White House candidate Bernie Sanders got a rocky reception when he gave a halting performance at an event this week focusing on female voters of color, while Kamala Harris was given a standing ovation – but was vigorously challenged in the popularity stakes by rivals Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke.
Women from 28 states descended on Houston, Texas, on Wednesday to hear from the seven leading Democratic 2020 contenders at an inaugural event called She the People presidential forum – a day before Joe Biden jumped into the race.
Women of color are such a powerful voting bloc in America that they are predicted to be highly influential – if not decisive – in choosing the Democratic nominee for the 2020 election.
The candidates convened at the event at Texas Southern University, a historically black college, to address a buoyant audience of around 1,700, diverse in background and age, including individuals and representatives of more than 40 activist organizations.
Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren took questions on topics ranging from immigration, women’s health, race relations, hate crimes and workplace inequalities to climate change, poverty, education, criminal justice, foreign policy and the economy. And they got a mix of reactions.
When Bernie Sanders was asked a question about the prevalence of violence against women, his generic and seemingly out-of-touch response was angrily shouted down.
“You’re not for us,” one female voice shouted from the crowd. “You don’t get the black community,” was another comment, while others called out: “Answer the question” as Sanders rambled about “a troubled nation” and gave a vague pledge that “we have to address” violence. He was obliged to pause as he was repeatedly interrupted, and at one point had to gather himself before finding his thread again.
Several other candidates had a warm but not rapturous reception or displayed patchy performances at times, but Sanders by far elicited the most disapproval.
Harris, unsurprisingly as the only black female candidate, received thunderous applause as she took the stage and appeared to please much of the room with thorough answers on a range of socio-economic topics, enjoying a standing ovation during and after her address.
But O’Rourke and, especially, Warren, also delighted the crowd and, whereas Harris had an ecstatic welcome upon taking the stage, Warren was treated to the most enthusiastic applause at the end of her stint, especially as she specifically addressed the high rate of pregnancy-related deaths among black women.
Bernie Sanders “did not present a particular set of policies (to show how he’d tackle racial violence)”, said Sayu Bhojwani, the founder of the New American Leaders movement that prepares first and second generation Americans to run for office.
She asked Sanders what he would to do prevent hate crimes such as the recent burning down of three historically black churches in Louisiana. She found his response vague.
“It’s important to recognize that each candidate took up the invitation so that’s a sign of their understanding of the importance of women of color as a voting bloc, but I do think the answers from a lot of folks were general,” she told the Guardian afterwards.
On immigration, she was disappointed that no candidates introduced specific policies to keep families from being separated at the US-Mexico border
She the People reports that nearly 88% of women of color voters supported Democratic candidates during the 2018 midterms, compared with 48% of white women and 38% of white men.
Women of color are a top target for Democrats and are a particularly influential voting bloc in several key early voting states, such as South Carolina and Nevada and in large-scale electorate states like California and Texas.
Ninety-two percent of black female voters overwhelmingly supported progressive candidates during the 2018 midterms while Hillary Clinton was their clear favorite during the 2016 presidential election, although Trump won in 2016 in several states with a significant number of women of color.
Harris is an early favorite among this demographic.
“Women of color is the fastest growing and most progressive group, and the south and southwest are battleground states,” said Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People political empowerment network, told the Guardian.
“I saw a path forward for us to deeply influence the politics and ultimately the nominee for the Democratic party, of which most of us are members. That’s what we’re doing 18 months in advance,” she added.
Eesha Pandit, the cofounder and managing partner at the Center for Advancing Innovative Policy based in Houston and New York, thought Klobuchar dealt well with addressing the student loan crisis, while Castro, as a former housing secretary for Barack Obama, was impressive on affordable housing. And she thought Warren gave the kind of policy specifics she would have liked from other candidates.
Jessica Azua, the statewide immigration coordinator at the Texas Organizing Project, liked some answers on poverty, but not immigration.
“I felt some of them were just saying what we wanted to hear but they were not really listening to what we were saying,” she said.
Attendees consistently declined to be drawn on who they would vote in 2020.
Maia Young, a campus organizer at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, said she was consciously keeping an open mind. “The questions were centered around things that young people, especially young people of color want to know, and I don’t see that a whole lot,” she said.