perspective.
She called up to the stage Zianna Oliphant, a 9-year-old African-American girl who testified before the Charlotte City Council last week, telling her local lawmakers, tears streaming down her face: “It’s a shame that our fathers and mothers are killed, and we can’t even see them any more. It’s a shame we have to go to their graveyard.”
“She should be thinking about happy adventures; instead she’s talking about graveyards,” Clinton said. “Our entire country should take a moment to really look at what’s going on here and across America — to imagine what we see on the news, and what we hear about, imagine it through our children’s eyes.”
With her right arm clutching a beaming Oliphant, dressed in a bright-white church dress, Clinton said that “protecting all of God’s children is America’s calling. Let us not grow weary in doing good.”
Since the beginning of her campaign, Clinton has called for training police to de-escalate tense situations; common-sense gun reforms; and ending the “school-to-prison pipeline” by investing in education. But the Charlotte trip offered her a critical opportunity to make the case directly to black voters, with 36 days to go in the race.
And the political message of the day was clear. Robin Bradford, who heads up the National Action Network’s Charlotte chapter, implored the congregation that “if you don’t utilize your right to vote, then you have no right to say anything.”
“We do more than pray,” Clinton added in her remarks. “Everyone can vote.”
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