In an address to the most diverse audience of her nascent presidential bid, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren stuck to her themes of anti-corruption reform, populism and action to right racial inequality. The campaign event in Columbia marked her first campaign trip to South Carolina — a state that serves as an early indicator of a Democratic candidate's ability to connect with African-American voters.
"I spent my, pretty much, whole grown-up life focused on one central question: What's happening to working people in America?" Warren told hundreds at Columbia College Wednesday night. "Why has the path gotten so rocky for so many people who work hard? And why is it so much rockier for African-Americans?"
For further emphasis, Warren pointed to the racial gap in home ownership and the legacy of federal housing policies that excluded minorities.
"For all the families who are lucky enough that grandma and grandpa can live in their homes until they die, you've got an asset to pass down so the next generation can be lifted up," she said. The federal government had at one time subsidized home buying, she noted, "for white people, but not for black people." The majority of the crowd in the college's gymnasium — mostly white, but mixed with African Americans, Latinos and Muslim women in hijabs — sat silently.
"The gap between white home ownership and black home ownership — that was 27 points back when discrimination was legal — today is 31points," she said, citing research from the Urban Institute and the Census Bureau. The crowd drew a collective, audible gasp. "That's not an America that's working for everyone," Warren declared to applause.
“What she seems to be trying to do is assemble a material-based coalition on shared economic concerns, hoping that that’s enough to bridge racial and ethnic divisions,” said Adolphus Belk Jr., political science and African-American studies professor at Winthrop University. “But, while doing that, she’s not glossing over or ignoring the racial and ethnic differences and economic privation.”
Belk praised Warren for keeping her message consistent, no matter the racial-ethnic composition of her audience. Since announcing her presidential bid on New Year's Eve, she has addressed predominately white audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire and a mostly Latino one in Puerto Rico. She is scheduled to visit Nevada Friday.
Warren's comments about racial inequality appeared to go over well with the African Americans present, but did not sell all of them on her.
"Next year, when I vote, she's definitely going to get my vote," said Mikaya Thomas, a 19-year-old Columbia College student who heard Warren speak for the first time. "She hit home with a bunch of stuff, like healthcare and the oppression of people, and how she's going to help better that."
Thomas added, "I feel like that's something that a lot of people don't take time to notice, and it's something that needs to be said and noticed."
Others like fellow Columbia College student Gabby Reed told WGBH News they were pleased with Warren's remarks, but are still evaluating the Democratic field.
"I would say so far she has my vote, but I'm going to continue to see what the other candidates have to say," said Reed, 20.
Asked what topics she was hoping to hear more on, Reed replied: "I wanted to hear more about police brutality."
Patrick Faulds, a Columbia College instructor who is white, said he liked Warren's personality and proposals, but withheld his endorsement.
"I thought she was fantastic," said Faulds. "There was a genuineness to her that I found refreshing."
Faulds, who is 58, described himself as a "liberal conservative" and said even though he was impressed with Warren's pledge not to take PAC dollars, he wants to hear from the other candidates in order to decide.
"I always tell my friends and my students, please do not vote based on bumper sticker politics. I need to see the whole package and compare people," he said.
Those looking to make comparisons will not have to wait long. With more than a year before the state's Democratic primary, voters there have already heard from the growing field of presidential hopefuls, and more are on the way.
Belk said with so many prominent candidates possibly entering the contest, clenching the party's nomination could come down to personality and flair. "On a lot of policy issues, they're going to be kind of similar," he said.
Of Warren, he told WGBH News: "She has to reintroduce herself in a way that reminds people of who she is, demonstrates her command of the issues and also draws some distinctions between herself and the other candidates."
Whether that strategy is enough to set her apart from other big names like Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who will visit South Carolina Friday for an event with her historically black sorority, remains to be seen.
“African-American voters are going to make up anywhere from 50 to 60 percent of the voters in the Democratic primary, and most of them are going to be black women," he said. "You have to speak to their concerns, and you have to speak to their concerns in a way that makes them feel like you’re not in it for the short-term.”