Vice President Joe Biden speaks at National Urban League conference

CINCINNATI -- The National Urban League conference took on a presidential air Thursday as Vice President Joe Biden arrived in the Queen City to speak at the event.

The conference's theme is "One Nation Underemployed," and Biden relayed the message that investment in infrastructure and job training is needed to increase economic opportunities in the nation's cities.

Biden told the crowd at Duke Energy Center the United States needs to increase its skilled workforce to meet new business needs and to improve roads, bridges and other transportation to spur growth.

"This is a new era," he said. "We are better-positioned than anybody in the world, but we need to invest in infrastructure and skilled job training."

His comments reflected the mission of President Barack Obama's $302 billion plan earlier this year to increase transportation spending and keep transit programs going for four years.

The plan got a chilly reception from Republicans in Congress. 

House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from West Chester, said in a statement Thursday that Biden should urge Democrats to work with House Republicans to help the economy by expanding energy production and cutting government red tape.

In addition to talk of advancing investment in infrastructure, Biden blasted what he called a national Republican effort to restrict voting in the guise of preventing fraud and corruption that doesn't happen.

"Name it for what it is — an attempt to repress minority voting," said the vice president, who sprinkled in quotes from civil rights leaders during his half-hour speech. Biden said that protecting voting "used to be a bipartisan thing."

Biden's speech came a day after he spoke to the NAACP in Las Vegas, where he made similar criticisms of voter ID and other proposals that would "repress" minority voting.

The vice president hasn't ruled out a run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

Earlier Thursday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus assured attendees the GOP is making a serious, determined effort to build ties with minority voters.

"So we want you to know, desperately, that the Republican Party is listening, we want a relationship, we want to fight for everybody in this country," he said, adding that the party has turned added "black engagement" staffers in various states, including Ohio, to help reach out to black voters.

"We're serious about doing things differently," Priebus said.

Biden and Priebus aren't the only political power players scheduled to take part in the event.

Ohio Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald also plans to speak Thursday. Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who's also been trying to reach out to minorities, will speak at the conference Friday.

Urban League president Marc Morial said the nonpartisan organization likes a diverse discussion and wants to keep up a dialogue with both sides of the political spectrum.

RELATED: Urban League convention says "We've turned a page"

While politics, voting rights and talks of advancements in transportation initiatives were bullet points in the vice president's address, jobs is the theme of the conference, which kicked off Wednesday.

Cincinnati Urban League CEO Donna Jones Baker welcomed attendees and reminded them that the league skipped Cincinnati 11 years ago.

Back then the city was embroiled in a controversy over police/community relations. Baker said attendees are in a different Cincinnati now.

“To say that we have turned it around is an understatement,” Baker said.

Morial said it’s not just about jobs, but about good paying jobs that will reverse years of economic decline.

“Jobs rebuild America. Jobs rebuild the nation. That a job is the best anti-poverty program there is,” he said.

The group believes the topic is critical because unemployment among African-Americans is double the national average.

And the problem hits close to home.

Morial said, "And here's the truth: Four of the largest metro areas in the nation with black unemployment over 20 percent are right here in Ohio."

But there's room to grow on the economic front, which is why Morial thinks the four-day conference, with its numerous speakers and events, is so important.

Thursday’s events also include a panel discussion with mayors from several U.S. cities, plus a career fair. Walmart chief executive officer William S. Simon attended a luncheon with attendees, as well.

The Expo Hall features hundreds of exhibitors, a health zone with free health screenings, in addition to live entertainment and performances. It will also feature a 3-on-3 basketball game with NBA players.

Al Sharpton spoke at 4 p.m. to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

Friday will feature a town hall meeting on education that features several speakers

including Charles Ogeltree of Harvard University and UNCF CEO Michael Lomax. Sen. Paul is expected to speak on topics such as school choice, as well as criminal justice reform and economic freedom zones.

I'm not so sure there will be resistance to any of the three (topics)" Paul told U.S. News and World Report. "It's policy driven but I go there also with the intention of trying to convince African-American voters that there are Republicans that are interested in their votes."

The festivities on Friday also include the Macy’s Music Festival.

The Saturday activities include a summit on small business, a college fair and a luncheon honoring women.

The event will close out with a black tie gala event featuring actor Forest Whitaker.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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