Democratic 2020 candidates pitch platforms to women of color, black mayors in early swing through Texas

Texas Tribune News

The audience listens at the She the People Presidential Forum at Texas Southern University in Houston on Wednesday. Eight Democratic presidential candidates attended to answer questions.
The audience listens at the She the People Presidential Forum at Texas Southern University in Houston on Wednesday. Eight Democratic presidential candidates attended to answer questions.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

HOUSTON — Texas’ biggest city was at the center of the 2020 presidential race Wednesday as a group of Democratic candidates descended here to appeal to a key voting bloc in the primary.

Appearing at Texas Southern University, a historically black college, eight candidates made their pitches at a forum hosted by She the People, a national network of women of color. The three-hour event was one of the biggest gatherings of the Democratic primary candidates yet, let alone in Texas.

Taking questions from moderators and the audience, the candidates covered a range of issues that have already animated the primary — health care, criminal justice and voting rights — while sharpening their cases for how those issues impact women of color. The massive 2020 field is historically diverse, and most participants faced the same question at the end of their time onstage: Why should women of color choose you?

One of the candidates from Texas, Julián Castro, sought to make a personal connection.

“I am only here because of two very strong women,” the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor said in reference to his Mexican immigrant grandmother and his civil rights activist mother. “I grew up seeing both the struggles and the promise of two strong women of color, and I have dedicated my time in public service to making sure that people just like my mother and grandmother can do better in this country.”

For some candidates — particularly those who are neither women nor people of color — the forum at times appeared to be a humbling experience. The other hopeful from Texas, Beto O’Rourke, paused before answering why women of color should back him, acknowledging that their support is “not something that I’m owed, not something that I expect” but “something that I fully hope to earn by the work that I do on the campaign trail.” He cited a number of prominent black women in politics that he has learned from — including Houston U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a fellow Democrat who has a bill to study reparations that O’Rourke and several other candidates support.

Other candidates felt some heat as the moderators and the audience sought to keep them focused on the people who had come to listen. Asked how he’d win over women of color who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., initially responded by making a broad promise to unify the party no matter who the nominee is. Some in the crowd did not sound satisfied with the answer. A moderator pressed him to speak specifically about women of color, who he then said are an “integral part” of his campaign and would be just as important in his administration.

Rounding out the lineup was U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who got one of the most enthusiastic receptions of the afternoon as she interacted with fans in the crowd and repeatedly promised, “I have a plan.” One of those plans was making medical providers create a pay structure that incentivizes them to bring down the disproportionately high rate of women of color who die during childbirth.

“Talk to the hospitals who are delivering these babies in a language they understand — the language of money,” Warren told reporters afterward.

On the sidelines of the forum, candidates confronted an issue that has flared up in the primary in recent days: whether the incarcerated should be able to vote. Sanders recently said they should, prompting a debate in the party about how far voting rights should be extended to those in prison. After he spoke at the forum, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey told reporters he was frustrated that the issue had become another “political box-checking exercise” in the primary and wants to instead focus on halting a system of mass incarceration so that people don’t needlessly end up behind bars in the first place.

Both Castro and O’Rourke fielded the question, similarly responding by expressing support for restoring the right to vote for nonviolent offenders.

“For violent criminals, it’s much harder for me to reach that conclusion,” O’Rourke said. “I feel like at that point you have broken a bond and a compact with your fellow Americans, and there has to be a consequence in civil life to that as well.”

After they spoke at the forum, five of the candidates were slated to head downtown to address the yearly meeting of the African American Mayors Association. Those candidates include U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris, Booker, Castro and Sanders.

Of the eight contenders that She the People forum drew to the state, one of them, Sanders, was using the occasion to make a broader swing through Texas, with campaign rallies planned after the forum in Houston and Thursday in Fort Worth. It is his first trip to the state since announcing his campaign in mid-February. When he noted at an outdoor Houston rally later in the day that Trump carried Texas, the crowd booed. Sanders then described Trump’s failed 2017 attempt to revamp the nation’s health care system.

“So when Trump told the people of Texas he would provide health care to all people, he lied,” he said.

For several other contenders who were in Houston on Thursday, it was their second trip to the state this year after previously visiting for their own events, fundraising or the South by Southwest festival in mid-March.

Abby Livingston contributed to this report.