Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg had breakfast with Al Sharpton in Washington and proclaimed their dedication to fighting racial injustice. Kirsten Gillibrand rallied with with the civil rights leader later that afternoon in Harlem, dishing out Bible verses and tearing into “institutional racism.” Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders marched with black leaders on the streets of South Carolina’s capital city, while Elizabeth Warren honored Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory in Boston. And Kamala Harris — one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent African-American women — declared on national television that she would run for president.
That was just Monday.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day marked the busiest day of the presidential primary cycle to date, as 2020 hopefuls up and down the Eastern seaboard stood with African-American leaders to commemorate the holiday — and to signal their unwavering commitment to the Democratic Party’s most loyal supporters.
And even if most of the events weren’t official campaign stops, they still offered invaluable opportunities to connect with a core Democratic constituency, and to road-test messages with those voters.
For some, that started with a de facto apology.
“I haven’t always been right,” Biden, the former vice president, told the audience at a breakfast hosted by Sharpton’s National Action Network. “I know we haven’t always gotten things right. But I’ve always tried.”
Biden was explaining his prior position on criminal justice reform, a fraught issue for the former senator who now says it was a mistake to support legislation that led to sharp increases of incarceration of African-Americans.
The former vice president commended President Barack Obama for using the power of his office to commute more than a 1,000 sentences, and he went on to decry the “systematic racism” that he says persists in America.
Still, the vice president was well-received by the audience of several hundred mostly black leaders, taking selfies with many of them before his speech and receiving a standing ovation when it was his turn to talk. He talked up his friendship with the nation’s first African-American president, joking that Obama once gave him a “friendship bracelet.”
And he wasn’t the only politician in attendance to grapple with past criticism. During his speech, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg implicitly addressed criticism of his support for a “stop-and-frisk” policy, a police tactic used to temporarily detain those suspected of having a weapon. The policy drew a firestorm of complaints that it was racist because it disproportionately targeted men of color.
“I can’t stand up here and tell you every decision I’ve made as mayor is perfect,” Bloomberg said. “I listened to concerns and I tried to be responsive. But I can tell you we were always guided by the goal, first and foremost in all cases, of saving lives of those who faced the greatest risk of gun violence, young men of color.”
Bloomberg did receive notable support from one man in attendance: Sharpton. The reverend praised the former mayor for always being willing to talk with the civil rights community, recounting how Bloomberg promised to always show up to Sharpton’s New York-based House of Justice on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Every day for 12 years, on MLK Day, even when we was marching on him, he would come for MLK Day,” said Sharpton, who added that he had worked productively with Bloomberg on educational reforms in the city.
Neither Biden nor Bloomberg have declared they will run for president, though their dual speeches will stoke speculation that their entrance is just a matter of time. But in New York, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand--who has launched an exploratory committee-- was more explicit about her intentions.
In Harlem, she joined other prominent New York officials, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, Mayor Bill de Blasio and several members of the New York congressional delegation, at the House of Justice, a gathering space where the walls bear pictures of Sharpton in activist mode over the years.
Sharpton introduced Gillibrand as the “junior senator”--but also as the “senior candidate for president.”
“One thing I’ve learned is don’t underestimate her,” he said.
Gillibrand, who has been warmly received by Sharpton’s network before, said that her faith requires her to to speak out against racial inequity.
“I am going to run for President”—the crowd cheered—”because as a person of faith and as a mother, I cannot sit idly by. I will fight for your children as hard as I would fight for my own, because we are in a time such as this.”
It was a remark that had echoes of the Book of Esther, and indeed, Gillibrand’s remarks were peppered with Biblical references. But she also sought to energize the crowd by tapping language used by progressive activists who are ascendant in today’s Democratic Party.
“Women of color face even greater challenges because of the intersectionality of racism and sexism,” she said.
“Fighting against this will take all of us--it cannot be left to people of color alone,” she said to applause. “It is wrong to ask men and women of color to bear these burdens every single day, the same fights over and over again. White women like me must bear part of this burden and commit to amplifying your voices. We have to join you on the battlefield for justice for all.”
Also in New York, Harris declared Monday morning that she would run for president, making the senator from California one of the leading candidates to publicly announce her intentions so far in 2020. The senator, a daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, has drawn comparisons to Obama because of excitement she generates in many young voters of color.
But during an afternoon press conference at her alma mater, Howard University in Washington, she emphasized that she was reaching out to all corners of the Democratic coalition.
“It is about representing all of the people in the country,” Harris said.
“Be it a mom in Compton or a mom in Kentucky, she’s waking up having the same concerns about how she’s going to be able to raise those babies, how she’s going to be able to pay the rent at the end of the month, how she’s going to be able to retire with dignity.”
Emily Cadei contributed to this story