NEW YORK — Beto O'Rourke had just finished speaking about racial injustice to the National Action Network when the Rev. Al Sharpton, its president, pushed him to say a little more.
“Your fellow Texan, Sheila Jackson Lee, has proposed a commission to study reparations,” Sharpton said. “If that passes, and you are president of the United States, would you sign that bill?”
O'Rourke, who had spent 15 minutes talking about how white America left black America behind, didn't hesitate. “Yes,” he said, to applause and a few surprised cheers. “Until all Americans understand that civil rights are not just those victories that I began with at the outset of my comments, but the injustices that continue to be visited on people, we will never get the change that we need to live up to the promise of this country.”
The former Texas congressman, the first of 11 presidential candidates scheduled to speak at the three-day conference, had helped set the tone. Sharpton's conference has become a can't-miss station on the Democrats' presidential gantlet — a place where candidates will face hard questions about racial inequality and the criminal justice system. Any hand-wringing about “identity politics” or talk of pandering to the president's more loyal voters and alienating the most loyal Democrats is banished.
“The conference gives us the opportunity to mainstream the issues of civil and human rights, which have not been at the center of this campaign other than as a reaction to something President Trump has done,” Sharpton said in an interview. “This is one of the president's weakest areas, and we're making it a bigger part of the discussion. So, tell us: This is what my presidency would look like; this is what my Justice Department would look like, in terms of mass incarceration. This is what my Commerce Department would look like, in terms of opportunity for black people.”
By Friday afternoon, nearly every Democrat who has declared a presidential bid will have spoken at the conference. Those who spoke on Wednesday and Thursday walked through poverty and health statistics, promising to close the racial gaps — and then, they endorsed some form of reparations.
“There are many things that we need to do in this country that have been a long time in coming, and one of those is to move forward with reparations,” said Julián Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development who spoke a few hours after O'Rourke. “Our country will never truly heal until we address the original sin of slavery.”
Republicans are genuinely surprised at how the issue of reparations — compensation for the descendants of slaves — has reemerged as a Democratic base issue. Polling has consistently found most black voters warm to the idea and a supermajority of other voters opposed to it. It was nowhere on the political radar until February, when the hosts of the Breakfast Club radio show asked Sen. Kamala Harris of California whether she supported "some type" of reparations and she said she did, arguing that her focus on criminal justice reform and disparities in health care would benefit black Americans.
The legislation introduced by Jackson Lee, which would create a commission to study the viability of reparations, doesn't commit Democrats to cash payments — the concept that made “reparations” controversial when it was discussed 10 and 15 years ago.
“Democrats are trying to represent their base, but in the process they're overcompensating and may find themselves in a perilous position,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former Trump White House official. “I think the reparations issue is a big turnoff for a lot of people.”
In an interview, former attorney general Eric Holder said that the term “conjures up a lot of images that allow for demagoguery” but that “if you have communities that receive these reparations that are made better, the nation is therefore better.” Still, the gap between activist awareness and public awareness of the issue is big enough to run a campaign bus through.
One possible reason for the issue's second life is the Democratic Party's fast movement toward the issues of black civil rights activists, from police reform to felon voter rights restoration to the end of the war on drugs. In 2015, Sharpton used his platform to grill Hillary Clinton on racial justice issues and found her ready to endorse many of the Black Lives Matter movement's goals, starting with an end to “mass incarceration.” After decades of nervousness about a political backlash, or of being labeled soft on crime, Democrats are speaking freely about restorative justice.
Doing any less, Sharpton said, would cede a winning issue to Republicans. The Trump administration, he said, continued to alienate black voters; it had alienated black voters by limiting the Justice Department’s ability to monitor police departments accused of abuse; it had egged on Republican-led efforts in states to limit voting access; and it had fewer black staffers than even some previous GOP administrations. But at the same time, the Trump administration had signed prison and criminal justice reform legislation at the end of 2018 that led to the high-profile release of many prisoners and was a key part of outreach to black voters.
“I think that if they do not have this very clear in their head that the Republicans will do [criminal justice reform] and people like Van Jones will praise them for it, they are in trouble,” Sharpton said of Democrats. (Jones, the liberal CNN analyst, made an appearance last month at the conservative CPAC, giving Republicans credit for “stealing [his] issue” of reform.)
There is not much evidence that the Trump campaign has made inroads with black voters. According to the network exit polls, Clinton won 89 percent of the black vote in 2016; Democratic candidates for Congress won 90 percent of the black vote two years later. And the president has looked more comfortable defending police from criticism than in talking up criminal justice reform.
