HOUSTON, TEXAS — Some 2,000 women, almost all of them women of color, gathered together in Houston Wednesday for the “She the People” forum, where they pressed Democrats running for president on how they propose to help support their communities.
The gathering aimed to address “the unfinished business of women of color,” Aimee Allison, founder of She the People and organizer of the event, told ThinkProgress.
“The exciting thing is to be able to highlight women of color… as drivers of a progressive future,” Allison said. She said that one of the goals is to ensure that, unlike in past elections, the interests and needs of women voters of color are given full consideration by the candidates running in 2020.
“We certainly weren’t acknowledged or highlighted in 2016, and we’re not allowing that to happen again,” Allison said.
The eight Democratic contenders at the event, held at Texas Southern University, were Sens. Cory Booker (NJ), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Kamala Harris (CA), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Bernie Sanders (VT), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (TX), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI), and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro.
One by one, the candidates fielded questions from Allison, MSNBC host JoyAnn Reid, and members of the audience on voting rights, climate change, sexual violence, education, health care, and other issues. Each candidate’s interview ended with the same question: “Why should women of color vote for you?”
“Women of color can trust me,” said Booker, the first candidate interviewed. “My fights have been fights that have shown who I am and shown my loyalty.”
Women of color are a key demographic for the Democratic party. Historically, black women have been the party’s most dedicated voters, and most candidates pointed to their records on a range of issues related to racial justice in response to the question.
O’Rourke, the first white male candidate interviewed in the group, took a long, awkward pause that prompted giggles from some in the crowd before responding, “It’s not something I’m owed, not something I expect. It’s something I fully hope to earn.”
O’Rourke, a native of Texas, and Harris, the only black woman candidate in attendance, were warmly received by the crowd. But it was Warren, the final interviewee of the day, who seemed to inspire the group most.
“Elizabeth Warren really did move me. You can tell that she has studied these things and they aren’t just talking points that she’s regurgitating from memos or what have you,” Erika Washington, the 39-year-old director of a Nevada nonprofit, told ThinkProgress.
“I feel like she actually takes the time to understand a lot of the structural racism issues that plague our country and I really respect the fact that she doesn’t shy away from saying ‘black women.’ She doesn’t pussyfoot around saying things the way that they are.”
Washington and several other women at the event said they also liked an answer Warren gave in which she tied the history of housing discrimination in the United States to the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008.
At the conclusion of her remarks, Warren talked about hearing her parents discuss the possibility of losing their home, and how her mother got a minimum wage job at Sears to keep the family afloat. The story seemed to resonate in the room, and much of the crowd sent her off with a standing ovation.
“That’s what we want. How are we going to fix it?” Washington said. “It’s one thing to say “I acknowledge that there’s a problem,’ and I think it’s great that folks are acknowledging there’s a problem… It’s another thing to say, ‘Look, I’m coming up with a plan.’ There are glimmers of hope there.”
When Sanders was asked about the rise of white nationalism in the United States, he began to answer by outlining his some of his policy issues.
“What about black people?” one attendee called from the crowd. When he mentioned that he joined the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, his answer was met with groans by some in the crowd.
And when Gabbard, who recently apologized for anti-LGBTQ comments she made in the past, was pressed on whether she would reverse President Donald Trump’s trans military ban, she launched into a monologue about how much she values people who choose to serve in the military before someone from the crowd yelled, “Answer the question!”
Gabbard then quickly said she would, as president, reverse the ban.
Activist Olinka Green, 50, told ThinkProgress she was not ultimately not pleased with any candidate’s answers.
“[Harris’s] record on mass incarceration for black people sucks. Beto, he supports Israel, so that means that he’s not down for Palestine,” said Green. She added that she was was unimpressed by the fact that that Sanders doesn’t support reparations, and had wanted a more comprehensive answer from Warren about the stress black mothers face.
After the forum, Allison told ThinkProgress that She the People is headed out on the road to help organize women of color in key states. “The country needs us and we need each other,” she said.
“We are the most progressive voters, and we are organizers in states that Trump won last time, not because there are more Trump voters, but because the Democratic infrastructure didn’t invest in and elevate leaders that inspired us. That’s what we’re calling for.”