Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate comes just four days before South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary — and one week before more than a dozen states vote on Super Tuesday. Billionaire Tom Steyer has poured money into outreach to African-American voters, who make up more than half of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate. He may help front-runner Bernie Sanders build an insurmountable delegate lead. A new Reuters poll shows Senator Sanders has overtaken former Vice President Joe Biden in support among African Americans. We speak with three guests in South Carolina: Kevin Alexander Gray, a longtime civil rights activist and community organizer, author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics, and Jesse Jackson’s South Carolina campaign manager in 1988; Democratic state Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, as well as a senior national adviser for Tom Steyer; and Adolph Reed Jr., professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, a columnist with The New Republic and an organizer for the “I’m a Medicare for All Voter” campaign in South Carolina.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate comes just four days before South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary, one week before more than a dozen states vote on Super Tuesday. Billionaire Tom Steyer has poured money into outreach to African-American voters, who make up more than half of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate. A new Reuters poll shows Senator Sanders has overtaken former Vice President Joe Biden in support among African Americans.
For more, we go to South Carolina, where we’re joined by three guests. In Charleston, where the debate took place, we’re joined by Democratic state Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, also a senior national adviser for Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer. Adolph Reed Jr. is also with us. He is professor emeritus of political science at University of Pennsylvania, columnist with The New Republic and an organizer for “I’m a Medicare [for All] Voter” campaign in South Carolina. In Columbia, we’re joined by Kevin Alexander Gray, longtime rights activist, community organizer, author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics. He was Jesse Jackson’s South Carolina campaign manager in 1988, past president of the ACLU of South Carolina.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Kevin Alexander Gray, let’s go to you first, in South Carolina’s capital, in Columbia. Respond to last night’s debate.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: First of all, I’d like to say hello to my two friends, Dr. Reed and Gilda Cobb-Hunter, two people that I respect wildly.
REP. GILDA COBB–HUNTER: Hey, Kevin.
ADOLPH REED JR.: Hi, Kevin. How are you doing, brother?
REP. GILDA COBB–HUNTER: Good to hear you.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: And, of course — I’m good, brother. And Adolph and I worked with the Harkin campaign together, and Adolph was actually on my dissertation committee. So I have something in common with everybody on your show today.
But now, watching the debate last night, well, it wasn’t the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter, but it was fiery. And I think that Senator Sanders showed himself well. I think that looking at the race in South Carolina is going to line up with, I think, Senator Sanders doing well. I think Tom Steyer is going to do well, because he has done outreach in the black community and has campaigned the old-fashioned way. And the way I see the vote breaking down, older voters are going to — older Democratic Party establishment voters are going to vote with Biden. Younger voters are going to vote with Sanders because of the institutional change and structural change that he represents, given college education cost and given the cost of healthcare. And I think the folk that support Steyer are the people who — Steyer has put money in the black community. He has invested in the black banks. He’s hired black consultants. He’s done something that hasn’t been done in a while in campaigns in South Carolina, where usually the money goes to white consultants and advertising companies, and black folk are left out of the loop. So, Steyer has benefited by that kind of outreach and a focus on economic development. But last night, I think that Sanders did well. And I think that, at times, Vice President Biden looked like General — Admiral Stockdale, with the where-am-I-and-what-am-I-doing-here kind of approach to campaigning in South Carolina.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Democratic state Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter. I last saw you in Orangeburg, South Carolina, at the Environmental Justice —
REP. GILDA COBB–HUNTER: Hey, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Hi.
REP. GILDA COBB–HUNTER: Yes. How are you?
AMY GOODMAN: — candidates’ forum at South Carolina State. You now are supporting Tom Steyer. Why?
REP. GILDA COBB–HUNTER: Amy, I have agreed to serve as the national senior adviser to Tom Steyer, mainly for the — one of the reasons is the point that Kevin just made. Having been engaged in politics, presidential politics here for the last 20 years, Tom Steyer is the only Democratic candidate I know who has made the time and invested in the black community in the manner that Kevin outlined. In addition to that, you mentioned the Environmental Justice Forum in November. Tom Steyer has specific plans tied to environmental justice, because we’ve got to go in and not just clean up communities, but we’ve got to have a plan to incentivize economic development in all of those, for those marginalized and undeserved communities.
