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Democratic debate: Candidates focus on race, criminal justice

Sunday's debate may have pushed race and criminal justice issues to center stage.

Former Gov. Martin O’Malley proclaimed “black lives matter” when talking about the deaths of young men in Baltimore. Sen. Bernie Sander called for an automatic investigation by a U.S. Attorney General anytime someone is killed while in police custody. And former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the mass incarceration and killing of young black men by police “heartbreaking.”

If prior Democratic debates left some of those fighting for the lives of black men in America disappointed, the opening of Sunday's debate may have pushed race and criminal justice issues to center stage.

Ahead of the debate, activist DeRay McKesson, who rose to prominence on the front lines of the Ferguson uprising, implored NBC host and debate moderator Lester Holt “to push these candidates to talk candidly about race in America.”

“At their best, debates can be forums where those who aspire to lead are held accountable to the issues that speak to the lives of the people they want to lead,” McKesson wrote in an open letter to Holt. “We have yet to see a debate at its best with regard to the issues of race, criminal justice, and policing. You can change that.”

The opening salvo touched on race, guns and criminal justice, with Holt pushing the candidates to acknowledge what many believe are cardinal, if not critical issues.

In answering a question about the killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American shot in the back in April by a police officer not far from where Sunday's debate took place, Clinton said it was true that the shooting reaffirmed fears that many black men in America have. Scott was pulled over by a police officer in North Charleston for a broken taillight but ended up shot dead after he tried to runaway from the officer.

“Sadly, it’s reality. And it has been heartbreaking and incredibly outraging to see the constant stories of young men like Walter Scott, as you said, who have been killed by police officers. There needs to be a concerted effort to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system,” Clinton said. “And that requires a very clear agenda for retraining police officers, looking at ways to end racial profiling, finding more ways to really bring the disparities that stalk our country into high relief.”

She lamented that one out of three black men may well end up going to prison, a troubling statistic she said would have a different response if the same applied to white men.

“We have a very serious problem that we can no longer ignore,” Clinton said.

The strong statements by the Democratic front-runner come as the three-person cast of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination are striving to capture the black vote, a loyal voting bloc that carried President Obama to the White House, but one that has been less enthusiastic about having someone not named Obama on the ticket.

Sanders and Clinton are running neck-and-neck in Iowa and New Hampshire. The most recent national NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of voters shows Clinton with a mammoth 25-point lead over Sanders. If Sanders has any real chance at the White House, he will have to appeal to black voters, a daunting task given their lack of familiarity with him.

“We have a criminal justice system which is broken. Who in America is satisfied that we have more people in jail than any other country on Earth including China, disproportionately African-American and Latino?” Sanders said during the debate. “Who is satisfied that 61% of African-American young people are either unemployed or underemployed? Who is satisfied that millions of people have police records for possessing marijuana when the CEOs of Wall Street companies that destroyed our economy has no police records? We need to take a very hard look at our criminal justice system, investing in jobs and education, not in jail and incarceration.”

When asked by debate moderator Lester Holt how Sanders expected to win the nomination, when folks like the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus called supporting Clinton an easy one, Sanders balked.

“When the African-American community becomes familiar with my congressional record, my views on the economy and our views on criminal justice, just as the general population becomes more supportive, so will African-Americans and Latinos,” Sanders said.

When asked how he would hold police who kill or break the law accountable, Sanders suggested that any time someone is killed in police custody that it trigger an investigation by Justice Department.

“This is a responsibility for the U.S. Justice Department to get involved. Whenever someone is killed in police custody, this should automatically trigger a [DOJ] investigation,” Sanders said.

Clinton and Sanders also sparred over their gun control agendas, another key issue for many black and Latino voters.

Clinton pounded Sanders on his gun control record, driving a cleave between herself and Sanders while aligning herself with Obama and his recent push for stricter gun measures by way of a series of executive actions aimed at tightening the gun-show loophole and curbing gun violence.

“I have made it clear based on Sen. Sanders' own record that he has voted with the NRA with the gun lobby numerous times. He voted against the Brady Bill five times, he voted for what we call the Charleston loophole, he voted for immunity from gun makers and sellers, which the NRA said was the most important piece of gun legislation in 20 years,” Clinton said of Sanders. “He voted to let guns go onto Amtrak, guns go into National Parks, he voted against doing research to figure out how we can save lives, lets not forget what this is about, 90 people a day die from gun violence in our country.”

Sanders called Clinton “disingenuous” for her assertions.

“I think Secretary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous. I have a D- voting record from the NRA,” Sanders said, running through his legislative gun-control bona fides. “We have seen in this city a horrendous tragedy of a crazed person praying with people and then coming out and shooting nine people. This should not be a political issue. What we should be doing is working together and by the way, as a senator from a rural state that has virtually no gun control, I believe that I am in an excellent position to bring people together to find a sensible gun safety legislation.”

Ahead of the debate, Sanders said he would consider reversing course and supporting newly introduced legislation that would repeal key parts of the 2005 immunity law.

Clinton has called Sanders a flip-flopper and challenged him to do more, saying that he voted for legislation including a provision in the law that allows a licensed gun dealer to sell a firearm if the FBI doesn’t return a background check within three days.

Dylann Roof, the killer of nine church members at Mother Emanuel church last summer in Charleston, should have been barred from purchasing a gun because of a prior narcotics arrest, but the FBI failed to deny his background check in time to stop him.

Clinton has called for a “common sense” approach to amending current gun laws, including comprehensive background checks, closing gun show and online sales loopholes, reversing immunity for gun manufacturers and prohibiting individuals on the terror no-fly list from buying guns.

Clinton has launched a new 30-second campaign ad, aligning herself with Obama and his new gun proposals while taking aim at Sanders.

“An average of 90 people are killed by guns in this country every single day. It has to stop,” Clinton says into the camera, then noting aspects of Obama’s gun plan.

“When their guns are used to kill our children,” she said, “It’s time to pick a side. Either we stand with the gun lobby, or we join the president and stand up to them. I’m with him.”

I’m with him is a reference to President Obama and his new gun-control plan. Time and again Clinton has showed voters that she is embracing Obama’s legacy while trying to show that Sanders does not.