Democrats such as Sharpton wanted the party’s candidates to be bolder in taking on the president. Sharpton said that he wanted to hear Democrats pick up an Obama-era directive to close private prisons, campaign loudly for voting rights restoration and endorse a new Voting Rights Act. He said this was a matter both of exciting black voters and of being morally correct. Sharpton noted that few Democrats had spoken out about a Republican-led effort in Florida to curtail a new amendment that restored the franchise to felons by requiring them to pay court fines before becoming eligible to vote.
And Sharpton had another warning for Democrats: If they did not get right on these issues, the Trump campaign would exploit it. Joe Biden has expressed some regret for parts of the 1994 crime bill; Kamala Harris had taken “full responsibility” for some of the more zealous prosecutions she had made as a San Francisco district attorney. Looming over all of that was the Trump campaign's success, in 2016, of alienating some young black voters from Clinton by highlighting a speech she'd made in which she warned that some young black men had become hardened “super-predators.” If Democrats thought they could fix their weaknesses with black voters by endorsing reparations, they were wrong, Sharpton said; they needed to tell black voters why and how they had evolved.
“If I was Hillary, when they bought those ads, I’d have bought some ads saying, here’s what I said, I was wrong, this is what I’ve done,” Sharpton said. “My question for the candidates now is: Did you grow, and therefore see that was wrong? Or did you do it because you felt it was politically right for you then, and you feel something else is politically right for you now? Show me the growth. All of us in the public arena have grown on certain issues, but show me before you’re running for president.”
"Biden says he’ll adjust his physical behavior as three more women come forward,” by Elise Viebeck, Matt Viser and Colby Itkowitz
The latest on the reckoning between an ostensible Democratic front-runner and his public displays of affection — remarked upon for years, but never a true controversy until last week.
As he gets closer to launching a presidential bid, Colorado's Michael Bennet has recanted his vote to allow most presidential nominees to be confirmed by 51 votes. To Levitz, that reveals just how naive the senator is about Republican governance. “Politics is not supposed to be a chummy elite game. It is how we collectively decide whose values will be upheld and whose rejected.”
“How Chicago’s new socialist city council members can change the city’s politics,” by Miles Kampf-Lassin
There are now more socialists on the governing body of America's third-largest city than there are Republicans. How did it happen and what does it mean?
"2020 Democrats talk about the 2016 election at their own risk,” by Gregory Krieg and Dan Merica
Pete Buttigieg was the latest Democratic contender to run into trouble by even beginning to talk about why Clinton's campaign lost in 2016. Is there any good way to talk about that without angering the party's base? (Spoiler: No.)
NEW YORK — Until Tuesday night, Democrats were expecting good news from Wisconsin. In internal polling, Judge Lisa Neubauer, the liberal candidate for a seat on the state's Supreme Court, had narrowly led conservative Judge Brian Hagedorn. Republican-aligned groups did not seem to engage in the race as they had in prior state court races; Neubauer, after all, was running to replace another liberal.
But the Republican-backed Hagedorn edged ahead Tuesday by boosting GOP turnout and improving on the party’s 2018 numbers in suburban Milwaukee. A preliminary count gave him 605,728 votes; that was up compared with the 440,808 votes that the party’s last judicial candidate won last year. Neubauer actually improved on the total vote of now-Justice Rebecca Dallet, expanding from 555,848 to 599,768 votes. Democrats didn't fail to turn out; Republicans just surged. (The AP has not yet called the election.)
“We did well in areas that have heavy concentrations of Democrats, and they did well in areas that have heavy concentrations of Republicans,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said in an interview. “I saw a similar pattern in Iowa in the gubernatorial race last year. We did well in three of the four congressional districts, but they had an incredible digital organizing infrastructure in Steve King's district, and they ran up the score.”
Republicans, indeed, ran the same playbook in Wisconsin. In a memo to reporters today, the Republican State Legislative Committee laid out the digital strategy, which — like a TV ad that was reported on previously in The Trailer — told infrequent Republican voters that this election was a way to stop the liberals who had attacked Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
That strategy grew from the way Democrats worked to disqualify Hagedorn. Earlier this year, they pounded him in mail and on the air for old blog posts, first uncovered by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in which Hagedorn had attacked Planned Parenthood and same-sex marriage. “There is no right in our Constitution to have sex with whoever or whatever you want in the privacy of your own home (or barn)," Hagedorn wrote, in one that Democrats focused on most.
