John F. Kerry, under fire from some African Americans for appearing detached from their concerns and community, promised Thursday that he would seek new government spending to combat gang violence and rising unemployment in urban areas.
Speaking to thousands of African Americans gathered here for the National Urban League Conference, Kerry advocated a carrot-and-stick approach to the spiraling gang-related problems bedeviling this city and many others. As president, Kerry said he would crack down on gangs with a "zero-tolerance" policy and try to coax young Americans away from the gang lifestyle by offering job training, drug treatment and other government incentives.
Kerry proposed spending $400 million over 10 years to prevent gang violence in no more than 20 communities. This new government money would be sent to cities to fund pilot programs focusing on such activities as tutoring and after-school training. "We also need to send young people a strong, clear message that there is another path, and if they are willing to take that path, we will be with them," Kerry said.
Sarah Bianchi, Kerry's domestic policy adviser, said other unrelated domestic programs would be scaled back to fund this new increase. The Bush campaign says this speech continues the trend of Kerry promising to spend money without detailing where it would come from. Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt faulted Kerry for previously voting against several programs to combat gang violence, including funds to help prosecute gang activity.
Kerry dropped his standard message of fiscal responsibility and listed more than one dozen government programs he would create or expand to help inner cities. He talked up tax incentives for attracting companies to big cities, new housing assistance, a new health care plan and billions of dollars in increases for education.
The message seemed to resonate with the audience. More than 10 percent of blacks are unemployed, twice the rate of whites, and millions more are struggling to make ends meet, often in high-crime areas. In recent months, black leaders have criticized Kerry for employing too few blacks in his campaign and crafting a message that would not sufficiently appeal to minorities or address their problems. In most speeches, Kerry focuses on the middle class and talks little about poverty or urban problems.
Detroit Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick, who has been critical of Kerry, said the Democratic nominee "clearly aligned his focus with urban America's focus" Thursday by delineating the specific federal programs he would grow. "It seemed in the beginning of the campaign, John Kerry was not comfortable in the settings of African American communities. Today it was different." Kilpatrick credited Kerry's decisions to bring Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Alexis M. Herman, both African Americans, into the campaign for the turnaround. "You can't have a table of whites telling you how to talk to blacks," he said.
Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), the mayor's mother, said "the disconnect [with many blacks] is real," but it can be easily bridged by Kerry speaking "more loudly and clearly" about issue near and dear to minority communities.
A BET-CBS News poll of black Americans released Wednesday found a majority of blacks lacked enthusiasm for Kerry, with most saying they were "satisfied" with the nominee.
With President Bush slated to address the Urban League on Friday after having skipped the NAACP convention, Kerry said, "this is not a stop that represents a check-the-box campaign stop" for the Democratic ticket. Kerry is counting on winning more than 90 percent of the black vote and, more important, increasing the number of black voters who turn out as part of his strategy for winning Michigan and several other battleground states.
In the past three elections, Democratic presidential nominees won 95 percent of the black vote in Michigan, a higher proportion than the national average, according to a study by the Detroit Free Press.
One week before he will accept the party's nomination, Kerry won the endorsement of the only Democratic rival left standing: Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio). Kucinich, the former mayor of Cleveland, was mostly a non-factor in the primaries but enjoys a loyal following among the party's antiwar wing.
Kerry flew to Colorado, where he will launch his final march to the nomination Friday with a rally in his hometown of Aurora, where he lived until he was 4 months old. He will campaign in Iowa, Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania before arriving in his current hometown of Boston on Wednesday to accept the nomination.