Bernie Sanders Faces Skeptical Audience at Forum for Minority Women

(Bloomberg) -- Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders faced a skeptical audience of minority women in Texas Wednesday, a group that will be critical in deciding the Democratic presidential nominee from a racially diverse field of candidates and a record number of women.

Pressed by multiple questioners to address why women of color should support him, Sanders leaned heavily on his economic message, drawing audible expressions of frustration from some of the more than 1,500 people attending the She the People forum in Houston.

“Black women will be an integral part of what our campaign and our administration is about,” he said after being prompted by a moderator of the event, which brought together eight Democratic presidential candidates for separate discussions about issues affecting minority women.

That comment came at the end of his response to a question about how he would appeal to the black women who predominantly backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries, to which Sanders offered a long answer about supporting whomever ends up being the party’s nominee.

“My pledge to you is if I do not win, I will do everything that I can to make sure that Democratic candidate becomes the next president of the United States,” he said. “This is no time for petty divisiveness, this is a time to stand together.”

No ‘Feast’

Speaking about his advocacy on a range of issues including Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage in response to a question about violence perpetrated by white supremacists, one woman in the crowd shouted “what about black people?” Reminded that he had been asked about white supremacy, Sanders said “I actually was at the March on Washington with Dr. King back in 1963,” he said, prompting some hisses in the crowd.

Kandice Webber, co-founder of the advocacy group Houston Rising, said Sanders didn’t address the issues of concern to many of the people who came to the forum.

“If economics is Bernie Sanders’ sweet spot then you need to talk about economics as it pertains to black women and he didn’t do that,” Webber said. “One of the things that were fighting for right now is to stop feeding off the scraps of the white man’s table. Bernie Sanders gave us scraps today; we came for a feast.”

She said Senator Elizabeth Warren’s detailed discussions of policy proposals Thursday had won her over.

Along with Sanders and Warren, Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, as well as former Housing secretary Julian Castro, former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke and Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard answered questions from the audience and moderators.

The forum was the largest gathering yet of Democratic presidential hopefuls and comes as the race’s biggest X-factor, former Vice President Joe Biden, prepares to launch his campaign on Thursday.

With Clinton’s defeat in 2016 still on the minds of many Democrats, Warren addressed the question of whether the party should risk the 2020 election on another female nominee.

So, let me just say this about confidence,” she said. “This is the heart of it. It’s how are we going to fight? Not just individually but how are we going to fight together? Are we going to fight because we’re afraid? Are we going to show up for people that we didn’t actually believe in, but because we were too afraid to do anything else? That’s not who we are. That’s not how we’re going to do this.”

Other questions at the forum focused on economic inequality, immigration and criminal justice.

Harris said minority communities had been disproportionately hurt by the “failed” war on drugs and that the government must recognize that drug abuse is a health problem rather than a criminal matter. As president, she said, she would act to release non-violent drug offenders still in prison.

“What is essentially a public health issue became a criminal justice issue,” she said. “There are a lot of folks who’ve been incarcerated who should never been incarcerated.’’

Harris has been focusing much of her campaign on reaching black voters, making frequent stops at historically black colleges and embracing her ties to the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

She paid tribute to Shirley Chisholm -- a Brooklyn congresswoman who in 1972 became the first woman and first African American to seek a major party’s presidential nomination -- by launching her campaign 47 years to the day after Chisholm did, and by drawing on the colors and fonts that Chisholm’s campaign used for her own graphics.

Gabbard, who is of Samoan heritage, is the only other woman of color in the race.

Black women have proven to be an important part of the Democratic electorate, and predominantly backed Clinton in 2016. They’re an especially powerful group of voters in South Carolina, the last state to vote before delegate-rich Super Tuesday, and in other Southern states where the ranks of white Democrats are thin.

In the 2016 general election, 94 percent of black women and 69 percent of Latino women voted for Clinton, according to exit polls.

Black voters have overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Democrats in past presidential elections and went for Clinton by a more than 80-point margin over Donald Trump in 2016. But she did not inspire them to go to the polls in the same way as did Barack Obama, the first black nominee of a major party, with black voter turnout dropping from 65.2 percent in 2008 and similar levels in 2012 to 59.6 percent in 2016, according to Census data.

Clinton’s campaign had hoped to reach Obama’s levels of black voter turnout in cities in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, but fell short, contributing to her razor-thin losses in those states.

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