With 10 days to go before South Carolina's Democratic primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) presidential campaign has doubled down on its efforts to court the state's African American voters.
But according to top supporters of rival Hillary Clinton, Sanders' commitment to blacks is only skin deep. Citing a story published Wednesday by the Daily Beast, they accused the senator of ignoring and dismissing African American Vermonters' concerns during his 25 years in Congress.
"It is disturbing to read that Bernie Sanders has a record of consistently turning his back against the black voters in his very own state of Vermont," South Carolina House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said in a statement issued Wednesday by the Clinton campaign. "From his state's high incarceration rates to his health care proposal to his disparaging remarks on President Obama — Bernie doesn't get it."
The Daily Beast story leans heavily on critical comments made by Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity executive director Curtiss Reed Jr., who described a 2006 candidates' forum during which Sanders "was just really dismissive of anything that had to do with race and racism." Others quoted in the piece, including Greater Burlington Multicultural Resource Center director Patrick Brown and Brattleboro activist Shela Linton, defended Sanders.
"We are all so proud of him," Brown said.
Whether Sanders, who hails from the second-whitest state in the nation, can appeal to a more diverse electorate has been an open question since he joined the race 10 months ago. Writing last July in Seven Days, reporter Kevin J. Kelley found that many black and Latino Vermonters, Reed included, felt that Sanders had not done enough to understand the challenges they face.
Because Vermont is 95 percent white, Partnership for Change director Hal Colston told Kelley, "he hasn't been forced to look at these issues through the lens of color." Clarence Davis, a former Sanders staffer, said at the time that he would like to see the senator engage in "more discussion of race." Wanda Hines, a former Burlington City Hall employee who ran for mayor in 2012, criticized Sanders for hiring too few women and minorities when he was mayor of the Queen City.
"I have a great amount of respect for Bernie," she told Kelley, "except I wouldn't vote for him."
The Sanders campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but campaign manager Jeff Weaver defended his record last summer, noting that the future politician got his start working with the Congress of Racial Equality while a student at the University of Chicago.
"Bernie's origins in politics are in the civil rights movement," Weaver told Seven Days at the time.
The senator's attention to issues important to African American voters has increased as he's campaigned for the presidency, particularly since facing criticism last summer for his response to a pair of Black Lives Matter protests. His stump speech nearly always includes references to the African American unemployment rate, discrimination by police officers and his plans to reform the criminal justice system.
Sanders' efforts have paid off. He has earned the support of many prominent black activists, including former NAACP president Ben Jealous, the public intellectual Cornel West, Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the rapper Killer Mike and the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. The senator has also recruited a diverse campaign staff, particularly in South Carolina, where a majority of his employees are black or Latino.
Though Sanders still trails Clinton among black voters in the Palmetto State, he hasn't given up courting them. On Tuesday, his campaign took the unusual step of airing a two-minute television advertisement in South Carolina featuring a testimonial from the daughter of Eric Garner, who died at the hands of New York City Police Department officers in July 2014.
Still, the Clinton campaign has tried to paint Sanders as a Johnny-come-lately to issues facing minorities.
"The lack of confidence that African American citizens in Vermont have about Sen. Bernie Sanders' leadership is troubling and should be of concern to black voters throughout the country," former New York City mayor David Dinkins said in a statement released by the Clinton campaign. "It is hard to trust someone who plays catch-up on the issues that matter in our communities during a presidential election campaign."