MLK holiday offers stage for Democratic hopefuls

Nation celebrates civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — As Americans commemorate Martin Luther King Jr., Democratic presidential hopefuls are fanning out across the country to honor the civil rights leader and make themselves heard on the national stage.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., used the holiday to launch a presidential campaign that, if successful, would make her the first woman and the second black candidate to become president.

South Carolina, a critical early-voting state in the Democratic primary, hosted two senators expected to seek the White House in 2020: Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

In the nation's capital, two possible 2020 contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke at a breakfast celebrating King's life that was held by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Two candidates who have already opened exploratory committees — Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — were also appearing at King-centered events.

While the Democratic field for 2020 is only beginning to take shape, the year that would have marked King's 90th birthday gives the party's prominent members a valuable opportunity to address race and, potentially, draw a contrast between their own views and those of President Donald Trump, whose approach to questions of racial justice has sparked criticism from multiple minority groups since he took office.

What Democratic contenders, both those officially in the race and those still mulling campaigns, said Monday while celebrating the King holiday:

Field of 2020 presidential contenders expands

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JOE BIDEN

Biden atoned for his role in the passage of a crime bill that imposed stiffer sentences for those convicted of crack cocaine possession — a law that has disproportionately affected the black community.

Biden said he hasn't "always gotten things right," but has "always tried." He also spoke about his support for efforts by former President Barack Obama's administration to reduce crack possession sentences.

Biden was the head of the Senate's Judiciary Committee when the 1994 crime bill — which is now criticized as having helped create an era of mass incarceration — was passed and signed into law.

"It was a big mistake that was made. We were told by the experts that 'With crack you can never go back,'" Biden said. "It's trapped an entire generation."

Biden says the crack sentencing guidelines are one example of broader racial injustice in America that needs to be fought.

"White America has to admit there's still a systematic racism. And it goes almost unnoticed by so many of us," he said.

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MICHAEL BLOOMBERG

Speaking at the same event as Biden, Bloomberg said far too many U.S. politicians don't "seem to give a damn" about the victims of gun violence.

Bloomberg said many politicians care more about "getting re-elected than saving lives." He spoke of his own efforts to reduce gun violence, including millions of his own fortune that he's spent supporting gun control initiatives.

His speech focused on policies he championed while New York's mayor, such as his efforts to improve schools and reduce neighborhood pollution. And he highlighted how he apologized to the fiancee of Sean Bell, a black man who was shot to death by New York police in 2006, just hours before the man's wedding. At the time Bloomberg was critical of officers, who he said used excessive force.

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ELIZABETH WARREN

In Boston, Warren called for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to vote for every American.

Warren made the comment after saying "people of color have been systematically denied the most basic of human rights: the right to vote."

"It would guarantee the right to vote to every American citizen and make sure that that vote is counted. Right now there is no constitutional right," Warren said. "It would help protect and give us grounds for pushing back when localities undercut the right of people to vote."

Warren said King's fight was not just about civil rights, but also about economic rights. She said the road to prosperity is steep and rocky for millions of working people, but is "steeper and rockier for black and brown Americans."

Warren also criticized the president for the partial federal government shutdown and responded to Trump's offer to Democrats on Saturday to open the government.

"If the president wants to negotiate over immigration reform I'm all for it," she said after the speech. "But open the government and open it now."

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BERNIE SANDERS

Speaking in South Carolina, Sanders cited King's "courage" in opposing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam as well as in fighting to end racial inequity.

"Racial equality must be central to combatting economic inequality, if we are going to create a government that works for all of us, and not just the one percent," Sanders said.

Sanders lost South Carolina's 2016 Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton by more than 40 percentage points. His presence at a Columbia church service Monday and a rally after, as well as several other events in the state, signaled that he plans to redouble efforts in South Carolina should he launch a second White House run.

Sanders also spoke of King's efforts to help workers organize and "change the national priorities," leaning into what sounded like a campaign message-in-waiting on Monday. Among the specific proposals he cited were a federal jobs guarantee, free tuition at public colleges and universities, and universal access to child care.

He also attacked the president, calling him "a racist" and saying he has purposely tried "to divide us up by the color of our skin, by our gender, by the country we came from, by our religion."

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CORY BOOKER

Booker implored those gathered at South Carolina's Statehouse to channel their dissatisfaction with the country's direction into action.

Recalling King's words on needing to work toward change rather than waiting for it, Booker urged those in the crowd to build on their ancestors' successes and struggles.

"We are dissatisfied that we live in a society that's being seduced by celebrity and forgets that substance is more important than celebrity," Booker said.

The New Jersey senator and Sanders participated in a morning prayer service before leading a march to the Statehouse.

"We don't just celebrate King's holiday," said Booker, who is African-American. "We recommit ourselves to be agents of change."

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KAMALA HARRIS

Harris, a first-term senator and former California attorney general known for her rigorous questioning of Trump's nominees, opened the holiday by declaring her bid on ABC's "Good Morning America." She abandoned the formality of launching an exploratory committee, instead going all in on a presidential campaign.

"I love my country," she said when asked what qualifies her for the presidency. "And this is a moment in time that I feel a sense of responsibility to stand up and fight for the best of who we are. And that fight will always include, as one of the highest priorities, our national security."

Harris, 54, grew up in Oakland, California, a daughter of parents from Jamaica and India who were active in the civil rights movement.

King, she said, "was aspirational, like our country is aspirational. We know that we've not yet reached those ideals, but our strength is that we fight to reach those ideals. And that inspires me because it is true that we are a country that, yes, we are flawed, we are not perfect, but we are a great country when we think about the principles upon which we are founded."

Harris also cited her years as a prosecutor in asserting: "My entire career has been focused on keeping people safe. It is probably one of the things that motivates me more than anything else."

The senator plans a formal campaign launch in Oakland in a week and will have her headquarters in Baltimore. She's already planning her first trip to an early primary state as a declared candidate.

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Associated Press reporters Brian Slodysko and Juana Summers in Washington and Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.

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