Rivals Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton will speak at the same event for the first time during the presidential campaign when they deliver their messages to black voters at the National Urban League conference in Fort Lauderdale on Friday, a gathering that will also draw three more 2016 contenders.
Bush has frequently said that he will campaign where Republicans often don’t venture, including in black communities that overwhelmingly vote Democratic and helped President Barack Obama win the swing state of Florida. But the goal for Bush is to chip away at that loyal blue base in Florida where the outcome — should he become the party’s nominee — could be razor thin.
The former Florida governor has tried to reach out to black voters by citing his achievements in and out of office, particularly his push to close the achievement gap and expand opportunities for minority students. Founded in 1910, the National Urban League is a civil-rights organization that aims to empower under-served communities.
Following the Fort Lauderdale event, Clinton will give a speech on Cuba policy at Florida International University in which she will call for lifting the U.S. trade embargo.
Two of Clinton’s Democratic competitors — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — will also speak at the Urban League conference. Both Sanders and O’Malley trail far behind Clinton; however, Sanders’ message about fighting income inequality has been drawing big crowds, and he has narrowed his gap in some polls with Clinton.
Organizers invited all the 2016 candidates to speak at the annual Urban League conference, which is being held this year at the Broward County Convention Center. The theme this year is “Save our Cities Education, Jobs and Justice.”
The only other Republican candidate who agreed to speak is Ben Carson, an African American neurosurgeon who retired in West Palm Beach. A spokesman for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said he will not attend because of a scheduling conflict. Candidates are expected to talk for 10 to 20 minutes but not take questions as part of the program.
The candidates are likely to touch on a broad range of issues, from education to police brutality to voting rights, with a particular eye toward what black voters want to hear.
During the campaign as she has reached out to black voters, Clinton has called for outfitting every police department with body cameras, investing in early childhood education and fighting for voting rights. The question for Clinton is whether she can hang on to the black voters that helped Obama win Florida twice. Ninety-five percent of Florida’s black voters cast ballots for Obama in 2012, slightly higher than the national rate.
As of October, about 13 percent of Florida’s voters were black — and about 81 percent were registered Democrats.
While Obama’s campaign in 2008 and his reelection in 2012 drove up black voter registration in Florida, there is still room to drive it up even more, said Steve Schale, who directed Obama’s first campaign in Florida and served as a senior advisor to his second campaign.
“Florida — compared to the rest of the country — has one of the few black populations that is growing faster than whites,” Schale said. “In a lot of places in the country the African-American birthrates and population have leveled out similar to whites but because of the Caribbean population [in Florida] there is a real opportunity to continue to grow those numbers.”
Bush has campaigned on his leadership of a diverse, purple state. He frequently cites statistics about Florida’s efforts to narrow the gap between white and minority students on educational scores, and how after his first failed race for governor in 1994 he launched a charter school in Liberty City, a largely poor and black area in Miami-Dade County. That school later closed.
At a meet-and-greet in Orlando on Monday, Bush rejected the suggestion from a listener that he conduct “outreach” to minority voters. Bush said the word implied minorities being on the “periphery” of his campaign.
“There is no outreach plan here,” Bush said. “This is an integral part of the plan.”
Democrats, too, could face heat at Friday’s event.
At the liberal Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix two weeks ago, Sanders and O’Malley were disrupted by protesters who demanded that the candidates address police brutality. O’Malley was later forced to apologize for responding that “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter,” which activists considered a dismissal of their concerns about institutional racism.
Bush later said O’Malley shouldn’t have said he was sorry. “We’re so uptight and so politically correct now that we apologize for saying ‘lives matter?’” Bush said. “If he believes that white lives matter, which I hope he does, then he shouldn’t have apologized.”
When asked how the Urban League plans to avoid a similar disruption, a spokeswoman declined to discuss security plans.
Three South Florida Democratic politicians also are expected to speak at the conference: DNC chair and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens and U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar.
About 7,500 people are expected to attend the conference, which runs through Saturday, according to Nicki Grossman, Broward’s tourism director.