CHARLESTON, S.C. ― Four Democratic presidential contenders discussed ways to address the economic problems that plague black Americans during a Saturday presidential forum here, the first state where nonwhite voters will have a key opportunity to shape the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2020.
All four candidates at the event ― South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke; and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey ― talked up the need to increase access to capital for minority business owners, as well as other recommendations aimed at tackling the persistent wealth gap between white and black Americans, such as student loan forgiveness and affordable housing.
But while all the contenders received good marks for their comments on stage, Warren’s performance appeared to have made the biggest impression, earning the senator from Massachusetts a large standing ovation.
“She came out gunning for fire and made a connection with the audience that I didn’t expect. It’s so bizarre because when you see her on TV, [you see] the quick little snippets, but ― sweet God. I thought she was marvelous,” said Joy Vandervort-Cobb, an African-American teacher at the College of Charleston.
Warren opened her remarks at the forum with a tribute to the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, which occurred four years ago this weekend. She said the American dream remained out of reach for black Americans and touted her plans to cancel student debt for many young people and fund historically black colleges and universities. The senator also plugged her newest proposal, one aimed at boosting minority entrepreneurs by offering federal grants to aid the launch of new businesses.
She then turned directly to the audience and launched into her campaign windup, citing her family’s financial struggles as she was growing up in Oklahoma.
“It’s about building an America where not just those who are born in privilege can succeed,” Warren said, explaining her proposed “ultra-millionaire” tax on the richest Americans.
During his time on stage, O’Rourke touted his newly announced plan to increase procurement by the federal government of goods and services from minority-owned businesses. The Texas Democrat said more needed to be done to build affordable housing across the country, and he urged white Americans to have more awareness and knowledge about the real story of black Americans, adding that “those kidnapped from Africa literally built the wealth of this country.”
“I think when we know the full American story, everyone’s going to be able to fully participate in this country’s success,” O’Rourke said, citing his discussion a day earlier with citizens of the Gullah Geechee Nation, a unique West African culture in coastal South Carolina and Georgia.
Buttigieg also talked up changing the way the federal government procures resources to benefit minority-owned businesses, citing his “Douglass Plan for Black America,” which is named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The Democrat said it was important to empower people to “live in integrated, economically and racially, integrated neighborhoods,” but he disagreed with other candidates on the issue of broad student loan cancellations.
“I just don’t believe that all of us, especially low-income people, should be paying to cover the very last dollar, even for the child of a billionaire, going to a college,” he said.
Asked later about his outreach to black voters and the relative lack of black voters at many of his campaign events, Buttigieg told reporters his campaign was working to step up outreach to activists and leaders in the African-American community.
“We know it’s going to take extra work from us because I’m not from a community of color and also was not famous when this process began, so we’ve got frankly an issue of a lot of people feeling like they don’t know us,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go just in terms of name recognition. We’re working very energetically, very actively in order to invite more people, especially black voters, into this campaign, into the process, and we’re beginning to see results.”
Booker, the last candidate to speak who also got a standing ovation, described his experiences living in a low-income community in Newark, New Jersey, where he previously served as mayor. He pitched his legislation to create a “baby bonds” program, one that would give lower-income kids a sizable nest egg (nearly $50,000 in some cases) by the age of 18 that they could use for wealth-building purchases, like a down payment on a house or college tuition. And he stressed the need for more affordable housing.
“If you are going to start singing the song ‘Home of the Brave,’ we have to make sure working Americans have a home and a roof over their head and for their children,” he said.
Before the event, several candidates joined workers from McDonald’s who were demanding that the company allow its workers to unionize. Others held discussions on criminal justice and economic issues for black Americans.
South Carolina is the fourth primary state on the nominating calendar, after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. Over 60 percent of Democrats there are African American ― making the Palmetto State a crucial early battleground. Nearly the entire field ― 23 candidates ― will return to the state next weekend for an event hosted by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.).
Still, former Vice President Joe Biden is threatening to pull away in the state, as he holds a commanding lead among likely Democratic voters in South Carolina ― 46 percent, according to a Post and Courier poll conducted last month. Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris ranked second and third, respectively.
African-American attendees who listened to candidates give remarks from the stage on Saturday left the forum more informed but not yet ready to commit to a particular horse.
Rose Nance, an engineer at Boeing, which has a plant in South Carolina, said she was “impressed” with O’Rourke’s policy positions. She also liked Buttigieg’s willingness to be open to change his policies based on conversations with voters.
Edward Bryant III, the president of the NAACP’s North Charleston branch, said he liked what he heard.
“I thought O’Rourke did a very good job explaining the history of black America,” Bryant said, adding that the former congressman was “one of the first candidates I have ever seen to start before slavery.”
Angela Thompson, who works for a telecommunications company in Rock Hill, South Carolina, called Warren “very relatable” and “personable,” crediting her and Booker for their policy chops. But she said she felt Buttigieg was “a little young.”
But Warren, in particular, was cited by those in the audience as someone worth a longer look.
“She was very good. She’s been consistent. She’s always talked about paying off school loans. That’s generational wealth. Because when black people come out of school, we can’t get jobs. So you just owe money,” said Sonya Fordham, a school teacher in Charleston.
Chiemeka Egwu, a flight attendant from South Carolina, also credited Warren for her policy proposals.
“She had more concrete ideas with where the money’s coming from to back it up. You gotta show where the money’s coming from,” Egwu said.