Sen. Barack Obama told a Los Angeles audience Thursday that he helped Mexican Americans as well as blacks and whites during his days as a community organizer, and that the nation must continue working to bridge its ongoing "black-brown divide."
"Over the past few weeks, we've heard some cynical talk about how black folks, white folks and Latinos cannot come together," Obama told a town-hall meeting at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. "Whenever I hear this, I take it seriously, because I'm reminded of the Latino brothers and sisters that I worked alongside on the streets of Chicago over two decades ago."
African American voters have coalesced around the Illinois senator's candidacy in recent weeks, but there are questions about his ability to draw Latino voters.
Both he and his chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, are running television ads targeting Latino voters.
Obama's L.A. appearance was his only public event Thursday. Clinton held no public events. The candidates met Thursday evening for a debate at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, their first one-on-one debate of the campaign.
At the technical college, Obama said the nation's ills affected Latinos and African Americans equally and could only be solved by working together. From higher dropout rates to a greater incidence of diabetes and infant mortality, Obama said, the two groups suffer more than any others in the country.
"Those disparities are wrong," he said.
Obama regularly talks about his years as a community organizer, bringing people together on Chicago's South Side after steel mill closures.
But, landing in diverse Los Angeles just five days before Tuesday's primary, he expanded on his story, painting it in racial tones.
The steel plants, he said, had been the source of jobs, benefits and healthcare for Mexican Americans, blacks and whites alike. When they closed, the pain did not discriminate.
In the face of such dislocation, he said, "people were divided. Because people were divided, they felt disempowered. Sometimes they turned on each other."
The focus of his church-based organizing, he said, was to bring the disempowered together, help them "recognize themselves in each other" and work toward the common goals of full employment, equal education and access to healthcare.
"This is not the rhetoric of a campaign," he said. "This is the cause of my life."
In a nod to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination the day before, Obama said it was important to address the issue of poverty and not turn a blind eye on "the forgotten Americans."
On Thursday Obama was joined by prominent state Latino supporters, including labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), state Sens. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) and Dean Florez (D-Shafter), and U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles).
Obama was scheduled to raise money in Hollywood on Thursday night after the debate, then head to New Mexico and Idaho today. Clinton is scheduled to campaign today in San Diego.