PHOENIX, June 29 -- John F. Kerry reached out to African American and Latino audiences Tuesday, asking them to help him defeat President Bush while outlining proposals to raise college graduation rates, boost math and science education among women and minorities, and provide a path to citizenship for legal immigrants.
Courting two of the most important constituencies in the Democratic Party, Kerry began the day in Chicago at the annual Rainbow/PUSH Coalition convention. He then flew to Phoenix, where he addressed the National Council of La Raza's annual convention.
He took a prepared text in Chicago replete with detailed ideas for preparing Americans for the high-skills economy of the future and embellished it liberally with campaign rhetoric in an effort to stir greater enthusiasm among minorities for his candidacy.
Kerry has been criticized for not doing more to develop a relationship in the black and Hispanic communities, and he noted that many in both communities may be cynical about promises from politicians. But he asked his Chicago audience to "measure my 35 years of fighting" for the causes and values of civil rights and to back him.
"He did fine -- and he's getting better," said Jesse L. Jackson, who introduced Kerry in Chicago, saying there is no comparison between what a Kerry administration and a second Bush administration would mean for minorities.
Kerry sought to rebut charges by the Bush campaign that he offers a pessimistic vision, repeatedly challenging the incumbent's record and saying, "We can do better, and we will."
Alluding to what happened in Florida in 2000, Kerry drew cheers when he charged that many voters "were harassed and intimidated in going to the polls, something we thought was resolved in the 1960s," adding: "We have to make sure not only that every vote counts but every vote is counted."
He promised to make one of his first priorities as president raising the minimum wage to $7 an hour to the delight of the audiences. He brought both groups to their feet with his pledge to expand access to health insurance and drew a sharp contrast with the president. "George Bush has had four years as president to offer leadership," Kerry said. "He doesn't even talk about it. He doesn't even have a fake plan. . . . He has no plan."
In Phoenix, he pledged to sign legislation to provide immigrants with a path to citizenship. Noting that there are 62 co-sponsors for such a bill in the Senate, Kerry said: "This president hasn't said if he will sign that bill. I will, in a heartbeat."
Kerry linked his education proposals to the long struggle for civil rights and equal opportunity, noting that it was 40 years ago this week that Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The proposals address two growing problems in the United States: the failure of many students to complete college and the decline in math and science education. A campaign fact sheet noted that while the United States has the highest college enrollment rates among the major industrialized nations, its graduation rate ranks near the bottom. The problem is particularly acute among African American and Latino students.
Kerry's plan would target rising tuition as one factor contributing to the problem. Last year, Kerry recommended giving fiscally strapped states $25 billion to help them avoid tax increases or cuts in education. On Tuesday, he proposed that $10 billion of the $25 billion be earmarked for colleges and universities, but with the condition that they not raise tuition for two years above an unspecified rate of inflation.
He also proposed $910 million in other targeted spending. To increase graduation rates, he called for a $100 million fund for colleges that show clear improvement in graduating economically disadvantaged students.
Kerry said the United States has fallen behind in producing scientists and engineers and he cited statistics showing extraordinarily low participation in those curricula by women and minorities. To deal with that, he proposed $300 million in funding to encourage young women and minorities to study math and science. He also proposed $200 million to fund summer institutes and mentoring for math and science teachers and $310 million for technology and workforce initiatives.
Kerry would pay for the proposals by rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, revamping federal financial aid and using proceeds from a broadcast spectrum sale that he says will raise $30 billion.
Bush-Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry's complaint about rising tuition costs ignores efforts to offset the increases. "Kerry's cynical attacks are at odds with the facts that more Americans have college degrees than ever before and the amount students pay in tuition costs is down by a third since 1998," he said.
Later, in an interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo, Kerry was asked whether, in light of the scandal involving the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Illinois last week, he would consider releasing his 1988 divorce papers.
"I have no intention of doing that at all," Kerry said. "There's no reason whatsoever. It's history, ancient history. My ex-wife and I are terrific friends, very proud of our children. We've stayed close as an extended family in a sense through those years." He said his wife and children see no reason to open up the papers. "It's none of anybody's business, period," he said.