Bernie Sanders courts minority voters in Columbia

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders speaks during the first of his three stops in South Carolina on Saturday, at Benedict College in Columbia. (Cynthia Roldan/Staff)

COLUMBIA — Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders ran the gamut of issues during his one-hour speech in the state’s capital on Saturday, from calling for a minimum wage hike to denouncing militarized police departments.

The Vermont Senator spoke to a crowd of more than 500 at Benedict College in Columbia; a decent showing, but low when compared to past appearances that have been packed — including one Saturday afternoon at Winthrop University that had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate expected crowds.

The low number is perhaps the strongest indicator of an issue Sanders’ campaign has been trying to fix: his lack of traction among minority voters. The stop at Benedict College, a historically black liberal arts college, was his attempt to court voters away from Hillary Clinton.

Sanders touched on issues that strongly impact minority communities, such high youth unemployment numbers, which he said correlate with high numbers of incarceration.

“Sixty-nine percent of male African-American high school drop outs end up in jail,” Sanders said. “It seems to me, given that reality, that tragic reality, that it makes a lot more sense for us to invest a lot more in jobs and education rather than jails and incarceration.”

Sanders also drew praise from the crowd when he vowed to make every public college and university tuition free, and promised to not forget about the importance of historically black colleges and universities.

He also talked about racism remaining alive today, citing the massacre of nine churchgoers in Charleston on June 17 and hate groups that exist to “hate those people who are different than them.”

“When I talk about racism, I’m not just talking about the incredible sickness of a man who walked into a bible study class in Charleston, prayed with people in the room, and then took out a gun and killed nine of them in cold blood,” said Sanders, before sounding off the names of people who have died in police custody like Sandra Bland, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.

Sanders added that the nation’s criminal justice system is “deeply broken” and presented several solutions that included a call for better community policing.

“I do not want to see local police departments heavily militarized that look like they’re invading us,” Sanders said. “Furthermore, we need police departments in this country who look like the people they are serving. We need new rules regarding the allowable use of force and lethal force.”

Other issues he called for reform or change on included immigration, campaign finance, hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour, moving the world off fossil fuels and onto sources of sustainable energy, and keeping a Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon without going to war.

Anita Jordan, 60, and JJ Bellemare, 44, both of Savannah, said that’s why they like Sanders; because every time he talks, he’s got a new take on what the nation should be discussing.

“He’s one of the few candidates who I agree with all of his platform,” Jordan said. “I think what drives me most is that we really need to take wealth influence out of politics.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 577-7111.