A day after Sen. Bernie Sanders’ response to a question about the rise of white nationalist violence set off a chorus of groans in Houston, the woman who posed it told CNN she too was disappointed by his answer.
Sayu Bhojwani, the founder and president of New American Leaders, asked Sanders on Wednesday at the She the People forum for women of color what he believed the federal government’s role should be in fighting “against the rise of white nationalism and white terrorist acts” and how Sanders would lead that effort if elected in 2020.
The Vermont independent began his reply by criticizing, as he’s done on the trail, President Donald Trump’s “demagoguery” and pledging to “do everything that I can to help lead this country in a direction that ends all forms of discrimination – racial discrimination, gender discrimination and discrimination based on people’s sexual orientation.” He also discussed his family’s immigrant roots before turning to an appeal for comprehensive immigration reform.
But Sanders’ words left Bhojwani, the moderators – and, by the sound of it, many in the audience – feeling unsatisfied.
“I didn’t feel that we were being seen or heard in (his) answer,” she told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin.
After Sanders’ initial foray fell flat, forum founder and president Aimee Allison sought to refocus the conversation, hinting to Sanders that he needed to address “the core of the question,” which was focused on white supremacist violence.
The apparent disconnect and subsequent grumbles over his performance resurfaced doubts over Sanders’ ability to win over Democratic women of color – a key voting bloc, especially among its older cohort, that Sanders lost badly to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Over the past few years, and in the run-up to his 2020 bid, Sanders has sought to broaden his appeal by building out a more diverse staff and speaking more directly to challenges and difficulties specific to minor communities.
But when Sanders began again after some prodding from Allison, his mention of attending Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington was met with some frustrated booing, which Sanders carried on through as he noted his support, in 1988, for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign.
“As president of the United States, at the very top of our agenda, will be the understanding that discrimination of all forms has got to end – period,” Sanders added, beginning to win back some in the room. “And you do that using the bully pulpit and you do that using legislation. If somebody wants to go around perpetrating hate crimes, that person will pay a very, very heavy price, indeed.”
Still, Bhojwani felt that his words did not meet the magnitude of the moment.
“I came to that question because in my work with immigrant communities and with people of color, there is just this incredible sadness and fear as we’ve watched churches being burned, as we watch our young people being killed by police, as we watch our young children being caged, and I brought to that question the weight and the feeling of so many of those conversations,” she said Thursday.
The Sanders campaign apparently took notice of the critical reception to his mention of King and the March on Washington. Earlier Thursday, during a campaign event in Fort Worth, Texas, Sanders’ campaign co-chair Nina Turner, a black former state lawmaker in Ohio, vehemently pushed back against his reception in Houston.
“All of us have lived experiences, all of us have a story to tell, but in what world, when you are sitting on the stage telling folks about your history and you mention the fact that you were on the March on Washington with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – Fort Worth, in what world do people boo that?” she said.
CNN’s Jasmine Wright contributed to this report