BALTIMORE — Bernie Sanders, who's drawn attention for sticking to a heavily focused economic message in the wake of the Paris attacks and San Bernardino shootings, took a pass Tuesday on talking about terrorism.
The Democratic presidential hopeful brought his message of economic injustice to the impoverished West Baltimore neighborhood that was home to Freddie Gray, the African American man whose death in police custody sparked rioting in this city in the spring.
Following a walking tour of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood and a meeting with religious and community leaders, the Vermont senator met the press. Before he came out, a spokeswoman asked reporters to stick to the day's topic and not ask questions about the Islamic State.
After Sanders fielded a few questions on challenges facing the African American community, a CNN reporter asked: “Do you not want to talk about ISIS?”
“Of course I’ll talk about ISIS,” Sanders said. “But today what we’re talking about is a community in which half of the people don’t have jobs, a community in which there are hundreds of buildings that are uninhabitable, a community where kids are unable to go to schools that are decent.”
He left without discussing terrorism.
The day had been designed as opportunity for Sanders to reach out to African Americans, a constituency he acknowledges he needs to do a better job of courting to be competitive in his bid for the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton.
“Anyone who took the walk we took around this neighborhood would not think you’re in a wealthy nation, you would think that you’re in a Third World country,” Sanders said after the meeting with community leaders, which was held at a youth center named for Gray. “We need to start investing in communities all over this country today that are hurting, that are often forgotten about.”
The Vermont senator was warmly received by his audience at the center, which included some leaders from elsewhere in the country. The Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor and founder of Empowerment Temple Church, who organized the meeting, said he was impressed by Sanders’s knowledge of the issues they discussed, which included education, incarceration and access to capital.
Bryant described the meeting as “the beginning of a relationship” and said he is interested in hearing from other candidates as well, including Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, who is far better known among African Americans than Sanders.
Among the initiatives Sanders pitched Tuesday are a $1 trillion jobs program that would be focused on rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, an expansion of affordable child care and reforms to reduce the prison population.
Sanders said during the meeting that residents in communities like Sandtown-Winchester are hurt by a lack of banking services and grocery stores that add to their financial burdens.
“It is very expensive to be poor,” Sanders said.
Prior to the meeting with African American leaders, Sanders spent about 15 minutes walking through Sandtown-Winchester, with a throng of press surrounding him.
The senator’s tour began at the CVS pharmacy that was set ablaze during the rioting that followed Gray’s funeral. As Sanders walked on trash-strewn sidewalks through a neighborhood of rowhouses, many of them boarded up, curious residents popped their heads out upstairs windows, some snapping pictures with their phones.
As he rounded a corner, a young woman stood on in the doorway of a One Stop Grocery chanting “Rest in peace, Freddie Gray.”
Sanders, who was accompanied by his wife, ended his tour in front of a large mural of Gray near the site of his arrest.
Sanders represents Vermont, a state that is about 95 percent white, and he has acknowledged his challenge in becoming better known among African Americans, a key constituency in the Democratic race once it moves beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton holds lopsided leads among black voters in early states and nationally.
Late last month, Sanders met with Killer Mike, a well-known rapper, in Atlanta. The rapper, whose real name is Michael Render, also introduced Sanders at a rally in the city.
Cornel West, a prominent African American academic, has also been tapped to campaign on Sanders’s behalf.
The Gray case has also figured prominently in the rival Democratic presidential bid of Martin O’Malley, a former Baltimore mayor who used the troubled city as a backdrop when he announced his candidacy in May. O’Malley’s legacy as mayor, which included aggressive policing tactics that critics said strained relations with some communities, came under scrutiny as he entered the Democratic contest.
Criminal justice issues, including police brutality, have become salient in the party’s race this year, with all candidates putting forward policy proposals.