The RLSC, whose polling found Hagedorn running behind, “saw that turning out low-propensity Republicans would be a more effective use of our resources" than in targeting swing voters. It invested $1.3 million in a digital, mail and TV ad campaign, featuring images of President Trump, Kavanaugh, and Justice Neil Gorsuch, as well as images of the protests that ensued after Kavanaugh was accused of having committed sexual assault.
“They did it against Justice Kavanaugh,” read one mailer. “Now, the same radical out-of-state special interest groups that are spending millions pushing Liberal Lisa Neubauer are spreading false attacks against conservative, rule of law Judge Brian Hagedorn.”
The campaign boosted Republican turnout; Democrats hit their marks but fell short. That would not have happened, they argued, in an ordinary, partisan election. Neubauer declined support from the state Democratic Party and distanced herself from a $350,000 investment by Eric Holder's National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Just six months earlier, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) had voted against Kavanaugh and gone on to win 1,472,914 votes in a 10.9-point rout over Republican Leah Vukmir; the larger Wisconsin electorate, the one that would show up in 2020, might be less conservative than the one that showed up Tuesday.
That thought could change some of the Democrats' strategy in these state races. In an interview, Holder said that he was working on a campaign pledge for Democratic presidential candidates, most of whom command media attention and operate large lists of donors, to turn some of their focus to down-ballot races. Plenty of Democrats had come to the first four voting states to campaign for local Democrats; few had even commented on the Wisconsin race.
“I don't think people ought to be concerned about nationalizing races, or be shy about involving themselves in state and local races,” Holder said. “To have the presidential candidates essentially say, 'You know these races are important.' They're so important that I'm going to be talking to all of the presidential candidates, and talk about ways in which they can get involved in the work that we are doing.”
Republicans had a very good night in Wisconsin, but it looked better because of the strong Democratic performances in other Tuesday elections.
Illinois. Democrat Lori Lightfoot won the race to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel by the biggest landslide in a Chicago election in 16 years — bigger than Richard M. Daley’s final victory in 2007. Left-wing Democrats, who focused more on down-ballot races, had a powerful night of their own.
Among the winners in races for alderman were Janette Taylor, a labor activist who had fought to get a community benefits agreement around the Obama presidential library (which will be in the ward); Andrew Vasquez, who defeated an incumbent who had served since 1983 (and had clashed with Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor); and Matt Martin, a civil rights attorney who defeated Emanuel’s former policy chief.
“We’re going to see a bolder and more progressive city council,” said Emma Tai, the executive director of United Working Families, who estimated that the group’s campaign workers had knocked on half a million doors. “The 20 percent we’re going to hold is clearly progressive, and there’s a set of aldermen who are looking at these results and watching their backs.”
Pennsylvania. Democrats pulled off an upset in the race for the 37th state Senate district, giving them control of every legislative seat that touches Allegheny County. Pam Iovino, who briefly ran for the House seat won last year by Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), defeated Republican D. Raja by four points.
The campaigning here was a mirror image of the Wisconsin race; Raja repeatedly yoked Iovino to national Democrats, asking whether she agreed with the Democratic governors who had advanced (or not opposed) bills that would make late-term abortions easier, and tied himself to the president. But Iovino ran far ahead of Clinton's numbers (she'd lost the district) with a campaign that echoed Lamb's. After Tuesday and after the 2018 elections, Democrats are now just three seats short of a majority in the state Senate, which would be their first in decades.
Eric Holder isn't the only Democrat asking the party to focus a little more on the states. The Center for American Progress, which for years has organized an “ideas summit” in Washington that attracted presidential candidates, is shifting its focus. The 2019 summit, scheduled for May 22, will focus entirely on Democrats who are not running for president.
“The ideas conference is focusing on the next generation of leaders from around the country, people who are making progressive change,” said Neera Tanden, CAP's president. “I think we should recognize, as we focus on a presidential election, that there’s a lot of action both on offense and defense on the state level.”
Already scheduled for the conference: Stacey Abrams, who has not ruled out a bid for president but is seen as unlikely to run; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who announced in January that he would not run for president; and former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, who has been urged to run but said he is not going to if Joe Biden does.
Further down the list are Democrats who won big 2018 elections, some of them flipping seats, only to be pretty well ignored once the presidential race began: Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who won a third term after the president made it a personal mission to defeat him.
“We want to remind people there’s a lot at stake that is beyond a presidential debate,” Tanden said.
Correction: This item incorrectly identified the California representative who's appearing; she is Rep. Katie Porter. It has been corrected.
