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, touched on climate change, the tax code and Islamophobia, and promised once again 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.” Asked about the prospect of declaring a state of emergency to address climate change — as President Trump did over border security — he said the nation needed “to act with that sense of urgency,” but did not endorse a state of emergency to get it done.
In another key moment, an audience member asked Mr. Booker about Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, whom Mr. Trump has targeted over her comments on Israel. Ms. Omar has reported an increase in death threats as a result.
“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.
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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, but he said, “I will make sure that no matter who you are, no one is above the law in this country, and that includes Wall Street.”
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.”
Ms. Gabbard also denounced “regime change” wars and said, in response to a question about Syria, said that the United States could not continue to be “the police man of the world.” Asked about Russian interference in the 2016 election, she pointed to legislation she supports that would require paper ballots or “voter-verified paper backups.”
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 election interference: 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.
Ms. Klobuchar, who has positioned herself as a pragmatist, said she was “open to looking at Medicare for all” but preferred first to enact a public health care option. She also called for free two-year community college and an expansion of Pell Grants, funded by higher taxes on the wealthy, which she framed in Warren Buffett’s terms: ensuring that people like Mr. Buffett don’t pay lower tax rates than their assistants.
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 used 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.”
Toward the end of Mr. O’Rourke’s segment, an audience member asked 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.
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. It was also scheduled to include Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
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.”