The top Democratic presidential candidates hit the same debate stage together for the first time on Thursday (Sept. 12) night.
While they focused largely on gun control, trade and healthcare, the hopefuls knew where they were: Texas Southern University, only the second HBCU to host a presidential debate.
Ahead of the debate, Texas Southern University students were asked what they wanted to hear about most from the candidates, and student loan debt was a high priority, followed by other issues like crime and climate change.
While crime and student-loan debt were touched upon, climate change was not largely discussed.
On student-loan debt, Sanders said, “...we will make public colleges and universities and HBCUs debt-free. And what we will always also do, because this is an incredible burden on millions and millions of young people who did nothing wrong except try to get the education they need, we are going to cancel all student debt in this country.”
Still, an issue considered “extremely important” to 77 percent of Black voters, affordable health care, according to Politico, was discussed.
Black people vote 90 percent Democratic, according to the Pew Research Center, so during Thursday night’s debate, multiple candidates boasted about their support of the former POTUS, and first Black president, while also trying to prove they were the best Dem to beat Trump.
“I’m with Barack,” former Vice President Joe Biden, the current Democratic frontrunner, said after pointing out that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren “says she’s for Bernie” as it pertains to replacing Obamacare with Medicare for All.
Still, Warren boasted about Obama’s legacy when it came to health care, saying, “We all owe a huge debt to President Obama, who fundamentally transformed health care in America and committed this country to health care for every human being.”
Julian Castro, the former Mayor of San Antonio who served as the 16th United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from 2014 to 2017 and was the youngest member of Obama’s Cabinet, made sure he aligned himself with the 44th president, too, and squared off directly with Biden on that point.
“If you lost your job, for instance, his health care plan would not automatically enroll you. You would have to opt in,” Castro said about Biden. “My health care plan would. That’s a big difference. I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you’re not.”
Castro kicked off the debate with the legacy he intends to create, saying, “But first, we have to win. And that means exciting a young, diverse coalition of Americans who are ready for a bold future. That’s what Kennedy did, it’s what Carter did, it’s what Clinton did, it’s what Barack Obama did, and it’s what I can do in this race.”
One thing all the candidates seemed to agree on is how Trump has divided the country in the wake of the racially motivated attack on Latinos that took place in August in El Paso, claiming the lives of 22.
When asked who the best candidate was to address the growing racial divide, neither Warren nor Sanders answered the question directly. But O’Rourke, a native of El Paso, blamed Trump for inspiring the mass shooting last month.
“Racism in America is endemic. It is foundational,” he said. “We can mark the creation of this country not at the fourth of July, 1774 but August 20, 1619, when the first kidnapped African was brought to this country against his will and in bondage and as a slave, built the greatness and the success and the wealth that neither he nor his descendants would ever be able to fully participate in and enjoy.”
He went on to say, "We have to be able to answer this challenge. And it is found in our education system where in Texas a 5-year-old child in kindergarten is five times as likely to be disciplined or suspended or expelled based on the color of their skin," and on the issue of racism in health care added, "In our health care system where there is a maternal mortality crisis three times as deadly for people of color or the fact that there is 10 times the wealth in White America than there is in Black America."
The former Texas Rep. reasserted his description of Trump as a white supremacist and called for reparations for the descendants of slaves, saying, "We will also call out the fact that we have a white supremacist in the White House, and he poses a mortal threat to people of color all across this country."
O’Rourke said he’d enact Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee’s proposal to study how the redistribution of wealth should be carried out. The Texan was the only candidate to mention anything about reparations during Thursday’s debate.
"We know Donald Trump's a racist, but there is no red badge of courage for calling him that. Racism exists. The question isn't who isn't a racist, it's who is and isn't doing something about racism. And this is not just an issue that started yesterday," Senator Cory Booker said.
And on the topic of reparations for slavery, Booker also addressed mass incarceration, adding, "We have systemic racism that is eroding our nation from health care to the criminal justice system. And it's nice to go back to slavery, but dear God, we have a criminal justice system that is so racially biased, we have more African-Americans under criminal supervision today than all the slaves in 1850.”
