(CNN) — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on Thursday demanded reforms of the criminal justice system and vowed to alleviate the plight of African-American communities.
Sanders went so far as to say that race relations would “absolutely” be better under his administration.
The rivals are meeting in Milwaukee for the PBS “NewsHour” Democratic debate being simulcast on CNN. It is their first clash since Sanders delivered a 20-point drubbing of Clinton in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, which followed Clinton’s win by the narrowest of margins in the Iowa caucuses.
The candidates laid out sharp differences — largely without the kind of bitter attacks that marked their last debate before New Hampshire. But in one tense moment, Sanders warned, “Secretary Clinton, you are not in the White House yet,” earning a couple of boos from the audience.
They made strenuous efforts to show they appreciate economic and social problems afflicting African-American communities, with a close eye on the South Carolina primary later this month, where black voters form a dominant demographic bloc.
“An African-American baby born today stands a one in four chance of ending up in jail,” Sanders said. “That is beyond unspeakable.”
Sanders also called for reforms in sentencing, and a “radical reform” of a system that he said has turned into a vicious circle that disproportionately siphons African-American males in and out of jail.
Clinton said that under President Barack Obama there had been a “lot of advances” that had helped African-Americans but warned that thanks to social media “we are seeing the dark side of the remaining systemic racism that we have to root out in our society.” She proposed an honest conversation on how to improve the plight of minority communities, building on her former boss’s efforts.
Clinton got a huge boost ahead of the debate when she won the endorsement of the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The rivals also made a pitch for the Latino community, which will play a key role in the next Democratic nominating clash in Nevada next week and in other Western states, backing Obama’s executive actions to defer deportations of up to five million undocumented immigrants. Both said they would go further.
Clinton pointed out that Sanders had voted against an ultimately flawed bid to pass comprehensive immigration reform in Congress in 2007, while she voted for it. Sanders explained that he had done so because guest worker provisions under the legislation were described by one legal advocacy group as “akin to slavery.”
Tense exchange over super PACs
The most tense exchanges came after Sanders hit Clinton over the fact that a super PAC supports her campaign. The Vermont senator has argued that because Clinton accepts contributions from financial groups, she is less likely to take on Wall Street in office.
She countered that despite accepting such donations in 2008, Obama passed tough new regulations on the financial industry early in his administration and she would do the same.
But Sanders told her: “Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people. People are not dumb.”
Clinton sought to dent Sanders by portraying his plans as unrealistic and said it was important for Americans to vet both of their programs.
At one point, Clinton told him, “We are not France,” after Sanders had complained that the United States was the only major industrialized power in the world that did not provide universal health care for its citizens. “We should not make promises we can’t keep,” Clinton said and warned that Sanders’ plans to push for a single-payer health care program would gridlock the political system and jeopardize Obamacare.
Clinton sought to co-opt the language that Sanders has been using to refer to an economy he says rewards the rich at the expense of the middle class.
“Yes, the economy is rigged in favor of those at the top,” Clinton said. “I know a lot of Americans are angry at the economy and for good cause. Americans haven’t had a raise in 15 years,” Clinton said, adding that she wanted to do more to ensure that “Wall Street never wrecks Main Street again.”