cnn democratic presidential debate
These 20 Democrats made the cut for CNN's debate
01:45 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

In the lead-up to the CNN Democratic presidential debates, CNN Opinion’s Yaffa Fredrick asked the 20 participating candidates to write to the following prompt: Share a personal story that has influenced a policy you have proposed on the campaign trail.

Nearly all the candidates have agreed to write. Here’s what they had to say.

Michael Bennet: There is nothing more alarming to a parent than a sick child

cnn candidate portraits Michael Bennet

While our girls were sick, my wife Susan and I spent every second focused on their recovery. After all, there is almost nothing more alarming to a parent than a sick or injured child.

Too many parents have the added fear of knowing their family is a sickness away from bankruptcy or that a loved one may have to go without the care they need. Today, 28 million Americans have no health insurance. Forty percent of Americans say they don’t have the money to cover a $400 emergency. In the most affluent country in history, this is a disgrace.

Read more here.

Michael Bennet is the senior US Senator for Colorado.

Joe Biden: After my family’s car accident, health care became personal for me

cnn candidate portraits Joe Biden

A car accident that took the lives of my first wife and baby daughter just weeks after I was elected to the Senate for the first time badly injured my sons, Beau and Hunter, who were confined to hospital beds for weeks. At just 4 years old, Beau would turn to his brother in the hospital and say, “Hunt. Look at me, look at me. I love you.” He was like that his entire life, up until his death in 2015, after a grueling battle with brain cancer.

My family was fortunate enough to have health insurance. But there are so many families that have had losses as severe or worse than mine and who didn’t have the incredible support or resources that I did. During both of these defining experiences in my life, I imagined what it must be like for the millions of moms and dads, and sons and daughters who are at their loved ones’ bedsides worried about how they will be able to pay for the care they need.

Read more here.

Joe Biden is the former Vice President of the United States.

Cory Booker: My dad’s path out of poverty inspired my embrace of ‘baby bonds’

cnn candidate portraits Cory Booker

My dad had no source of financial support and no tradition of higher education in his family, so he never even considered going to college. But members of the community recognized his potential and encouraged him to go. His church sent around a collection plate to help pay for his first semester’s tuition at North Carolina Central University, a historically black school.

That investment in his future opened doors that he never even knew existed: He got a good job and worked hard, and within the span of a generation, he moved his family from poverty to the middle class.

But the extraordinary generosity of one community should not, and cannot, be the only path out of poverty. For millions of children in America growing up today like my dad did a generation ago, the size of their family’s bank account will dictate everything from the food they eat to the school they attend to the air they breathe.

Read more here.

Cory Booker is the junior US senator from New Jersey.

Steve Bullock: What my $100,000 in student debt taught me

cnn candidate portraits Steve Bullock

Like those Americans fortunate enough to go to college, the student debt problem is personal for me. I wasn’t in a position to foot the bill up front. College visits were beyond my family’s financial means, so I showed up to classes without having ever visited campus.

I worked my way through every semester clearing tables, filling pop machines and doing whatever else I could to help ease the burden. In law school, I showed up with a credit card and borrowed my way to a degree. When I graduated, I had over $100,000 in loans – more than $175,000 in today’s dollars.

I will never forget the day my wife, Lisa, and I finally paid off our student debt.

Read more here.

Steve Bullock is the governor of Montana.

Pete Buttigieg: The greatest lesson I learned in Afghanistan

cnn candidate portraits  Pete Buttigieg

On each one of the 119 trips I took outside the wire – be it driving or guarding a vehicle – I learned what it meant to trust someone else with my life, and vice versa. The men and women who got in my vehicle didn’t care whether I was a Democrat or a Republican, or whether my father did or didn’t have papers when he immigrated here. They cared about whether my M4 was locked and loaded, and whether I had selected the route with the fewest improvised explosive device threats. They just wanted to get home safe, like I did.

It was a life-changing sense of trust in others – and one I wish more Americans had. But I don’t believe you should have to go to war in order to build that kind of trust and understanding, which is why I’m determined to knit together our social fabric through a new call to service.

