Can Sanders woo black voters?

Hours after claiming a decisive victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is planning to meet in New York City with none other than the Rev. Al Sharpton, a move that is sure to rattle Clinton’s advisors and the candidate herself.

Not because Sharpton directly controls a significant block of votes (he doesn’t), but because he symbolizes a larger question facing the Democratic Party: what will African-American voters do when the first black president leaves the White House?

President Obama’s popularity with black voters can’t be overstated: his run for office resulted in millions of black voters registering and casting ballots for the first time in huge numbers in 2008. In 2012, when Obama was running for re-election, the rate of black voter turnout exceeded that for whites for the first time in history. Black voters skew Democratic by an overwhelming ratio of 80 to 11, according to the Pew Research Center, making blacks by far the most loyal demographic group in the Democratic base.

Any hope of a Democratic victory in November depends on heavy turnout by black voters. So it’s smart politics for Clinton and Sanders to make as many friends among black political leaders as possible. And Sharpton — who leads a national organization and hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show heard in dozens of markets around the nation — is a good friend to have.

Like any power broker, Sharpton is well aware of his status. He recently told me of being approached by Clinton’s allies and asked what he wanted in exchange for supporting her candidacy. “What do I want? Nothing!” he told me. “I’ve been to the White House for Christmas and the Super Bowl with the first black president, had more access than any civil rights leader in history. What can Hillary or any other president do for me?”

That’s a pretty good question, and Team Clinton isn’t the only one asking it. Sharpton was recently photographed having breakfast with Kevin Sheekey, a top aide to former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman who is known to be exploring a possible bid for president as an independent.

“It would be interesting. Bloomberg is one of the few people who could pull off a credible independent candidacy for president,” Sharpton said after the meeting.

“For African-Americans and Latino voters, a 50-state run will enhance our leverage and get our interests addressed. We wouldn’t just be focusing on a few primary states,” he said.

The message is crystal clear: black political activists like Sharpton want to be wooed and are willing to talk with anybody — including Bernie Sanders or Mike Bloomberg — rather than fall in line behind the Democratic establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton.

In upcoming states with large numbers of black voters — including South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana — Clinton will need not just grudging acceptance but energetic mobilization if she wants to win. That is why she recently left the campaign trail to visit mostly-black Flint, Michigan, and decry the racially-tinged manmade health disaster there.

But Sanders’ tete-a-tete with Sharpton makes clear that the black vote is not Clinton’s to take for granted. She’ll need to make more gestures like the trip to Flint and convince black political leaders — not just Sharpton — that the levels of access, pride, government appointments and other benefits won’t vanish when Barack Obama gets on Air Force One for the last time.

Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Is your nail salon abusing workers?

— A blockbuster investigation in The New York Times has exposed the harrowing, illegal conditions prevalent in nail salons in and around New York City — including cases of illegal stealing of tips, failure to pay overtime or minimum wage and forced exposure to toxic fumes and chemicals.



Errol Louis

That, in turn, has triggered an emergency crackdown on the industry by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, complete with a plan to inspect every nail salon in New York and a promise to fine or close shops that don’t immediately clean up their act.

While Cuomo’s intervention is a welcome step in the right direction, it underscores the reality that safeguarding the rights and working conditions of millions of low-wage workers is too big of a job for any one governor — or even a group of governors, even yours — to tackle without the backing of the federal government.

The situation of workers in New York City’s estimated 2,000 nail salons has been a scandal hiding in plain sight. As the Times investigation showed, many shop owners viciously exploit young women from Asia and Latin America, many of them undocumented immigrants, by requiring them to work 10- and 12-hour days for weeks as unpaid apprentices, after which they might earn as little as $30 a day plus tips.

Some salon owners seize their employees’ tips, deny workers a place for meal breaks, ride herd on workers for breaking minor rules — all enforced by the use of video surveillance, fines and even physical abuse. Those practices violate a slew of laws that mandate a minimum wage, extra pay for overtime and meal breaks.

The Times exposé focused on nail shops, but it could have been written about any number of low-wage workplaces across the country. Car wash employees in New York recently took to the streets, filed a lawsuit and eventually unionized to protest the stealing of tips and lack of minimum wage or overtime pay. Similar violations of wage laws have been documented at car washes in Chicago and in Los Angeles.

Restaurants — another workplace dependent on low-wage workers and cash transactions — turn out to be so rife with wage violations that California authorities have launched crackdowns; ditto for Colorado and Idaho. Boston has gone so far as to deny permits to restaurants that steal employees’ tips and pay.

Construction sites may be havens of wage theft. Many hotels have the same problem. Although the exact extent of wage theft and underpayment nationwide isn’t recorded in any one place, “survey evidence suggests that wage theft is widespread and costs workers billions of dollars a year,” says a September report by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, citing a study of conditions in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

“The total annual wage theft from front-line workers in low-wage industries in the three cities approached $3 billion,” the institute said. “If these findings in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are generalizable to the rest of the U.S. low-wage workforce of 30 million, wage theft is costing workers more than $50 billion a year.”

The Wage and Hour Division of the federal Department of Labor, which tracks wage violations, found last year that more than 270,000 workers nationwide were owed $240 million.

The phenomenon extends well beyond big cities. The Economic Policy Institute surveyed federal and local agencies that regulate wage conditions and found that “state departments of labor in 44 states recovered $172 million; state attorneys general in 45 states recovered $14 million; and private attorneys recovered $467 million in wage and hour class action lawsuits.”

No single city or state can individually expect to make serious headway in ending a problem taking place in nearly half the country; what’s needed is a federal commitment to enforcing workplace conditions. The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has 200 offices nationwide — a number that only sounds impressive until you consider the millions of workplaces where violations might take place. (Nationwide, for example, there are 17,000 nail salons.)