The other part for me is his plan for HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities. Steyer has committed, if elected president, to invest $150 billion — billion with a B, not million — in HBCUs. He’s not just talked about investing the money. He has a definite plan to spread this out over 10 years to create an infrastructure for HBCUs that will address one of the priority needs, which is infrastructure, meaning buildings that have just deteriorated, because state governments across the South, in particular, have not funded HBCUs like they should. The other piece of that, of his HBCU plan, that attracts me is the sustainability part of it. He is calling for creation of an HBCU board of regents, which will help coordinate all of the federal funding that HBCUs receive. Right now it’s a hodgepodge. All of the universities, unless they have a lobbyist or a member of Congress who is going to help them navigate the process, that is not in place. The endowment leads to the point of sustainability, because what we — I’m a proud graduate of the Florida A&M University. And one of the things that all of our HBCUs have to do is build endowments. A part of the Steyer plan will allow that.
And, of course, reparations, which is — as far as I’m aware of, Tom Steyer is the only one on the campaign trail who has called for reparations. And tied into reparations is the whole conversation about race. He has consistently, in every audience, talked about race, the connections that race have with all of the systemic problems we have. And quite frankly, I believe, when I’m looking at supporting a candidate, that it is important that you not just talk the talk, but you walk the walk. Tom and his wife Kat, through her work with creating the Beneficial State Bank in Oakland, have proven that they are committed to communities of color, and they’ve shown that through their work.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go now to Senator Amy Klobuchar, who I think echoed the views of some of the candidates, speaking last night about Medicare for All.
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: No, the math does not add up. In fact, just on 60 Minutes this weekend, he said he wasn’t going to rattle through the nickels and the dimes. Well, let me tell you how many nickels and dimes we’re talking about: nearly $60 trillion.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: No.
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: Do you know how much that is, for all of his programs?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Not true.
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: That is three times the American economy — not the federal government, the entire American economy. The Medicare for All plan alone, page eight clearly says that it will kick 149 million Americans off their current health insurance.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Adolph Reed, you’re an organizer for “I’m a Medicare Voter” [sic] campaign in South Carolina. Can you respond to what she said?
ADOLPH REED JR.: Yeah. Well, it’s actually an “I’m a Medicare for All Voter” in South Carolina. Pardon me. Yeah, that claim is one of the most frustratingly disingenuous comments that’s come out of the debates, that’s come out of the corporate media, because the fact of the matter is, is Medicare for All will not take coverage away from anyone. What Medicare for All does is takes the profit-making middleman, the insurance companies, out of the healthcare system. And one of the things that we’ve found as we’ve gone around in South Carolina and elsewhere, talking to working people of all sorts, is that people do understand that nobody loves their insurance company. Right? Everybody’s main experience of insurance companies in access to healthcare is denial. Right? Or — pardon me, I’m getting over a bad cold. But the denial comes in many forms. Rationing — right? — access to healthcare on the basis of ability to pay is a form of denial — premiums, copays, deductibles, the constraint in networks, right? People who experience the healthcare industry on the ground understand these things, and they understand them much more clearly if the insurance industry is not putting money in their political campaigns.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask —
ADOLPH REED JR.: So, the basic principle — sure.
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Adolph Reed.
ADOLPH REED JR.: Oh, yeah, well, I was just going to say, like, the basic principle of Medicare for All is everyone has access to healthcare, period. Right? Without regard to ability to pay and without regard to age or where or if you work. Right? I mean, it’s a very simple proposition that the private profit making is taken out of the healthcare industry.
AMY GOODMAN: And as you go around South Carolina, how much of that is understood? You have Bernie Sanders last night saying, “A misconception is that the ideas I’m talking about are radical. They’re not.” He said, “In one way or another, they exist in countries all over the world.”
