Politics & Government

‘Not a crazy billionaire’: Presidential hopeful Steyer connects with Rock Hill crowd

Johnnie Cordero, chairman of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina, crossed his arms and stared at Democratic presidential candidate and California billionaire Tom Steyer. They sat on wooden stools on a stage in the Clinton College gym.

“We have been witnessing the wholesale slaughter of African-American men, women and children at the hands of police,” Cordero said. “And we’re talking now about unarmed men, women and children.”

His voice grew louder. Steyer, who entered the presidential race in July, wiggled around on the stool.

“I guarantee you, when I say this to all my white brothers and sisters in the audience, you would not allow them to slaughter your children every single day,” Cordero said. “And we’re asking that the president of the United States be the first one to stand up and speak on that issue.”

Steyer, who became the 11th Democratic presidential candidate Sunday to qualify for the October debate, let out a deep sigh.

“There is nothing more upsetting and nothing more unjust than the idea of police killing someone unarmed based on the color of their skin,” Steyer said. “There is nothing that is more un-American than that.”

Throughout his town hall Tuesday at Clinton College, a historically black college, Steyer spoke on issues related to race, discrimination and criminal justice reform.

Here’s what Steyer said on those topics.

‘Start telling the truth’

Cordero said South Carolina, which will host the fourth nominating contest after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, is a critical state for candidates hoping to win the Democratic nomination. He said a significant proportion of the state’s Democratic electorate, about 60 percent, is black.

“Which says, very simply, that if you don’t bring African-Americans along, you’re not going to get (the nomination),” Cordero said.

Cordero said many candidates have shied away from speaking on reparations and asked Steyer if he supports reparations “for slavery and reparations for that which has come after slavery.”

“I’m for reparations,” Steyer said.

The crowd of about 50 people clapped.

“If we’re going to come to terms with what’s happened and move forward in a way that deals with those problems, we have to be explicit about them and start telling the truth about them,” Steyer said.

He said in order to make reparations, the public needs to understand a truthful history of the treatment of African-Americans in the U.S.

“We need to tell the truth about what happened, and we need to figure out the best way to do that,” he said. “Is it through specific educational programs? This is something where we’ve all got to come along on this and agree how to do it — not whether to do it.”

‘Incarceration nation’

“This is an incarceration nation,” Linda Wilkins-Daniels, president of the African-American Caucus of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said. “And it’s shameful for politicians to continue promising to make changes.”

Wilkins-Daniel said the First Step Act, signed into law last year, reforms the criminal justice system and eases prison sentences at the federal level. It’s a first step in solving a larger issue, she said. She asked Steyer how he will address mass incarceration.

Steyer said one injustice that disproportionately affects African-Americans in the criminal justice system is bail. He said he worked to end California’s cash bail system.

“When you’re arrested, you can go to jail, awaiting your trial,” he said. “If you can afford bail, you don’t have to go to jail. If you can’t afford bail, if you’re poor, you have to spend months in jail, which, of course, is as if you were convicted of a crime. It’s discriminatory based on money, but it turns out, based on race, as well.”

Steyer also said in order to keep young people out of prison, it’s important to keep them in school.

“What are we thinking about in terms of using the school system?” Steyer said. “And supporting young people in terms of getting them into a positive place, instead of the answer to be to try and get them off the streets?”

‘Crazy Billionaire’

“You are a billionaire,” Wilkins-Daniel said. “At least I was told you’re a billionaire. Can you assure us that another billionaire won’t go into office and act like our current president?”

Steyer said his activism makes him more than a businessman.

“Sometimes I do think my first name is ‘billionaire’ when I read about myself,” Steyer said.

Steyer said he has worked as an activist for years, organizing political efforts, such as NextGen America, an environmental advocacy group and political action committee, and Need to Impeach, an initiative aimed at lobbying lawmakers to impeach President Donald Trump.

“It’s about time that people are represented by people who get up in the morning and think, ‘I’m going to do this from the time I get to work and from the time I go to bed, and I’m going to do it again tomorrow,’” Steyer said. “That’s my plan. No, I’m not a crazy billionaire.”

The crowd laughed.

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Cailyn Derickson is a city government and politics reporter for The Herald, covering York, Chester and Lancaster counties. Cailyn graduated from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has previously worked at The Pilot and The News and Observer.