COLUMBIA, S.C. — From his South Carolina headquarters Monday — a short walk from Columbia’s two historically black universities — Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker made a promise to the more than 30 black men who filled the room.

If elected president, Booker said, “I will ask more from you than any president has ever asked from you in your life.”

And, Booker said, Monday’s conversation “will not be the last conversation we have.”

It was the U.S. senator’s promise and his passion that converted Pastor Andre Barnes from an undecided voter into a Booker supporter after he took a seat to hear the former Newark mayor talk about politics and policies that, in many cases, affect black men disproportionately.

The nearly 55 year old said he wasn’t looking for a savior, or a pastor like himself.

“Sometimes we put so much pressure on one person to come and do for us what we’re supposed to do ourselves,” Barnes told The State after he heard Booker. “I was more undecided, but I leave here a supporter of him. There is a level of authenticity that he has.”

In a room full pastors, businessmen and a substitute teacher, Booker, 50, said he felt like he was more in a barbershop than a campaign headquarters. Conversations bounced from tax relief for fathers unable to pay child support, to the legalization of marijuana — “It’s vegan,” one man told Booker, who admitted he doesn’t drink or smoke — and on to gun violence that plagues communities.

But as Booker talked about Opportunity Zones — made possible through legislation he co-sponsored with South Carolina’s Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, the U.S. Senate’s only black Republican — and touted his so-called “baby bonds” proposal — to give every U.S. child a $1,000 savings account — a handful of men sitting on plastic chairs aimed to make sure the 2020 hopeful took away the importance of them being there.

“We need a movement coming from you as a black man running for president,” said Allen Love, 46, a Columbia wealth manager whose expertise includes funding for Opportunity Zones. “We have the power to get you elected. There’s no reason why we should not as black men … vote for Cory Booker for president, who has proven and has actually done things.”

The polls suggest black S.C. voters are finding reasons to look elsewhere.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has dominated in S.C. polls and has about 44% support among the state’s black voters. Meanwhile, Booker and other candidates have yet to attract substantial support from black voters — even as three black candidates are seeking the nomination.

It’s a reality of support even U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ S.C. campaign ran into last month in Columbia, when an African American male voter standing by his car told two of Harris’ close friends door knocking for her that he planned to vote for Biden, not Harris.

Black men are nearly as powerful a voting bloc in South Carolina Democratic elections as black women.

In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, black men made up 24% of the primary electorate, according to 2016 exit polling. They also overwhelmingly voted for Clinton — 82% compared to Sanders’ 11%.

“It matters,” said S.C.-based Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright of the power of the black male vote. Seawright penned an op-ed for the New York Daily News in October, calling black men a potential “swing vote” to a Democrat winning the November election.

“I, in no way shape or form, am trying to mute or downplay the contributions, the significance of African American women, because that would be malpractice on my part,” Seawright continued. “I also understand the collective power and influence of the African American vote within the Democratic primary, even the general election. We have to be in the place and the space where we elevate both (voting blocs) at the same time. If there’s any election to excite black men, this is the one.”

Booker, who has met the donor threshold but has not yet qualified for the December debate based on polling, said there’s still time.

And to the men listening Monday in Columbia, Booker reminded them of former President Barack Obama’s 2008 run. Obama, in December 2007, he said, was still polling behind front-runner Hillary Clinton, who had large support from the Congressional Black Caucus.

“As somebody who is in this race, who has led (a) majority African American city, who has been fighting on issues that are relevant to the African American community authentically for my entire professional life and even before that as a student, I’m confident that I can connect in a trust where people will know where I’m from, what my record is,” Booker said.

“These are things that often have given my entire career an advantage in the African American community, and I’m confident that will be the case here in South Carolina.”

‘We need to be inspired’

Columbia-area radio host Timothy Wilkins, 52, said he wasn’t sold on Booker before hearing the candidate speak and still wasn’t sold on Booker as Wilkins stood outside the headquarters.

Wilkins said he wants to see how the race, now with 16 candidates, thins out.

“Bernie Sanders is out of the question for me,” Wilkins said, citing age and concern his policy positions aren’t realistic. “(U.S. Sen. Elizabeth) Warren, same. Not plausible. I think people think that because black people vote Democratic that they are liberal. They’re not as liberal as people think. We just side with what our best interests are.”

Still, Wilkins said he liked Booker’s outreach, though it may not win him the White House.

“I don’t feel like what he did was effective toward the presidency, but I do feel like it was effective toward community. Even if he doesn’t win, I would like to see him do this, grow this. Because conversations need to happen.”

Others were left inspired, including the Rev. Martin Quick who said he’s leaning heavily toward Booker but still hasn’t committed.

“Sometimes men, we need to be inspired,” Quick said. “More or less we need a coach type to get us going. That was the best part of him coming was to get that type of inspiration.”

And in coach to player-like fashion, Booker left the group with a clear message.

“If this is the most important election of our lifetime, act like it.”

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(c)2019 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

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