At a forum in Houston on Wednesday hosted by the political group She the People, Democratic presidential candidates spoke directly to a crucial constituency in their party’s primaries: women of color.
The questions spanned a range of topics, including voting rights and health care, and were all asked by women of color, who make up about one-fifth of the primary electorate and more in some key states, Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, noted in her introductory speech.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who was the first candidate to speak, promised, as he has before, to choose a woman as his running mate if he is nominated.
In the first question of the afternoon, which concerned his environmental policies, he noted the disparate impact of climate change and pollution on communities of color. Much has been made of the need to address climate change within 10 to 12 years, Mr. Booker said, but in cities like Newark, where he served as mayor before being elected to the Senate, “the life-or-death issues are happening right now.”
“The criticisms of Congresswoman Omar, what Donald Trump has been saying about her, is reprehensible, it is trafficking in Islamophobia, and it should be condemned by everyone,” he responded. The president’s language, he added, fuels the far-right attacks that have been the most common type of terrorism in the United States since the 9/11 attacks.
[Make sense of the people, issues and ideas shaping American politics with our newsletter.]
Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, spoke repeatedly of universal pre-kindergarten as a crucial measure to support low-income Americans, and especially people of color. As mayor of San Antonio, he established a public pre-K program that he has suggested replicating at the national level.
He also addressed the issue of gentrification, calling for “a greater supply of affordable housing so that people can afford to live in their own neighborhood,” and also for some form of property tax relief.
Asked whether he believed some Wall Street bankers should have gone to prison for their actions before and during the recession, he did not answer directly. “I will make sure that no matter who you are, no one is above the law in this country, and that includes Wall Street,” he said.
Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has drawn criticism for her record on gay rights, said she wanted to repeal Mr. Trump’s ban on transgender service members. Having deployed twice to the Middle East, she said, she knew gender identity didn’t matter among soldiers: “If it came down to it, they would give their life for me, I would give my life for them.”
Senator Kamala Harris of California, a former prosecutor, focused heavily on criminal justice, including the so-called war on drugs, whose effects have fallen disproportionately on people of color. She called — as she has before — for the legalization of marijuana, saying laws against it had “contributed to the problem of mass incarceration in our country and led disproportionately to the criminalization of young black and brown men in this country.”
She added that an underlying issue was untreated mental illness leading people to self-medicate, and called for more funding for mental health care.
Asked about voting rights, she noted a specific element of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election: It preyed on race and racism, which Ms. Harris called “America’s Achilles’ heel.”
“The irony of it all,” she said, is that what was typically seen as a civil rights issue “has now become a national security issue.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota was asked about a different element of law enforcement: police killings of black people. After saying that she had supported the prosecution of the officer who killed Philando Castile in her home state, she called for more funding for police training; said police departments and grand juries should “reflect the communities that we serve”; and argued that police departments should not be able to run the investigations of their own officers.
Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas representative who came close to unseating Senator Ted Cruz last year, focused heavily on immigration and related issues, including the Trump administration’s attempt to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census. He pointed to his home city, El Paso, which Mr. Trump has cited as an emblem of disorder. El Paso is actually one of the safest large cities in the country, Mr. O’Rourke said, adding: “That safety is not despite of the fact that we are a city of immigrants and asylum seekers and refugees. It is because we are a city of immigrants and asylum seekers and refugees.”
An audience member asked Mr. O’Rourke what he would do for tipped workers, who are routinely paid less than minimum wage on the expectation that tips will make up the difference. The audience member, herself a restaurant server, said a man had once “refused to give me a tip because I refused to give him my number.” Mr. O’Rourke responded that he supported a $15 minimum wage for all workers, including tipped workers.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont spoke less about policy than about the broad, systemic inequities that often dominate his campaign speeches. He said tackling sexual violence would require “not only specific plans and programs,” but “a fundamental change in the culture of this country.” He vowed to nominate judges “who will represent the needs of people of color, of working people, and who are prepared to believe and fight for justice, not just the people on top.”
But the most enthusiastic reception of the day was for Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who appeared last and began her segment by outlining a plan to reduce maternal mortality — which is rising in the United States, unlike in other developed countries, and is significantly higher among black women than white women. She suggested tying hospitals’ reimbursements to their outcomes, paying bonuses to hospitals that reduce mortality rates and taking money from those that don’t.
Later, the moderators brought up what has been something of an elephant in the 2020 room: the fear among some Democrats, after the experience of 2016, that Americans aren’t ready to elect a woman and that they should therefore nominate a man.
“We’ve got a roomful of people here who weren’t given anything. We have a roomful of people here who had to fight for what they believe in,” Ms. Warren responded. “Are we going to show up for people that we didn’t actually believe in because we were too afraid to do anything else? That’s not who we are. That’s not how we’re going to do this.”
The event, billed as the first-ever presidential forum for women of color, took place at Texas Southern University, a historically black university in Houston. Before the first candidate came onstage, Leah Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Church in Washington and former chief of staff for the Democratic National Committee, led the audience in a chant:
“Our votes matter. Our votes matter. Our votes matter.”