8 Presidential contenders shared their views
By Angela de Joseph
May 2, 2019 (Lemon Grove) -- Indivisible Watu, a political advocacy nonprofit organization based in Lemon Grove, CA., was founded in February 2017. We produce the Women of Color Roar Breakfast. The well-attended event is held in Black History Month to celebrate the election victories and milestones of African American female office holders and to encourage young women of color to run for office and seek careers in public service.
It was a welcome surprise to be invited to, “She the People,” the first-ever Presidential primary candidate forum focused on issues important to women of color, which was held on April 24, 2019 at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston, Texas.
TSU is one of the nation’s largest public Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The term “women of color” is a collective term that includes Black, Latino, Asian and Native American women. However, it is Black women specifically, that are one of the largest and most consistent voting blocs and will play a significant role in determining the winner of the Democratic nomination for president.
All of the declared Democratic presidential candidates were offered the opportunity to face an audience of Women of Color and two Black women moderators; Aimee Allison, founder of “She the People,” producers of the forum, a political empowerment network of women of color; and Joy Ann Reid, host of the MSNBC show, “AM Joy.”
The eight available spots for presidential hopefuls were snatched up by Sen. Cory Booker, (D-NJ); former HUD Secretary Julián Castro; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, (D-HI); Sen. Kamala Harris, (D-CA); Sen. Amy Klobuchar, (D-MN); former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, (D-TX); Sen. Bernie Sanders, (D-VT); and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-MA).
I arrived in Houston a day early for a mini-summit of Women of Color who are leaders of Indivisible groups throughout the country. On Wednesday morning, our team headed to TSU full of excitement for what we knew would be a history-making event. As a photojournalist, I was granted a press credential giving me access to the orchestra section of the auditorium directly below the stage and only a few feet from Reid, Allison, and the candidates. Reid and Allison, both brilliant and accomplished were the perfect moderators. They represented the millions of Black women who are voters but not seen hosting the CNN candidate forums or “Meet the Press.”
An intangible vibration ricocheted throughout the auditorium as the capacity crowd of 1700 women of color from all over the country anxiously waited for the forum to begin. The production values; from the beautiful set, impeccable lighting and crystal clear sound was evidence of their partnership with television network NBC. Those fortunate enough to score one of the sought-after free tickets made sure to take plenty of selfies to post to social media with the hashtag #ShethePeople2020, which trended on Twitter all day. She the People was live streamed online exclusively by MSNBC on Twitter and Facebook. The questions posed to the candidates were all submitted by audience members in advance and each candidate faced a pre-selected audience member who came on stage to pose a question to them directly.
After greetings from local representatives including Houston Congresswomen Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee and Rep. Sylvia Garcia, the first Latina elected to Congress from Texas, the forum began. Reid and Allison beamed as the forum went live and the each of the eight presidential candidates took their turn to win the hearts and votes of Women of Color.
Here are a few highlights from the four-hour forum.
First up was Sen. Cory Booker (right), former governor of New Jersey. He was asked about the threat of climate change to people of color and how he would as president address pollution and poverty. Booker went into great detail about investing in a green economy and was specific about urban communities facing water contamination and high incidences of asthma from pollution. “The reality is, if you live in a community like mine the environmental urgencies, the life or death issues are happening right now. As president of the United States I will make sure we do what is necessary for environmental justice to make sure we have access to clear air, clean water and to deal with the urgencies of climate change; to rejoin the Paris Accord, re-up our commitment to clean energy standards. And, make sure we are dealing aggressively with a bold green future,” Booker explained.
One of the recurring questions asked of each candidate was why should women of color vote for them. Former HUD Secretary and former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, Julián Castro was given a warm reception from the Texas-leaning audience. He explained how he was raised by his single mother and immigrant grandmother, two women of color, who made great sacrifices for him and his brother. Castro went on to say, "I have dedicated my time in public service to making sure that people just like my mother and my grandmother could do better in this country. It is why I focused in my time as mayor and as HUD secretary so much on trying to deliver for communities that are vulnerable, that are struggling, whether it was passing pre-k for San Antonio, by doing a sales tax initiative." Castro said. He also called for property tax relief and more affordable housing to protect people of color in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Fellow Texan, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (left), also got the hometown favorite welcome from the audience. He was also asked, with so much diversity on the ticket, why should women of color choose him? O’Rourke had obviously given thought to this answer and has often admitted to being privileged. "Not something that I am owed, not something that I expect. Something that I fully hope to earn by the work that I do on the campaign trail, by showing up and listening to the people that I want to serve," O’Rourke said.
Senator Kamala Harris handily won the 2018 She the People online poll of top potential presidential candidates, with 71% of the vote. As a woman of Jamaican and Indian descent, Harris certainly could have made that point in answering the question, why should women of color vote for her, but instead she pointed to her track record and she went on to give examples of her stance for pay equity, reformed tax code, criminal justice reform and mentorships of women of color.