ADOLPH REED JR.: Well, yeah, I mean, that’s absolutely the case. But we can say that, as we’ve been working like in South Carolina for the last few months, we’ve had phenomenal response. And I would suggest that people go to our website, DJDInstitute.org, and link to the “I’m a Medicare for All Voter” South Carolina campaign. I mean, we’ve had more than 10,000 South Carolinians sign pledges since December indicating that they’ll vote only for candidates who support Medicare for All. And I think that’s kind of saying something. That’s black, white, across the board.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to Kevin Alexander Gray. You were a critic of Bernie Sanders in 2016, but you’ve changed your view. You have 10 seconds.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, I haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for. But if you look at the candidates who fall into the progressive camp or the progressive tradition, the tradition of the ’88 campaign, and a broad coalition of people, opposition to the death penalty, support for free public education, rights for Palestinian people, support for freedom movements around the world, and then we look at the healthcare issue, we look at economic development in the community in a structural way, then Bernie Sanders is obviously in that tradition. And so, you know, we have to talk about what the word “progressive” means and what being a progressive means, and not let people who are using the word “progressive” as a substitute for “liberal,” because “liberal” has become a dirty word. So, yeah, I’ve softened on Sanders.
But the other part of it is that Sanders did like Jesse Jackson did between ’84 and ’88: He’s been organizing around the country. And a lot of the criticisms that I had in the beginning was, you know, you start out a campaign, start out with that coalition, you start out around that table with black people and people of color and women, and you build from there; you just don’t to start out with a group of white folk around the table. I think that Senator Sanders has learned that lesson well, and if you look at his campaign. That’s not an endorsement, but that’s to say that’s how he has conducted his campaign. And his campaign is connected to a historic progressive movement, which is what frightens people.
And going back on what Dr. Reed said about Medicare, I’ve been spending a lot of time with friends in nursing homes. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of eulogies for friends and looking at the people in those nursing homes who care for people. A lot of the people who are working in those nursing homes, people don’t care for them. They don’t care for them by not paying them a good wage, by not having neighborhoods that they can live in that are safe. But there, a lot of them have to go care for people. You’ve got people who are caring for people who people don’t care about. And even the idea that you have to sign over anything that you would want to leave to your children to the government before you can get in a nursing home and get a Medicare bed. Those issues are important to people — healthcare, the affordability of healthcare, a livable wage, safe communities, ending gentrification and being pushed out of the cities. Those are the issues that progressives are taking on. And to some extent, you know — and I’m not — because Gilda is a very good friend of mine, and I respect her a lot — Gilda’s right. Steyer, in some respects, with his money, is paying attention to those communities. Now, it’s not the structural, institutional money that the government ought to be providing to people, but it is an outreach to people that they haven’t seen in a while, in an era where black folk and poor people are being pushed out of the cities, being pushed out of their homes, or, if they live in poverty, the only — in a community mired in poverty, the only thing that the government got for them are more and more police.
So, you know, yes, I’ve softened on Sanders. I am a progressive. I think that he’ll do well in South Carolina. This idea that we have to nominate somebody that’s electable, like a Joe Biden, well, I keep telling everybody, “Well, everybody thought that Hubert Humphrey was electable. Everybody thought that Walter Mondale was electable. Everybody thought that Mike Dukakis was electable. They thought that Al Gore was electable. They thought that John Kerry was electable. They thought that Hillary Clinton was electable, because they’re moderates. And now, for anybody to want to pin their hopes on Joe Biden, who, when you look at his race record, is horrible, and the only race record he got is being Barack Obama’s vice president and so-called vouching for him, I think if the Democrats nominate Joe Biden, they’re going to go down in defeat.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Kevin Alexander Gray, activist, community organizer, past president of the ACLU of South Carolina, Jesse Jackson’s South Carolina campaign manager in ’88, speaking to us from South Carolina’s capital, Columbia; Adolph Reed, professor emeritus of political science at University of Pennsylvania, columnist with The New Republic, organizer with the “I’m a Medicare for All Voter” campaign in South Carolina; and Democratic state Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg, South Carolina, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. She is a senior national adviser for presidential candidate Tom Steyer. We want to thank you all for being with us.
Just a little fact here: Something like 6,000 to 8,000 black voters in Nevada. Of course, Iowa and New Hampshire, overwhelmingly white states. In South Carolina, there are more than a quarter of a million African-American voters. Sixty percent of the Democratic Party is African-American.
When we come back, we’ll speak with reporter Bob Hennelly, who covered Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor in New York City. Stay with us.