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Booker and Sanders part ways in MLK addresses

From left: Sen. Cory Booker, South Carolina NAACP President Brenda Murphy and Sen. Bernie Sanders march in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Columbia, South Carolina, on Monday. | Sean Rayford/Getty Images

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Sens. Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders took two starkly different approaches Monday as they spoke to hundreds of mostly black rally-goers in the first Southern state to vote in 2020.

At Columbia’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally at the state capitol, Sanders talked explicitly about the racial wealth gap, black infant mortality rates and voter suppression among people of color. He also called President Donald Trump a “racist.”

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“We have a president of the United States who has done something that no other president in modern history has done,” Sanders said. “What a president is supposed to do is to bring us together. And we have a president [who] intentionally, purposely, is trying to divide us up by the color of our skin, by our gender, by the country we came from, by our religion.”

Booker acknowledged that the country has a justice system that works better for the “rich and guilty” than the “poor and innocent.” But he largely echoed King’s message, speaking in more general terms about the importance of unity and having what he called “courageous empathy” and acting on dissatisfaction, a term King stressed in his 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?” address.

“We live in a society that’s getting seduced by celebrity and forgets that significance is more important than celebrity, that purpose is more important than popularity, that we cannot be a nation that loves power more than it loves people,” Booker said. “We are dissatisfied. This is not a time for us to rest in our country. The work is not done.”

Their different appeals reflected how far along their potential campaigns are in this state, where 60 percent of Democratic primary voters are African-American. “Booker, who was billed as the main attraction of the rally, seemed to be trying to address a broader swath of the electorate than was represented in the crowd, speaking in more aspirational terms. Sanders was more blunt, declaring at one point: “It gives me no pleasure to tell you that we now have a president of the United States who is a racist.”

Democratic state Rep. Jerry Govan said Monday’s appearance was easier for Booker but more important for Sanders, who held more public events and is staying in the state longer than his Senate colleague.

“I think both of their messages struck a chord with the audience,” said Govan, chairman of the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus. “I think both of them were well received. I think it’s too early on to say whether there was a winner or a loser because I think both of them were winners based on the simple fact that they showed up. I know that I appreciated hearing from them both.”

If he runs for president for a second time, Sanders will need to do a better job winning over black voters in the state after his dismal performance here in 2016. He won only 26 percent of the vote in the South Carolina primary, a weakness that went on to be repeated across the South.

Sens. Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders

Neither Sanders nor Booker have said whether they are running for president. But Sanders addressed the question head on during a roundtable discussion. He recognized that some current candidates are friends of his, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

“This is not easy stuff. Is there a willingness to do this?” Sanders asked, sharing his mindset as he questions whether to mount another campaign for president. The crowd answered with a resounding “yes!”

Still, a presidential campaign is “tough stuff,” he said. “I’m gonna be going around the country and I’m gonna be talking to people and see whether there is that willingness because if we go forward … we’re gonna take on every powerful special interest in this country.”

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