Reparations, criminal justice reform and Trump: Democratic presidential candidates make progressive pledges at Al Sharpton-led convention

  • A slew of democratic candidates hoping to challenge President Donald Trump for the White House spelled out their views on racial justice Friday at Al Sharpton's National Action Network convention in New York City.
  • Nearly all of the 15-plus Democrats who have launched presidential campaigns showed up to the civil rights organization's annual conference this week.
  • Most of the 2020 contenders, often prompted by Sharpton himself, also affirmed their support for a bill introduced in Congress that would create a commission to study reparations for African-Americans.
Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at the National Action Network convention on April 5, 2019 in New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at the National Action Network convention on April 5, 2019 in New York City.

A slew of democratic candidates hoping to challenge President Donald Trump for the White House spelled out their views on racial justice Friday in progressive campaign pitches to crowds at Al Sharpton's National Action Network convention.

Nearly all of the 15-plus Democrats who have launched campaigns in the 2020 election showed up to the civil rights organization's annual conference this week in a Sheraton hotel ballroom in Manhattan's Times Square.

Eight of those candidates gave speeches on Friday – including Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who had just announced his campaign a day earlier – touching on a range of issues including taxes, child care and climate change.

But the predominant themes of their remarks mirrored the NAN's own stated priorities, particularly reforming the criminal justice system with the past and current impacts of racism in America at top of mind.

And most of the 2020 contenders, often prompted by Sharpton himself, also affirmed their support for a bill introduced in Congress that would create a commission to study reparations for African-Americans.

"When I am elected president, I will sign that bill," Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., told Sharpton to raucous applause from the convention hall crowd.

Harris also pledged to double the size of the civil rights division of the Justice Department: "Justice means recognizing domestic terrorism, including white nationalist extremism," which Harris said "should be considered a national security priority."

Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont and self-described democratic socialist who is running as a Democrat in 2020, called to repair the "racial wealth gap," establish a single-payer health care system for all Americans, make public colleges and universities tuition-free and force large corporations to "start paying their fair share."

He also appeared to spend significantly more time than the other candidates attacking Trump. "We have a president," Sanders said, "who is a racist, who is a sexist, who is a homophobe, who is a xenophobe, and who is a religious bigot."

At the end of many of their speeches, Sharpton asked them point-blank if they supported Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee's legislation in the House that, according to its press release, "seeks to establish a commission to also examine the moral and social implications of slavery."

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who began with a longer response to Sharpton's question about the bill, offered a playfully curt "yes, I'm gonna pass it!" when pushed by a shout from the audience to simply tell the crowd: "Yes or no?"

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said she would support the bill as well. Warren tore into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., during her speech, and called for eliminating a Senate filibuster rule for legislation when the next Democrat takes over the White House. She also went into detail about her campaign proposal for universal childcare, recounting her own difficulties finding and paying for daycare for her children while pursuing education and a career.

Sanders told Sharpton that "if the House and Senate passed that bill, of course I would sign it."

Sanders had been less committed to the idea of reparations in the form of payment when asked about it on ABC's "The View" last month. "I think that right now, our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check," he said at the time.

Some of the candidates took the issue further.

"I firmly support congresswoman Jackson Lee's bill," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said during a luncheon attended by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and 2020 candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who also spoke.

"But we must not only study the problem," she said, promising to address a range of related issues if elected president, such as affordable housing, environmental justice and the practice of redlining.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., added a note of caution in his speech Friday afternoon, telling the crowd that the conversation around reparations "cannot become just a political box-checking exercise."