Read more here.

Pete Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

Julián Castro: Why my mother yanked me from my sixth-grade classroom

cnn candidate portraits Julian Castro

“Look around,” the school official said in a stern voice, almost daring the assembled crowd of incoming sixth-grade students and parents. It was the summer of 1986, and I was sitting in a hot auditorium with my mother and my brother, Joaquin, nervously waiting to start the new school year. “Statistically, the chances are that up to half of you won’t be here when it’s time to graduate from the eighth grade.” Those were infamous last words.

Mom announced the next morning that we would attend another school, a foreign-language magnet program two miles away. My mom, a Chicana activist and hell-raiser, had higher aspirations for us.

Later I reflected on how profound this lesson was; low expectations were a tragic reality in the segregated schools on the west side of San Antonio where Joaquin and I grew up. At our new school, the teachers were supportive, mom encouraged us, and we excelled. But I kept thinking about our friends who stayed behind. I remembered that statistic that eventually proved true for too many of our former classmates.

Read more here.

Julián Castro is the former secretary of housing and urban development under President Obama and mayor of San Antonio, Texas.

Bill de Blasio: Public pre-K programs changed my children’s lives. Other American families deserve the same

cnn candidate portraits  Bill de Blasio

Back in the 1990s, New York City was a great deal more divided than it is now. We knew our multi-racial family would bring stares and insults in some places. So, we invested in our own oasis in Brooklyn, where we could feel at home and be comfortable raising our children.

Like most other parents, we wanted our kids to grow up in an atmosphere of respect and acceptance. We also wanted them to realize their potential from an early age. The best way for them to do that and have the same opportunities as kids from wealthier families who could afford early education classes was to enroll in a quality public pre-K program. At the time, admission to these programs was decided through a lottery, and only a few families got it, so we prayed and prayed – and we lucked out. Access to quality pre-K made a huge difference for our kids, and ultimately changed the lives of our family.

Read more here.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.

John Delaney: My grandfather’s story reminds me about what we owe America

cnn candidate portraits John Delaney

A sense of compassion and shared humanity created opportunity for him, and he made the best of it by working in a pencil factory his whole life. His daughter, my mom, married my dad – a union electrician who had served in the Army between Korea and Vietnam. We grew up a blue-collar family in a blue-collar neighborhood. Our family had health care because of my dad’s union, and a scholarship from the International Brotherhood of Election Workers helped me go to college – something my grandparents and parents never had the opportunity to do. It allowed me to become an entrepreneur, a CEO and then a member of Congress.

I’ve thought about my grandfather’s story a lot in the last few weeks, because we have a White House that isn’t showing compassion or shared humanity – particularly on the issue of immigration.

Read more here.

John Delaney is the former US representative for Maryland’s 6th district and an entrepreneur.

Kirsten Gillibrand: I’ve been a terrified parent. No family should face this impossible choice

cnn candidate portraits Kirsten Gillibrand

When my oldest son Theo was a toddler, he loved to help me cook dinner. One day he was sitting in his highchair and helping me dip slices of zucchini into egg batter for me to then bread and fry. Within seconds, his hands turned bright red and puffy. When I looked at his face and saw his cheeks and eyes had also swollen, my heart stopped. I knew he was having a severe allergic reaction.

Theo had experienced asthma attacks before, and my husband Jonathan and I were terrified, as we drove to the hospital, that Theo would keep getting worse.

There’s nothing scarier for a parent than knowing your child is in danger, and not knowing the cause or how to stop it. That felt like the longest car ride of my life. The only thing that could have made it worse would have been the paralyzing fear that we might not be able to afford Theo’s care or the life-saving medicine he would need.

Read more here.

Kirsten Gillibrand is the junior US Senator from New York.

Kamala Harris: What my first grade teacher taught me about America’s public school teachers

cnn candidate portraits Kamala Harris

Out on the campaign trail, voters often ask me about the people in my life who made it possible for me to stand in front of them as a candidate for President of the United States. I tell them about two women who were central to making me who I am today. The first is my mother, Shymala. She was all of five feet tall but if you ever met her you would have thought she was seven feet tall. She was a wonderful mother and a force to be reckoned with. She instilled in me and my sister, a deep sense of responsibility to advocate for the voiceless and vulnerable and to always fight for justice.