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Establishment House Democrats have rallied behind Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, after she enacted a policy that would bar vendors from working for the DCCC if they work for primary challengers to incumbents. The latest response: A number of left-wing campaign groups have bound together to found DCCC Blacklist, a network for vendors who want to advertise themselves as ready to help insurgent candidates, even if it costs them contracts. The new site, which went live this afternoon, simply lists the names of consultants and vendors who are ready to take the call.
“The Democratic Party establishment is sending a signal that they are more afraid of Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez winning primary challenges than conservatives like Henry Cuellar who vote with Trump nearly 70 percent of the time,” said Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of the liberal Justice Democrats. “We’re building a network of alternative infrastructure to help progressive candidates find a path to Congress and help create a Democratic Party that fights for its voters, not big corporate donors.”
Other organizations involved in the DCCC Blacklist project include Indivisible, New Deal Strategies, Data for Progress, Middleseat, Think Rubix, Democracy for America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Working Families Party.
2020 House races. One week after members of both parties attacked Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the stage of AIPAC, the conservative American Action Network is running ads in four competitive House districts, asking why members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee won't kick Omar off.
“Representative Ilhan Omar keeps hurling anti-Semitic slurs,” a narrator says in each spot. “The latest? That Jews aren’t loyal to America.”
Omar had not actually said that Jews were disloyal; at an appearance with fellow left-wing Democratic members of Congress a few weeks ago, she attacked “the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” (Support for Israel in Congress is overwhelming, and only a few of the country's legislative allies are Jewish.) But that was the latest (and so far last) in a series of controversies over Omar's criticism of Israel, the most damaging of which was a tweet about how the country's political support in Congress was “all about the Benjamins.”
The ad is targeted at Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who is Jewish and who flipped a suburban seat that borders Omar's; similar versions are running against Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.), and Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.). All of them won their first terms in 2018, all in districts that grew less Republican in recent years. None had called on Omar to leave the committee, a demand that even the committee chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), has rejected.
Should Bill de Blasio run for president in 2020 or not? (Quinnipiac, 1,077 New York City voters)
No — 76%
Yes — 18%
It's incredibly rare for state or city polling to find that a local candidate — a senator, a mayor, a governor — should leave to run for president. Kamala Harris, who had a majority of Californians rooting for her to run for president, is an exception. Bill de Blasio is the rule, with less than half of the voters who approve of his performance in office wanting to see him run, even as he makes stops in early states to advertise the liberal wins in New York.
One of the worries dogging Democrats after 2018 was that the presidential race would tap out donors and make it hard to repeat the record fundraising of the 2018 midterms. There are two early signs that this isn't happening — not yet. Arizona U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kelly, whose early fundraising discouraged primary challengers, raised a reported $4 million in his first months as a candidate. Mike Johnston, a former teacher and state legislator running for the Democrats' U.S. Senate nomination in Colorado, raised $1.8 million. The Colorado and Arizona seats are absolute must-wins for Democrats if they have any shot at gaining control of the upper house in 2020.
Tim Ryan. The Ohio congressman, who since the 2016 election has criticized his party for losing focus on white working-class voters, announced his presidential bid in a Thursday morning interview on “The View.” On the show, he said that the closure of a General Motors plant in his district got him off the fence; he had been making numerous visits to early-voting primary states.
“My daughter called me and she said, 'You got to do something,' " Ryan said. “And I said, 'I'm going to do something. I'm going to run for president of the United States. We're going to make sure this doesn't happen anymore.' "
Eric Swalwell. He will announce his 2020 plans on Stephen Colbert's show; per Edward Isaac Dovere, he is going to run, with a focus on gun safety.
Michael Bennet. In one interview with the Colorado Independent, the senator announced both that he had prostate cancer and that, if his prognosis was good, he would launch a bid for the White House.
Bernie Sanders. His weekend trip to Iowa will feature his first town hall-style early-state events since the launch of his campaign; unlike other contenders, he has not been taking open questions from reporters and has focused more on holding rallies. (He has done a number of pre-set interviews.)
Elizabeth Warren. She rolled out new legislation that would make it easier to jail the executives of large banks.
Pete Buttigieg. At the National Action Network's conference, he apologized for his use, back in 2015, of the phrase “all lives matter.”
Cory Booker. He joined Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, to reintroduce his anti-poverty legislation, “Targeting Resources into Communities in Need.”
Amy Klobuchar. She joined moderate Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware to sponsor the Saving for the Future Act, which would require companies with more than 10 employees to contribute at least 50 cents per hour to workers' savings accounts.
Jamie Dimon. He is still not running for president, though we now know that his public musing about doing so was a little bit serious.
. . . one day until Joe Biden speaks to IBEW union members
. . . 11 days until we'll know every candidate's fundraising totals