Democratic presidential hopefuls flocked to Houston on Wednesday to speak at She the People, a presidential forum for women of color “about us, for us and by us.”
Eight of the declared candidates – Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard and Amy Klobuchar – spoke at the event, hoping to peel off votes from Democrats’ most loyal constituency: black and brown women.
About 1,700 women of color attended the event held at Texas Southern University, a historically black college.
With the crowd made up of a bloc that frequently feels overlooked and neglected by politicians despite consistently voting more Democratic than any other demographic, the summit started with resounding chants of “our voices matter.” The chant was followed by a litany of Beyoncé songs, including “So Much Damn Swag,” which is centered around historically black colleges and universities and the African-American experience.
The candidates spoke with conviction as they were peppered by audience members on issues paramount to black and brown communities, such as maternal mortality rates, housing inequality and clean air and water in low-income neighborhoods, among others.
But the summit moderators – Aimee Allison, president and founder of She the People, and MSNBC’s Joy Reid – asked the candidates the day’s most pressing question: “Why should women of color choose you?”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey
“Well, you know, as a man that was raised by a strong black woman who understood and taught me from my very earliest of ages the debt that I owe – from Mamie Till to Fannie Lou Hamer, from Barbara Jordan all the way to people who led us in the abolitionist movement. We in America owe a debt to the championship and the leadership and the activism of women of color.
I began my career, as I’ve said, in a black and brown community. The first person to tell me to run for office was the tenant president of some projects called Brick Towers who wanted me in the fight and to remember where I came from. That’s why I still live in that same neighborhood today. And so, I’m a big believer that you can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. And as brother Dr. West says, what does love look like in public? It looks like justice.
And so, women of color can trust me as someone who for my entire career has been rooted in the communities that have empowered me to be who I am today. And all of my fights, even in the United States Senate – when I got there, there was not diversity. I fought with Brian Schatz to make sure that Chuck Schumer changed the rules to start showing our diversity statistics for Democratic senators that have moved to get a lot more diversity there. From taking on issues that are loyal to my communities that aren’t talked about enough.
Like, why does sickle cell research get so much less funding than other illness and diseases that affect less people? Why can’t we be a nation that has maternal mortality for black women three, four times higher than white women? And so, my fights have been fights that have shown who I am and shown my loyalty, and when I am President of the United States, these will continue to be the kind of fights that I take on, and I will make sure that this nation is finally who we say we are – a nation of liberty and justice for all.”
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro
“I am only here because of two very strong women of color – Victoria who came from Mexico when she was 7. She came across the border in 1922. She never finished elementary school, so she worked as a maid, a cook and a babysitter for her whole life and she raised my mom as a single parent. My mom was able to become the first one to graduate from high school and then go off to college, and she raised my brother and me as a single parent. I grew up seeing both the struggles and the promise of two strong women of color, and I have dedicated my time in public service to making sure that people just like my mother and grandmother could do better in this country.
It’s why I focused in my time as mayor and as HUD secretary so much trying to deliver communities that are vulnerable, that are struggling – whether it was by passing ‘Pre-K for SA’ in San Antonio, by doing a sales tax initiative that – people thought like, ‘Why are you getting involved in education? You’re the mayor – you have nothing to do with that.’ But I saw that as a key to making sure that people who are too often left behind could get ahead.
I also, when we were at HUD, fought to make sure that people were not discriminated against. For instance, went after Wells Fargo and settled with them because they weren’t giving mortgages to women who were pregnant because they were assuming, well, they may not go back to work and so they’re more of a risk. We crack down on things like that.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
“Look, I, again, coming from Hawaii. I have a unique experience that I bring to the forefront and that I feel is so strongly needed in this country now. Not only in coming from such a diverse state and having these own experiences that I bring to the forefront, but really recognizing that as there are so many different issues and problems and challenges that we need to address in this country. At the heart at all of them, we have self-serving politicians looking out for their own interests, greedy corporate interests looking out for their own bottom line and we the people get left behind.
The vision that our founders had for this country of a government of, by and for the people has been lost, so we need to change this corrupt culture that is standing in the way of progress, that is standing in the way of our voices being heard, that is standing in the way of our votes being counted. That needs to change. So as a solider, someone who understands in a very deeply and personal way what it means to put service above self, those values of putting service above self is what I will bring to the White House, to make sure that that mission – the mission of the president and of the White House and our nation’s capital is solely focused on how we can best serve the American people.”
Sen. Kamala Harris
“Because of my track record my entire life of focusing on women of color, be it in terms of healthcare – I am a leader on the issue of maternal mortality that invariably and disproportionately impacts women of color.
On my history and long-term work in terms of education including what I am proposing right now, which is to close the teacher pay gap, which will disproportionately impact children of color and the women of color that are raising them. For my work on criminal justice reform, my work when it comes to economic security and health for women and women of color, and that includes a number of things including what I am proposing that we do in terms of closing the pay gap as it relates to women of color, which right now is about 54 cents and 61 cents on the dollar for Latinas and African-American women.
