CHICAGO – Seeking support from minority voters, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) pledged Tuesday to expand educational opportunity and see that 1 million more students graduate college during his first five years in office.
Kerry's education plan has a particular emphasis on supporting minority enrollment in college through scholarships, mentoring and tutoring programs and other incentives. He told the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition (search) that although college graduates will earn $900,000 more over their careers, less than a third of all Americans and less than a fifth of black Americans have a four-year degree.
"My friends, we can't rest until all Americans, and I mean all Americans, white and black, rich and poor, people of all colors and all backgrounds, truly have the opportunity they need to make the American dream real," Kerry told the a convention of the civil rights group.
Turning out minority voters is essential if Kerry is going to win the election against President Bush. Blacks voted for Al Gore (search) over George Bush 9-to-1 in 2000, while two-thirds of Hispanics supported Gore. Among whites alone, Bush won 54 percent to 42 percent.
Kerry has been criticized for failing to connect to blacks the way Bill Clinton could. But he roused the largely black audience at the Rainbow-PUSH Coalition convention on Tuesday, frequently straying from his prepared text to toss out lines that would rev up the crowd. In the tradition of the famously long-winded Clinton, he spoke for nearly an hour.
"Don't tell us that it's the best we can do with the last election when 2 million votes weren't even counted," Kerry said, taking up the cry of those who felt disenfranchised when Bush won in 2000.
Jesse Jackson, head of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, introduced Kerry and reminded the audience not just to judge him by his Ivy League pedigree. Yale may have produced Bush and conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (search), Jackson said, but also Bill and Hillary Clinton (search) as well as Kerry.
"Yale is not all bad," Jackson teased. "Its reputation's being soiled."
Rep. Dick Gephardt (search), D-Mo., a former candidate for the nomination and reportedly a top contender for Kerry's running mate, also was scheduled to speak Tuesday. However, the Kerry campaign said Kerry and Gephardt did not meet during the convention.
Besides his education plan, Kerry promised to make health care affordable for all, make America energy independent, build a strong military, create good paying jobs, enforce trade agreements and fight for the right of workers to organize.
"I'm weary about standing up in front of you because I know there's a cynicism," Kerry said. "I know you're tired of the words. ... I got into this because we were all touched by those early years, by President Kennedy, by Martin Luther King (search), by the dream, by the possibilities of individuals making a difference in the lives of other people."
After his speech in Chicago, Kerry boarded his plane to fly to Phoenix and explain his education plan to the National Council of La Raza (search). Hispanics traditionally are more politically divided and are being targeted by both the Bush and Kerry campaigns.
Kerry's campaign says nearly half of the hike of 1 million college graduates will come from population increases, and he'll achieve the other half by bringing down the cost of education and creating other incentives to bring students to college and keep them there.
Nearly 10 million students are expected to earn bachelor's and associate's degrees over the next five years, according to statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics (search). That means Kerry is promising to oversee a 10 percent increase in people earning degrees.
Kerry has already promised to increase college enrollment by 1.5 million students in five years.
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry's pledges to increase enrollment and graduation are "empty promises." Schmidt noted that Kerry already has said he'll have to scale back some of his earlier education funding proposals because of the growing deficit.