Harris (right), former attorney general of California and former district attorney of San Francisco, became very serious and adamant when addressing criminal justice reform. She called for legalization of marijuana and an end the to the failed war on drugs that was based on race, which shifted to more compassion now that there is an opioid epidemic affecting white communities rather than the crack epidemic which was rampant in the Black community.
Harris was very detailed in laying out her plans for comprehensive immigration reform including keeping our promise on DACA and treating asylum seekers at our border with dignity. She said emphatically she would use executive authority if Congress did not pass gun safety laws in her first 100 days in office.
Her biggest applause came when she spoke about the failings of the current administration. “We need a president of the United States who uses her bully pulpit in a way that understands that if we are going to be strong as a country, we must be committed to our stated values,” Harris said. “That’s part of what has given us strength on this globe and right now we are ceding our power when we have a president of the U.S. that uses his bully pulpit to divide and sow hate.”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (left) walked out on stage to applause but his welcome grace was quickly rescinded. He was loudly booed and heckled at several points. The most notable was when he was asked, by Aimee Allison specifically, as president what he would do to fight white supremacist violence.
Sanders cued up his “black resume” and said, “I know I date myself a little bit here, but I actually was at the March on Washington with Dr. King back in 1963,” The crowd made up of many who were not even born then, booed and one person yelled out, “We know.”
At this point, a flexible candidate would have switched gears but Sanders continued, “As somebody who actively supported Jesse Jackson’s campaign, as one of the few white elected officials to do so in ’88.” Sanders never wavered from his 2016 stump speech and forgot or neglected to inject anything relevant to the Women of Color in the audience in front of him, a major faux pas.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (right), a woman of color herself, mentioned but did not play up her roots as a native Hawaiian. She was comfortable discussing her military service and staunch stand against “Regime change” and endless wars. Gabbard vowed to end the Muslim ban and ban on transgender people serving in the military. However, after Reid recited specific examples of Russia targeting Black voters from the Mueller report, she then asked Gabbard if Russia is a threat to the voting rights of people of color. Instead of answering the question, Gabbard launched into a general statement about protecting our voting systems. Her solution is her bill, “Securing Americans Election Act,” which makes sure every state uses paper ballots or has a voter verified paper backup. The bill has not been taken up by Congress. The audience became impatient when Gabbard like Sanders, relied on her stock material rather than answer the questions being posed by the moderators. She received applause when she suggested the trillions of tax payer dollars used on weapons and wars could be invested into our communities and fund “healthcare for all and making sure we get quality education for our kids, and by fixing the broken infrastructure in our country.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (left) was well received and didn’t hesitate when Joy Reid pointed out that she bills herself as being able to appeal to the white Midwestern voter. “Why should women of color believe you are their champion?” Joy asked. Klobuchar launched into a speech dropping crowd pleasing names such as Shirley Chisholm and Stacey Abrams. She admitted she didn’t know what it was like to be in the shoes of women of color but she was in one shoe as a woman. “I know what it is like to be in that room when people are not taking you seriously.” She went on to rattle off facts that the women in audience already know, they are paid less and do not receive equal medical attention. She finally made a pledge, “My entire life I have fought for justice. I have been a lead on many bills on voting. You must be able to vote in our democracy.” She believes in restored rights after release from prison and vowed to continue to fight for legislation protecting voting rights.
Klobuchar went on to address our economy, “where African American women have not been treated fairly,” she said. “We have to make leaders of companies understand if they have high paying jobs in the technology field; the answer is in this room.” Klobuchar finally won over the crowd when she spoke of the bill she authored that was signed into law by the president that allowed more women and offered incentives for women of color to get into the STEM field. “It was one of the first bills he signed, did he invite me to the bill signing? No, he did not,” she laughed and added, “And it was my bill.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren (right) was the last candidate on stage and hit the ball out of the park. Not only did Warren have specific plans for curing wealth inequality and health disparities, she had road maps and budgets. Her most powerful statement was her novel plan to pay hospitals based on successful patient outcomes. First acknowledging that Black women suffer the highest maternal mortality rate in the nation, Warren said, “I got a plan." She said hospitals would be rewarded with a "bonus" fund for reducing their maternal morbidity and mortality rates. "And if they don't," Warren said, "then they're going to have money taken away from them.”
Warren seems to have found her Mojo with a sprinkle of just enough folksy-friendly words like Mama, Daddy and babies. She used the throwback term, “prejudice” rather than the harsher sounding word, racism. Warren used language and humility to soften her wonky reputation and tendency to wade into policy and detail. She was upbeat, warm and well, likable.
The first She the People presidential candidate forum was a phenomenal success. The Democratic presidential candidates, and now there are 21 of them, were put on notice that women of color will be holding them accountable and their vote has to be earned.
Founder and co-moderator Aimee Allison announced that She the People is going on the road and events will be held in swing states. Next up, She the People Virginia Town Hall on Saturday, May 18, 2019 at Virginia Union University, a historically black college and university located in Richmond, VA.
Indivisible Watu and the Women of Color Roar committee was inspired by She the People and will host a local candidate forum right here in Lemon Grove this fall.