The second person is Mrs. Frances Wilson. She was my first grade teacher at Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley, California. Mrs. Wilson instilled a sense of hope and courage within me during the formative years of my life and believed in me every step of the way.

Read more here.

Kamala Harris is the junior US Senator for California.

John Hickenlooper: How my 11-year-old son inspired me to pass gun-safety laws in Colorado

cnn candidate portraits john hickenlooper

In Colorado, we passed the kind of gun-safety laws that other progressive politicians merely talk about. My sixth-grade son showed me the way. Shortly after he asked me about the difficulties of my job, he said, “Dad, just get the facts and make a decision, check, next.”

It turns out he was right.

Thanks to the nudge, I asked the Colorado Office of Public Safety to give me some numbers showing the effect of the limited background checks under Colorado law at the time. Among our state’s population of about 5.5 million, those checks stopped over 3,000 people who had been arrested or convicted of serious crimes from buying guns in 2012, including 38 people for homicide, 133 people for sexual assault, 618 burglars, and 1,380 people for felony assault.

Read more here.

John Hickenlooper is the former governor of Colorado.

Jay Inslee: I’ve witnessed the devastation climate change can cause

cnn candidate portraits Jay Inslee

Earlier this week, I visited southwest Detroit’s 48217 zip code - the most polluted area in Michigan. In the shadow of a Marathon Oil refinery, children breathe in polluted air and face higher rates of asthma and cancer than other neighborhoods.

I’ve seen this story across the country: Businesses flooded out in Davenport, Iowa; homes burned to ashes in Agoura Hills, California; families breathe in toxic fumes in south Philadelphia. American communities are paying the price for American politicians who refuse to confront the fossil fuel industry.

Southwest Detroit and communities like it across the country are on the front lines of climate change. They paint a vivid picture of what’s ahead for our entire country if we continue to allow the fossil fuel industry to profit off the destruction of our planet.

Read more here.

Jay Inslee is the governor of Washington.

Amy Klobuchar: My dad’s struggle with alcoholism taught me a vital lesson

cnn candidate portraits Amy Klobuchar

My own story is like a lot of families’ stories. I love my dad. Despite being a successful sports writer and columnist, he struggled with alcoholism when I was growing up. I saw him climb the highest mountains but also sink to the lowest valleys because of his battle with alcoholism.

He had three DWIs and after the third he got real treatment and was, in his own words, “pursued by grace.” Faith, treatment, friends, family and the community of people who stood by him made all the difference.

When it comes to mental health and addiction, I believe everyone should have the same right to be pursued by grace and receive effective treatment. These issues affect us all.

Read more here.

Amy Klobuchar is the senior US senator from Minnesota.

Beto O’Rourke: What I’ve learned from living in today’s Ellis Island

cnn candidate portraits Beto O'Rourke

In early July, my wife, Amy, and I rode the ferry from the bottom of Manhattan to Ellis Island. We visited the Great Hall, where waves of huddled masses, recently disembarked from long, transatlantic voyages, finally began to breathe a little more freely. On The American Immigrant Wall of Honor, we found the name of James Francis O’Rourke, who very well could have been one of my ancestors. And looking out at the Statue of Liberty, we were reminded that America always has been, and always will be, a nation of immigrants.

One reason we were so moved by our visit is because, in many ways, my hometown of El Paso is the Ellis Island of today. We are the largest binational community in the Western Hemisphere, the place where millions of people who become Americans first set foot in our country. A quarter of our neighbors were born in another country. Every day, we are made stronger – and yes, safer – by the immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who make us so proud to call El Paso our home.

Read more here.

Beto O’Rourke is a former US Representative from Texas.

