Meet the pastor who wants the poor to pick a president

A new campaign to mobilize millions of low-income voters across the country ahead of this year’s presidential contest aims to radically reshape the way politicians — and especially Democrats — talk about a booming economy that has left so many Americans behind.

The new effort, led by the Poor People’s Campaign, has already drawn the attention of Democratic activists and presidential candidates. Its leader, the Rev. William Barber, has emerged this year as one of the most sought-after voices in the African American community, an especially powerful group of voters who represent major parts of the Democratic coalition in Southern states that will vote early in the presidential nominating process.

In June, four contenders addressed a Poor People’s Campaign forum in Washington, where low-income earners asked questions about systemic racism and poverty. In the months since, a parade of Democratic hopefuls have joined Barber at his Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and at events around the country. Next week, Barber will announce a voter registration drive aimed at driving Americans in poverty to the polls.

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“The goal of this campaign is to shift the narrative, to shock the consciousness, and to strengthen and build power among poor and low-wealth people,” Barber told The Hill in an interview. “We’re building a massive group of people across this country.”

Barber, 56, is an imposing presence, with big eyes and a minister’s talent for building crescendos. He has injected himself into the political debate in his home state, where he led Moral Monday protests against the Republican-controlled state legislature in Raleigh. In 2018, the MacArthur Foundation named him a fellow for what it called his ability to build “unusually inclusive fusion coalitions that are multiracial and interfaith, reach[ing] across gender, age and class lines.”

“Rev. Barber is a singular moral voice in the country. He commands incredible respect throughout the progressive movement and the grassroots liberal politics,” said Neera Tanden, who heads the Center for American Progress. “He provides a moral urgency around religion and issues like poverty, which should have a natural affinity but are often outside of the political conversation.”

Barber, who testified before the Democratic Party’s platform committee in 2016 and gave a speech at the convention that nominated Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE, sees Democratic candidates this year skipping a conversation on poverty. He led about 100 protesters on a march outside the last Democratic presidential debate on a frigid night in Des Moines, Iowa, to demand more attention for the lowest-income workers.

“Republicans tend to racialize poverty. Democrats tend to run from poverty. Nobody wants to deal with the reality of poverty,” Barber said. 

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“What I see as the Democrats’ problem, and it’s fixable, they act like they’re scared of poor folk, of poor and low-wealth people,” he added. “They’re so scared I guess that Republicans are going to connect poverty and go straight to socialism. At some point, you just need to stop letting people scare you.”

At least one Democratic presidential candidate noticed the protesters outside the debate hall.

“Something that hasn’t come up very much tonight but deserves a lot of attention, poverty,” former Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE said on the debate stage. “You know, the Poor People’s Campaign is marching on Iowa right now, calling on us to talk about this issue more. They are driven by their faith. I think because even though in politics we’re supposed to talk middle class, they know there’s no scripture that says as you’ve done unto the middle class, so you’ve done unto me.”

Buttigieg, who has talked at length about his own faith and what he calls the religious left, is one of the candidates who has attended a service at Greenleaf, a Southern church that draws a diverse congregation.

“In many corners of America, the most segregated day is on a Sunday. And Rev. Barber has helped change that,” said Wayne Goodwin, the chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party who has attended the church himself. “He has put a very bright spotlight on the disconnect between morality and integrity and ethics and what we’re seeing in the public realm.”

Barber is in the midst of a campaign that will take him to 25 states across the country. He said he hopes to recruit 30,000 people in every state, and to draw many of them to Washington, D.C., for a June rally. And that rally, he hopes, will spur voters to the polls in November.

Already, the Poor People’s Campaign claims to have made an electoral difference. Barber spent time in several Appalachian counties in Kentucky last year, and his activists clashed with then-Gov. Matt Bevin (R). Bevin lost his reelection bid — and some of the counties where Barber campaigned.

“We’re not partisan, but highly political,” he said. “We believe in building from the state up, we believe in nationalizing states, because state capitals block health care, block living wages, block union rights.”

Barber hopes the campaign will shine a new light on poverty that senior Democrats say their party does not address often enough.

“He has a point that Democrats need to do a better job connecting the struggles of the poor,” Tanden said. “The right tries to otherize poverty, make it a problem of people of color or cities or some group that they can dislike. And Democrats haven’t done a sufficient job to combat that.”

Beyond this year’s elections, Barber wants to reclaim the message of morality he says has been taken over by the religious right.

“This brand of theological malpractice that’s all over Capitol Hill and state capitals basically says the moral issues are prayer in the schools, being against gay people, being against abortion, being for tax cuts, being for guns and being for people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. It’s heretical. It doesn’t even line up with orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and it certainly doesn’t line up with the moral categories of our constitution,” Barber said. “The theological malpractice and modern-day heresies are being used to consecrate and ordain immoral policies.”

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