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Democratic presidential candidates come to NYC for National Action Network conference

"I want to see some substance," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who organized the gathering.

Democratic hopefuls will be in New York City

Democratic hopefuls will be in New York City this week to speak at a conference organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

Democratic presidential contenders will make a direct appeal to black activists at a New York City conference starting on Wednesday as they intensify their push for African-American support in the early stages of the 2020 race for the White House.

A dozen candidates will pitch prescriptions for issues like easing the racial wealth gap, promoting criminal justice and education reform, and repairing a growing racial divide at the three-day National Action Network gathering organized by civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The emphasis on courting black voters follows the first decline in their turnout in 20 years in the 2016 presidential election, a key contributor to Democrat Hillary Clinton's stunning loss to Republican Donald Trump.

The historically diverse 2020 Democratic field, including black, Hispanic and openly gay candidates as well as a record six women, is tackling an array of issues of interest in the African-American community.

Many of the more than 15 candidates, including U.S. senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have voiced support for some form of reparations for slavery.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has vowed to take on institutional racism, Julian Castro has targeted reform of the criminal justice system and Sen. Bernie Sanders has highlighted his civil rights activism as a youth.

The conference will give activists from around the country a chance to judge the candidates in person, Sharpton said. First up on Wednesday morning is former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, followed by Castro, a former San Antonio mayor and U.S. housing official, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

"We've seen more candidates reaching out, but I want to be sure they aren't reaching out with an empty hand. I want to see some substance," Sharpton said in an interview. "I also want to hear them tell us their background to give us the confidence they can get what they propose done."

Democrats are grappling with ways to address Trump's sometimes polarizing racial comments and what polls have found are rising racial tensions since Trump became president.

"The times call for a reality check. The black vote is not automatic, it must be won, we saw that with Hillary," said Stefanie Brown James, the national black vote director for former President Barack Obama in 2012 and co-founder of Collective PAC, which works to elect black candidates.

She said everyday issues like jobs, access to health care and education improvements are crucial to most black voters.

"Voters want to hear pragmatic solutions to address these issues — but beating Trump is the overarching requirement," she said.

The candidate who can win African-American support stands to reap significant rewards, as black voters play a big role in Democratic primaries. In South Carolina, which holds an early primary in February 2020, more than 60 percent of the Democratic primary voters were black in 2016.

Sharpton has met with several candidates, but plans to hold off on an endorsement until later in the year.

"The process begins at the convention. The difference in our gathering is you are talking to activists who are on the front lines," Sharpton said. "They are not going to be swayed by sound bites."


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