Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s best-selling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan,” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Last night’s marathon series of CNN town halls offered five hours of conversation with five leaders vying for the Democratic presidential nomination – each intensely interesting, newsworthy, and rich with policy and personal detail.
Two second-timers were on view last night. Kamala Harris is the apparent pick for frontrunner among early-state party activists, per fivethiryeight. She is a woman of color whose heritage is rooted in both the African and Asian American communities, a former prosecutor and current US senator with decades of policy decisions and political choices behind her.
Her town hall was a chance to clarify her prosecutorial record and convince voters to the left of her authenticity.
Pete Buttigieg is the surprising upstart with the wind at his back – the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, the youngest candidate in the race, a married gay man, a military veteran, a devout Christian with Midwest origins and Harvard creds, whose momentum as a candidate was propelled in no small part by the success of his first CNN Town Hall on March 11.
His town hall was an opportunity to add policy depth to his ideas, and to reassure voters he isn’t a flash in the pan.
But what was clear in Harris and Buttigieg’s appearances, and the three others preceding them Monday night, is that everyone’s goal is to stand out as the most different and compelling alternative to Donald Trump.
Both Harris and Buttigieg have strong claims to the title.
Harris is the candidate who most aligns with the base of the Democratic Party and its most conventional ways of positioning itself. She’s from the biggest blue state, and was a “tough on crime” attorney general, but also framed herself during her town hall as enlightened and progressive when it comes to protecting people of color, the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized.
As Harris put it, “Right now, our country requires leaders and the top leader to, instead of using a microphone in a way that is about fueling the fan of hate … we need leadership that understands the vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us, and they’ve got to stop dividing us.”
For his part, Buttigieg is the current Democratic hot ticket, just 37 years old with minimal electoral experience, but with a self-assurance that belies his years. He’s from a deeply red Midwestern state, a person of faith who would have – as he pointed out last night – more military experience than any president in the past few generations, and is also a former management consultant.
Speaking of the benefit of military service, Buttigieg lamented the lack of “ways to be part of that fashioning of a common character at this moment when social media and our different bubbles have us increasingly just floating in our own little parts of this country.”
As her town hall kicked off, Harris’s first question was ripped from the headlines: Should Congress move toward impeachment? And her response was characteristically balanced. “I believe Congress should take steps toward impeachment,” she said. “But I’m also a realist.” She cautioned that it was unlikely that the process would lead to Trump’s removal, given Republican control of the Senate.
Harris rang a bell of ambivalence that would echo throughout the night. She sounded the refrain of “let’s have that conversation” when asked tough questions about reparations, about giving prisoners the right to vote, and about too many issues that deserve study, but, frankly, demand her decisiveness. Realistically, politicians have to consider and debate. But rhetorically? Americans want strength, conviction and confidence – and are tired of “consider both sides” as a fallback.
But Harris shone when she was asked about matters relating to her personal life and experience. Asked about Medicare For All, she gave an unqualified vote of support. And the real point scored came when she then discussed her mother – “five feet tall. If you ever met her, you would have thought she was seven feet tall” – a cancer researcher who herself died of cancer. Harris spoke compellingly of the heartbreak of dealing with a terminally ill loved one, of “anticipatory grief” and the grueling and cruel way our health systems deal with patients and families alike.
Harris also gave an impassioned defense of her record as a prosecutor supporting tough enforcement of anti-truancy laws. “I took a look at who the homicide victims were who were under the age of 25,” she said, and learned that “94% of them were high school dropouts,” she said.
“I said what we have got to do is pay attention to the fact that these children aren’t in school and put all the resources necessary to get them in school and give their parents the resources, hold the school districts accountable…” She added: “As a result of our initiative, first of all, nobody went to jail … we improved attendance by over 30%.”
Her record generated the biggest applause when she talked about refusing to defend the anti-gay-marriage act, Proposition 8, saying it was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court agreed, “and the wedding bells rang across the country. I’m very proud of that. … I was marrying same-sex couples at San Francisco City Hall.”
Buttigieg also brought focus to controversial policy decisions of the past: his most provocative actions as mayor of South Bend included a campaign to raze abandoned properties in poor neighborhoods to raise property values and reduce crime. While some have criticized the initiative as disproportionately impacting minority property owners, Buttigieg countered that it was people in those neighborhoods who were asking for action.
“I just thought these neighborhoods are never going to be as safe as we want them to be unless we do something and act fast,” he said, pointing to how the program also invested in the community and increased funds for law enforcement. “The number-one complaint that we heard, especially from low- income and minority homeowners in the neighborhoods that we addressed, was what took you so long?’”
Law enforcement was the subject of another key question on Buttigieg’s record: His decision to demote South Bend’s first black police chief after it was found out that he’d secretly recorded some of his officers to determine if racially biased language was being used by white cops in his department. Buttigieg professed ignorance of the details of the taping while also acknowledging that “one of the things I realized was that while I was absorbed in just making sure that we weren’t tripping on any landmines related to laws about what you can and can’t record, I was, frankly, a little bit slow to understand just how much anguish underlay the community’s response to this.”
But elsewhere, Buttigieg spoke with remarkable clarity and energetic purpose.
He said the political and economic system “needs to be changed profoundly” and that “what’s at stake right now is how to win not just an election, but an era.” He clearly stated that Trump “deserves impeachment, but I’m also going to leave it to the House and Senate to figure that out, because my role in the process is trying to relegate Trumpism to the dust bin of history … especially to get Republicans to abandon this kind of deal with the devil they made.” He said that candidates talking too much about Trump led many Americans to feel like they were talking too little about them.
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It was clear that while Harris grew stronger as her time went on, Buttigieg was in his element from the outset, with the town hall format playing to his strengths as a counterpuncher and policy-immersed wonk – one with a former McKinsey consultant’s instinct for reframing negatives as positives, and an ear for the applause line.
Late in his session, when Anderson Cooper brought up a recent gibe at Buttigieg’s expense made by Richard Grenell, ambassador to Germany and the most prominent gay appointee in Trump’s administration, the mayor promptly responded, “I’m not a master fisherman, but I know bait when I see it, and I’m not going to take it.”
The exchange was a reminder of something critical and incredible about both town halls: With Don Lemon as moderator of Harris’s session and Anderson Cooper as moderator of Buttigieg’s, we have arrived at a moment in history when the mainstream media and political stage can be occupied by two black people and two out gay people, in conversation with one another about the critical matters that are shaping the future for all of us. And in that regard, the town halls have made us all winners.