This is a case where the simplest and best solution is an old one: labor unions. When workers collectively negotiate wages, hours and other conditions — and keep a permanent watch for violations — abuses get caught earlier and are resolved through a process that is faster and less costly than launching a regulatory crackdown or filing lawsuits.

This happens to be an election season, so every candidate for the presidency should put up their best ideas — whether it’s supporting unions, tougher regulation or some other method — to make sure our workplaces are run with fairness and according to law.

Sweatshops have no place in 21st-century America.

Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Loretta Lynch, get ready for a fight

— If the confirmation process for Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s nominee for attorney general, gets significantly delayed, the reason will be pure politics.

Some Senate Republicans, anticipating the day in January when they will have majority control of the chamber, are calling for a moratorium on new appointments until the new Senate is seated. It’s likely to be the first in a series of skirmishes between Obama and the leadership on Capitol Hill.

Within hours of Lynch’s nomination, the right-wing Breitbart website ran an erroneous story slamming Lynch for supposedly representing ex-President Bill Clinton during the long-ago inquiry into the Whitewater land deal — but later had to post a correction for failing to recognize that Clinton’s defender was, in fact, a different person named Loretta Lynch.

The haste with which conservatives began attacking Lynch suggests she will be in for a tough slog during the nomination process.

But while the politics may slow her confirmation, there’s no question that the tough-as-nails prosecutor is ready for the top job at the Justice Department. Any rival candidates the Republicans might put forward will have a hard time demonstrating prowess equal or superior to Lynch’s in the crucial areas of prosecuting lawbreakers involved in organized crime, corporate theft, political corruption and threats to national security.

Lynch served two stints as the U.S. attorney in charge of New York’s Eastern District, which includes most of New York City (Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island) as well as suburban Long Island. The office is often overshadowed by the neighboring Southern District, which covers Manhattan and brings high-profile Wall Street prosecutions.

While her flashier colleague in the Southern District, Preet Bharara, gives speeches, holds frequent press conferences and has several press officers, Lynch rarely holds forth in public and reportedly spent months without a press aide after the sole staffer in charge of public outreach retired.

But Lynch did much to put the Eastern District on the map. She mounted successful prosecutions that broke the back of MS-13, a murderous gang that preys on immigrant communities; convicted the underboss of the Colombo crime family; and even revived an old Mafia case by arresting five aging suspects from the all-but-forgotten Lufthansa heist of 1978, immortalized in the movie “Goodfellas.”

Wall Street physically falls outside Lynch’s jurisdiction, but she mounted major cases against global financial giants engaged in wrongdoing. In 2012, she won a record $1.9 billion in fines and penalties from HSBC, a British bank, for a wide range of violations, including laundering more than $800 million for Mexican drug gangs and illegally doing business with customers in Iran, Sudan and Cuba. Lynch’s office also participated in the pursuit of Citigroup for its actions that contributed to the mortgage crash of 2008 — an investigation that led to a $7 billion settlement.

And Lynch has taken on public corruption cases involving members of New York’s power elite. She convicted Pedro Espada Jr., the former majority leader of the New York state Senate, on corruption charges, calling him “a thief in a suit” the day he was hauled off to serve a five-year prison sentence. She is currently prosecuting state Sen. John Sampson, and earlier this year indicted U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm on 20 counts including fraud, embezzlement and perjury.

But Lynch’s best-known attack on public corruption came more than a decade ago, when she was part of the team that prosecuted cops who attacked and brutally sodomized a suspect, Abner Louima, in the back room of a Brooklyn precinct house. The prosecution ended in a guilty plea by the main perpetrator, Officer Justin Volpe, who is serving a 30-year sentence.

In addition to rounding up shady pols, violent cops and Wall Street cheats, Lynch took on the all-important issue of national security in the harrowing case of Najibullah Zazi, a terrorist who drove explosives from Colorado to New York City with the intent of setting them off in the subways. Zazi almost pulled off the horrific attack — he was stopped on the George Washington Bridge, minutes from Manhattan — but ended up pleading guilty and cooperating with the government. (He hasn’t been sentenced yet, but faces up to two life sentences for his crimes.)

All in all, an impressive body of work — one that Lynch compiled with a professional modesty that is rare in New York’s tough, competitive legal and political circles.

She will now find herself caricatured and criticized by power brokers in Washington who are determined to hamstring the president. One likely avenue of attack is Lynch’s time in the private sector: Between 2001 and 2009, she worked as a corporate attorney specializing in compliance work for big banks and briefly served on the board of the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

“She swims in the same pool as the moneyed elite, and her actions don’t pressure them too deeply,” writes David Dayen in Salon, echoing the oft-heard complaint that even multibillion-dollar settlements of the kind Lynch negotiated rarely result in any specific person going to prison.

“It’s just not that likely Lynch would have the will to crack down on malfeasance in the executive suites, which could implicate her colleagues and friends,” writes Dayen. “It’s not corruption, more like mindshare.”

That sort of criticism unites left-of-center Occupy Wall Street activists and conservatives who — determined to find fault with anything Obama does — accuse the White House of crony capitalism and aim special venom at ex-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (whose rise to his pre-Treasury job of president of the New York Federal Reserve was aided by Lynch; as a board member, she cast a vote to give Geithner the post).

So Obama’s nominee is in for a wave of criticism that might drag confirmation proceedings into 2015. We shall see if Lynch — who has locked up enough terrorists, gangsters and political crooks to fill a few subway cars — has the grit and gumption to master political combat inside the Beltway the way she has mastered legal battle in the courtroom.

Editor’s note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.