Tim Ryan: What my cousin Donnie taught me about America’s working class

cnn candidate portraits Tim Ryan

A few years ago, I received a call from my cousin Donnie, a proud Ohioan, Vietnam veteran and seasoned steelworker. Throughout his life, Donnie bounced between jobs in steel mills across our state, earning a living wage. Donnie told me on the phone that it was his last day at Delphi Automotive, a General Motors supplier, and that his job and the entire company were getting outsourced to cut costs. Donnie spent his last few hours on the job unbolting his machine from the floor, boxing it up and shipping it to China.

Unfortunately, Donnie’s story is one that hits home to a lot of folks who grew up, like I did, in the Rust Belt. It’s been almost 40 years since the economic decline hit the Midwest and Northeast. One after another, factories closed their doors due to inflation, import of foreign steel and cheap foreign labor costs.

Read more here.

Tim Ryan is the US Representative for Ohio’s 13th congressional district.

Bernie Sanders: As a child, rent control kept a roof over my head

cnn candidate portraits Bernie Sanders

I was born and raised in a three-and-a-half-room apartment in Brooklyn. My father was a paint salesman who worked hard his entire life, but never made much money. This was not a life of desperate poverty – but coming from a lower middle-class family, I will never forget how money, or really lack of money, was always a point of stress in our home.

My mother’s dream was that someday our family would move out of that apartment to a home of our own. She died young, and her dream was never fulfilled. But during her life, at least our family was always able to afford a roof over our heads, because we were living in a rent-controlled building. That most minimal form of economic security was crucial for our family.

Read more here.

Bernie Sanders is a US Senator from Vermont.

Elizabeth Warren: I could go to college on a waitress’ salary. Americans can’t do that anymore

cnn candidate portraits elizabeth warren

Like a lot of Americans, my story isn’t exactly a straight line. I dropped out of college at 19 after the first boy I ever loved asked me to marry him, and I got a job answering phones. Even though I thought my dream of teaching was over, I had a good job and a good life.

Then, I heard about the University of Houston. It was a public four-year college just 40 minutes away and tuition was just $50 a semester – something I could afford on a part-time waitressing salary. I got my degree and went on to become a teacher for students with speech and learning disabilities. I got to live my dream.

My daddy ended up as a janitor, but I got to become a teacher, a law school professor, a United States senator and now a candidate for president because higher education opened a million doors for me. But the chances I got don’t exist anymore.

Read more here.

Elizabeth Warren is the senior US senator from Massachusetts.

Marianne Williamson: What I learned raising my daughter in an affluent suburb

cnn candidate portraits Marianne Williamson

In the late 1990s, I lived in Grosse Pointe, an affluent suburb of Detroit, Michigan, while raising my daughter. During that time, there were people in inner-city Detroit who would rent apartments in Grosse Pointe, several families at a time, to enable their children to attend Grosse Pointe South High School, a top-notch public school.

Local governments determine the enrollment policies of children in their school. Grosse Pointe’s was that your house, rented or owned, had to be your primary residence. If a child was enrolled in a school where the family was renting a second property, living with a relative, or with a parent who did not have primary custody, the district could eject them from school, extract fees from their families and potentially prosecute them for making false statements about residency.

Read more here.

Marianne Williamson is a bestselling author, activist and spiritual lecturer.

Andrew Yang: What I learned from five unhappy months as a corporate lawyer

cnn candidate portraits Andrew Yang

So, in 2011, I started Venture for America, a nonprofit that placed recent graduates in cities such as Birmingham, New Orleans, Cleveland, and Detroit – giving them the chance to support local businesses and create jobs in these areas. I wanted to create a path for smart young people to go out and build things, not toil away on corporate mergers that just shifted money from one millionaire’s account to another.

We picked these towns because they were struggling by most obvious measurements. They had lost manufacturing jobs to automation and were facing high levels of economic insecurity, unemployment and drug overdoses. However, looking at these numbers on a spreadsheet was very different from stepping off of a plane and seeing these struggling communities in person. I thought, “I can’t believe I’m still in the same country.”

Read more here.

Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur and a former ambassador for global entrepreneurship under the Obama administration.