There is a long history of work I have done, including my mentorship of young women of color in politics and in the professions and I would stake my reputation in terms of what I will do going forward based on what I have done, and I believe you can judge me that way.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar
“How would I lead this ticket, and why am I the one to do it? First of all, I can’t pretend to be in your shoes. I’m in one of your shoes as the first woman in many of the jobs that I’ve had, and I know what it’s like to be in that room when people aren’t taking you seriously. But I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the woman who was in the maternity room in that hospital in New Orleans that’s telling her doctor that her fingers are swelling and he’s not listening and she loses her baby. Or what it’s like to be a vice president of a company, someone I know, who goes shopping and gets followed by store security, that happened. I can’t imagine what it is like to make – as an African American woman – to make 61 cents an hour compared to what a man makes, right? A white man that’s wrong.
But what I can tell you is that my entire life, I have fought for justice. I’ve fought for justice in the Senate, I’ve been a lead on many of those bills involving voting. Sherrod Brown and I are leading the bill to stop the voting purges, because if you want a seat at the table, you can’t be on the menu and you’ve got to be able to vote in this democracy so that’s my first thing.
The second thing is looking at our economy, where African-American women have not been treated fairly, and if we want an economy that works for everyone, we have to make these leaders in these companies understand that if they’ve got a high-paying job open in the technology field, the answer is in this room, right? Those are the people that should be applying for their jobs. And the first – one of the first bills that this president, who I believe has turned his back on African-American women, that this president signed into law was a bill I led that allowed more women and created incentives for women of color to get into the STEM fields. Did he invite me to the bill signing? No, he did not, but it was my bill. …
And I will end with this: It was Barbara Jordan from this great state who once said that what Americans want is something quite simple, they want a country as good as its promise. Let’s make good on this promise.”
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke
“It’s not something that I’m owed, not something that I expect, something that I fully hope to earn by the work that I do on the campaign trail by showing up and listening to the people that I want to serve.
I was just talking to Sheila Jackson Lee back stage, extraordinary leader and mentor to me when I was a member of Congress. We talked about reparations and her House Bill 40 that is so important to the future of everyone in this country to ensure that we know our history, our true story, so that we stop visiting injustices on future generations and begin the work of repair. I remember meeting with council member Amanda Edwards again here in Houston, Texas, on access to capital for communities that have been excluded from capital from the very foundation of this country. Talking to Alisa Simmons, who heads up the NAACP in Arlington, Texas; this state is at the epicenter of a maternal mortality crisis – three times more deadly for women of color. She explained to me that in a community like Arlington that does not have a mass transit system, even if you’re covered, try getting to a clinic or a hospital and then someone else interjected. Even if you get to that clinic or hospital, there’s disparate treatment of women of color in this country that also helps to explain a disparity in infant mortality that is greater now between white America and black America in 2019 than it was in 1850, 15 years before the abolition of slavery.
So showing up, listening, incorporating what I hear, everyone’s experiences into this campaign, into our services is how I hope to earn the support and the vote of the people of this country.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders
“I think what I would ask of people is a couple of things. Look at my record and look at what I have campaigned on.
Four years ago, it was not a popular idea to suggest that health care for all was a right, not a privilege. Today, that concept is seeping through all over this country. Four years ago, it was not a popular idea to say that we have got to take on a broken, racist criminal justice system and bring about real reform which ends the absurdity of the United States having more people (in) jail than any other country on Earth. Four years ago, I said that we have got to end the war on drugs and legalize marijuana. We have come a long way in four years. Four years ago, when people were kind of laughing at me when they asked me what is the major national security crisis facing America, I said it was climate change and that we have a moral imperative to transform our energy system.
The bottom line is that many of the ideas that I brought forth four years ago are now widely accepted by the American people and Democratic candidates from school board to President of the United States are now supporting them, and when we talk about justice, we are also talking about the massive levels of racial disparities that exist in this country. It’s not just that we need health care for all people, we need to address the fact that infant mortality in the African-American community is two and a half times what it is in the white community. That white families have ten times the wealth of black families. That in the criminal justice system, African-Americans get arrested far more frequently than whites.
So the campaign is about two things: it is suggesting very strongly that we cannot continue a nation when three families have more wealth than the bottom half of America, when you have a political system which is corrupt because billionaires are able to buy elections, and then within the midst of all of that income and wealth disparity in a national level, we have racial disparities as well.
So our campaign is two-fold. Taking on the big money interests on Wall Street, the insurance companies, the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex. If you look at what the mantra of our campaign is, it is us not me because I understand, and I believe this very strongly, that no president, not the best intentioned, not the most honest, can do it alone. If you want to transform America, you want health care for all, you want real criminal justice reform, you want to deal with climate change, you’re going to have to take on, together we’re going to have to take on, incredibly powerful institutions that have unlimited sums of money.
So my campaign is about not just winning the nomination, not just the feeding trough – it is the understanding that we cannot transform this country unless millions of people, black and white and Latino, Asian American, Native American, stand up and take on the very powerful greedy special interests who dominate the economic and political life of this country.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Warren was the only candidate at the forum not asked why women of color should vote for her. Instead, she was asked by Reid how she would address “people who are not confident” or are afraid that the country is willing to elect a woman.
“Let me just say this about confidence … look, this is the heart of it. It’s how are we gonna 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 gonna do this. Here’s how I see this. We have a room full of people here who weren’t given anything. We have a room full of people here who had to fight for what they believe in. We have a room full of people here who had to reach down deep and, no matter how hard it was no matter how scary it looked, they found what they needed to find and they brought it up and they took care of the people they love. They fought the fights they believed in – that’s how they got into these seats today.”