NAACP convention a friendly audience to Obama
DETROIT – Presidential hopeful Barack Obama drew the loudest cheers of the eight Democratic candidates at a civil rights forum Thursday as he assailed the Bush administration’s record on race relations.The candidates shared the stage at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s 98th annual convention. But it was Obama, seeking to become the first black president, who drew the strongest applause from the 3,000 attendees.”I know what you know, which is that despite all the progress that has been made we still have more work to do,” said the first-term Illinois senator.Black voters are a core party constituency, and the candidates are in a fierce struggle to capture their support, refusing to cede it to Obama. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the party front-runner, enjoys strong support in the black community and is married to former President Clinton, who was wildly popular among black voters. John Edwards has won praise from black leaders for his commitment to fighting poverty.Obama’s performance Thursday marked the first time he has managed to outshine Clinton in a candidate’s forum, including last month’s debate at Howard University, a historically black college in the nation’s capital.At the forum, each candidate responded to five questions from NAACP delegates on topics including health care, gun violence and voting rights.All the candidates were warmly welcomed in Detroit, but even before Obama spoke the crowd at Cobo Center was clearly in his corner.Obama derided President Bush’s commutation of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s prison term, noting black men routinely serve time behind bars.”We know we have more work to do when Scooter Libby gets no prison time and a 21-year-old honor student, who hadn’t even committed a felony, gets 10 years in prison,” Obama said.Aides said Obama was referring to Genarlow Wilson, a Georgia man serving a 10-year prison sentence for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. A judge last month ordered Wilson to be freed, but prosecutors are blocking the order.Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of lying and obstruction of justice in the CIA-leak case. He received a 30-month prison sentence, which Bush commuted last week.”I’d like to thank the NAACP for letting me follow Barack Obama,” joked Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who delivered his opening remarks after the Illinois senator.Obama, 45, said he was too young to have participated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but said he was inspired by it. That comment prompted a mild dig from Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who stressed his long career in public life.”I’ve been around a while, and I’m old enough to remember the civil rights movement,” Biden, 64, said, adding he was the best candidate to bring an end to the Iraq war.Clinton said the forum would cover more issues of importance to the black community than the administration had in six years.”We have a president who does not see what you and I see. … With your hard work, we will render the people that you and I see visible once again,” the New York senator said.She cited “The Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison’s classic novel of black alienation. And she thanked the organist, whose music helped fill the gaps between programs on the stage, for providing a spiritual dimension to the forum.”I think we needed to have a little uplift here,” she said. “If we’re going to win this election, it’s going to be because we have faith.”Edwards touted his commitment to fighting poverty, calling it “the cause of my life.” He plans to launch a multistate tour Monday in New Orleans to spotlight the millions living in poverty.Edwards’ call for felons’ voting rights to be restored also received loud cheers, although as a North Carolina senator in 2002 he voted against a bill allowing felons the right to vote in federal elections.The topic of voting rights drew an impassioned response from the candidates, many of whom spoke of the disputed 2000 election in Florida that saw many black voters disenfranchised.”The American people don’t feel that when they go vote their vote counts,” New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said.Dodd praised the NAACP for holding a burial ceremony for the “N-word” earlier this week.”We ought to have more burials. Why not bury neglect? Bigotry? The failed policy in Iraq?” Dodd asked, adding that he believed every Democrat on the stage would be a better president than Bush.Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel also participated.Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo was the lone GOP candidate, and said he accepted the invitation because his message is for all Americans. A vociferous foe of illegal immigration, Tancredo said the wages of black workers suffer because of illegal workers.—Associated Press Writer Corey Williams contributed to this report.