Booker continued, stating how, if elected, he’d create a specific office in the White House to deal with white supremacy and hate crimes: “We will make sure that systemic racism is dealt with in substantive plans from criminal justice reform to the disparities in health care, to even one that we don’t talk about enough, which is the racism that we see in environmental injustice and communities of color all around this country.”
Castro, who is Mexican-American, plans to focus on police reform to combat racism.
“A few weeks ago, a shooter drove 10 hours inspired by this president to kill people who look like me and people who look like my family,” Castro said, also listing several Black men and women who have died at the hands of White police officers.
“White supremacy is a growing threat to this country, and we have to root it out,” he said.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said, “We know that the generational theft of the descendants of slaves is a part of why everything from housing to education to health to employment basically puts us in two different countries. I have proposed the most comprehensive vision to tackle systemic racism in every one of these areas.”
Among his solutions to solving the issues of racial divide, one is “raising to 25% the target for the federal government to do business with minority-owned businesses” and “investing in HBCUs that are training and educating the next generation of entrepreneurs.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar, a former Minnesota prosecutor, said, “When I was there, the way we handled these police shootings, I actually took a stand to make sure outside investigators handled them. I took on our major police chief in Minneapolis. But in the prosecutor’s office they were handled with the grand jury. That’s how they were handled across our state. I now believe it is better for accountability if the prosecutor handles them and makes those decisions herself.
“What change did we make? Go after white collar crimes in a big way. Diversify the office in a big way. Work with the Innocence Project to make sure we do much better with eyewitness I.D.,” she continued.
“...as your president, I will make sure that we don’t just do the first step act when it comes to criminal sentencing, that we move to the second step act, which means the 90% of people that are incarcerated in local and state jails, let’s reduce those sentences for nonviolent offenders and let’s give them jobs and let them vote when they get out of prison.”
On the issue of race Biden said, “we should be talking about rehabilitation.”
“Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime. Nobody should be in jail for a drug problem,” Biden continued, adding, that people who were sent to prison for marijuana “should be out and their record should be expunged,” because the charge should be a misdemeanor.
Biden was also asked how he’d repair the legacy of slavery in this country, since in 1975 he told a reporter, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather.”
“Look, there is institutional segregation in this country, and from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that,” Biden said Thursday night. “When you talk about education, I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the title one schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year, give every single teacher a raise to get out of the $60,000 level.”
Former prosecutor Senator Kamala Harris directly addressed Trump’s divisiveness during the debate, saying, “...we know that the vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us, regardless of our race, where we live, or the party with which we’re registered to vote.”
The California senator detailed how her plan is to focus on our country's common issues, hopes and desires as a way of unity.
“And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News,” Harris added.
Later in the debate, Senator Harris was hit was a direct question from ABC debate moderator Linsey Davis, who called her out on contradicting her prior positions on criminal justice reform and asking, “When you had the power, why didn’t you try to effect change then?” the presidential hopeful responded.
“Let me be very clear. I made a decision to become a prosecutor for two reasons. One, I’ve always wanted to protect people and keep them safe,” Harris said. “And second, I was born knowing about how this criminal justice system in America has worked in a way that has been informed by racial bias.”
Harris went on to say she created an initiative that became a national model around people who were arrested for drugs and getting them jobs.
She added how she was the first to initiate that officers of a state law enforcement agency would have to wear body cameras and keep them on full-time as well as the first to create training for police officers on the issue of racial bias and the need to reform the system.
“Was I able to get enough done? Absolutely not,” she said. “But my plan has been described by activists as being a bold and comprehensive plan that is about ending mass incarceration, about taking the profit out of the criminal justice system. I plan on shutting down for-profit prisons on day one.”
She added, “As president of the United States, knowing the system from the inside, I will have the ability to be an effective leader and get this job complete.”
(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)