Democratic Debate: Where the candidates stand on black issues

With the first Democratic presidential debate about to take place in Las Vegas on Tuesday night, attention will begin to shift more from the GOP contenders to the smaller field of candidates on the other side of the aisle...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

With the first Democratic presidential debate about to take place in Las Vegas on Tuesday night, attention will begin to shift more from the GOP contenders to the smaller field of candidates on the other side of the aisle.

The CNN Facebook Democratic Debate will allow voters to assess how these hopefuls stand on the issue. But what are their policy positions on issues that matter to black people?

Hillary Clinton, considered the frontrunner, has a high favorability rating among black voters, 80 percent according to a Gallup poll taken in August. Although the former First Lady, senator and secretary of state has the highest favorability among blacks by some estimates, she has had some conflict with the African-American community as well, such as when she said “all lives matter” to a black crowd at a church near Ferguson, Missouri. Further, she missed the mark and seemed dismissive of #BlackLivesMatter activists in the past. However, to her credit, she is still meeting with black activists and having candid discussions with them.

Clinton supported the anti-crime legislation signed by her husband. And while the former president apologized for his role in creating the American prison monster, Ms. Clinton is now speaking truth about race and the criminal justice system and the killing of black men. According to her campaign website, she wants to end the era of mass incarceration, use body cameras, phase out private prisons and find alternative punishments for low-level offenders. Plus, Clinton wants to reform mandatory minimum sentences, increase mental health and drug treatment and do away with private prisons.

Bernie Sanders had his awkward black people moment, too. The independent Vermont senator, originally from New York, represents one of the whitest states in the Union. Although he is a progressive and a Democratic Socialist, he — like other whites on the left from predominantly white states — tended to ignore racial issues in favor of the economic. And while he discussed what he did during the civil rights movement, #BlackLivesMatter protesters wanted to know what he will do now for black people. Sanders responded by getting real and unveiling a comprehensive plan on police brutality, racial justice and criminal justice reforms.

Sanders has called for demilitarized police forces in favor of community policing, body cameras, preserving voting rights and protecting people against racial violence. Cornel West endorsed him, a significant development, and the presidential candidate hired a black woman organizer as his national press secretary.

Lincoln Chafee is a bit of an unknown to many. The liberal former mayor, governor and senator from Rhode Island, a former Republican and independent, supported Obama for president and was co-chair of his campaign. Chafee is strongly pro-choice and against the torture of prisoners, favors expanding health care to all people and increasing the minimum wage, and supports Head Start, comprehensive immigration reform and paid leave. Further, he opposes the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and wants to eliminate big corporate money in politics.

Martin O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, had his own awkward black folks moment when he said “all lives matter” when confronted by black activists at this year’s Netroots Nation meeting with Bernie Sanders. Trailing behind in the polls, the once popular governor is being watched to see if he will break out in the debates.

O’Malley has a number of noteworthy policy positions, including expanding access to addiction treatment and investing in recovery. He also wants to reform the civil asset forfeiture laws, encourage independent investigations of police cases, and strengthen civil rights protections in light of the high profile deaths of black men by police. O’Malley supports “banning the box” and giving people with a criminal record a fair chance at employment, restoring felony voting rights, and ending the felon ban on access to TANF and SNAP programs. In addition, he supports debt free college, wants to address the punitive nature of student discipline, seeks to cut the number of gun deaths, and is working to guarantee the right of the poor to court-appointed legal counsel. And as governor, O’Malley signed the law abolishing the death penalty in the state of Maryland. Yet, O’Malley has come under fire for his policing strategies while mayor of Baltimore, with a zero-tolerance approach that helped crime drop but increased the mistrust of law enforcement in the black community.

Jim Webb has had such a low profile in the current campaign season that some wonder if he is actually running for the White House. A former U.S. Senator from Virginia, Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan and Marine Corps officer, Webb is known for pushing for prison reform long before the Black Lives Matter movement was on the scene. And yet he called the Confederate flag “complicated” following the Charleston massacre. The Washington Post calls Webb the wild card that no one is talking about, and it remains to be seen if the fiery yet lesser-known candidate will distinguish himself in the field.

Although he has not yet declared, Joe Biden is being watched closely as he mulls over a possible presidential run. The Vice President is expected to make a decision soon. Considered a loyal and reliable right-hand man to President Obama, particularly during those times when the White House was besieged and under attack from enemy forces among the Tea Party Republicans, Joe Biden has earned his “black card” and is very comfortable in a room full of black folks, as evidenced by the warm reception he received at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference. Another example is when he visited Emanuel AME Church for the funeral of the victims of the Charleston massacre, not long after his own son Beau had succumbed to brain cancer. With a strong realness factor and experience with a lifetime of tragedy, Biden is viewed by some as the greatest threat to a Clinton candidacy. Highly popular among African-Americans, Biden can arguably carry the Obama legacy.

The Vice President speaks his mind, as black people do, and his “gaffes” — such as telling a black crowd in 2012 that “they’re going to put y’all back in chains,” speaking of Republicans, and calling Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” to run for the White House — have not hurt his popularity. One factor working against him is his sponsorship of President Clinton’s Omnibus Crime Bill when he was in the Senate. That landmark piece of legislation may have helped the lawmakers who promoted it, but the law was a nightmare for black people and accelerated the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration. This could be water under the bridge, considering the Obama administration’s push for criminal justice reform, but it is worth noting nonetheless.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove