DETROIT (CN) – Nine Democratic presidential hopefuls gathered Wednesday at the 110th NAACP National Convention in Detroit for an open forum that touched on economic inequality, criminal justice reform, voter suppression and white nationalism.
The civil rights organization continued its tradition of allowing presidential candidates to speak at the yearly gathering. Past speakers have included former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney and John McCain. President Donald Trump was invited to speak but declined.
“The upcoming 2020 presidential election is one of the most pivotal elections in our lifetime and will be heavily influenced by the black electorate. Issues such as voting rights, immigration, criminal justice reform, student loan debt, the economy and environmental justice persist as crucial concerns for African-Americans,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said.
Candidates at this year’s convention included former Vice President Joe Biden; Senator Cory Booker; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro; Senator Kamala Harris; Senator Amy Klobuchar; Former Congressman O’Rourke; Senator Bernie Sanders; Senator Elizabeth Warren; and former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, who is seeking to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination.
A wide variety of attendees filled the rows of seats in the cavernous Cobo Center to hear from the candidates, from power-suit clad executives to young adults dressed for the middle of summer.
Warren was the first on the stage. With former special counsel Robert Mueller simultaneously testifying before Congress, the first question from CNN White House correspondent April Ryan involved just that.
“I read the Mueller report…I concluded first that this is a man who has broken the law and should be impeached,” Warren said of President Trump.
The senator from Massachusetts also spoke about economic disadvantages in the country.
“We have an entrepreneurship gap in this country,” she said. “Not because they don’t have good ideas….they don’t have a [financial] path.”
Booker spoke next, claiming Detroit is a part of his family history.
“This is where my momma was born” he said, before touting his plan for “broad-based criminal justice reform.”
“We have a system that’s deeply biased along racial lines,” Booker said.
O’Rourke then bounded onto the stage excitedly and greeted the crowd in Spanish.
“Buenos Dias!” he shouted before launching right into the subject of voter suppression.
O’Rourke also dismissed any ideas that his campaign was struggling.
“We also ran against the odds in Texas,” he said. “We knocked on doors and won that race…we have been a long shot before.”
Buttigieg followed and said he is running for president “because I think America is running out of time.”
“I don’t need to tell black Americans why the old normal will not work. White supremacy brought this country to its knees once,” he said.
The mayor added that “it took intention to create inequalities we see today.”
Castro wanted the crowd to know he wasn’t shy about calling out President Trump for his policies.
“We’ve seen the rise of white nationalism that the president is stoking,” he said.
He also slammed the idea of “Make America Great Again,” Trump’s campaign slogan.
“I don’t want to make American what it was. I want to focus on the future,” Castro said.
Sanders stepped on stage to a hero’s welcome, with cheers emanating from the audience. He jumped right into his talking points that ripped Trump.
“I don’t have to tell anyone is this room that we are living in an unprecedented time in American history. We have a president who is a pathological liar,” he bellowed.
When the subject of the Mueller investigation came up, the Vermont senator didn’t mince words.
“He is not exonerated. We know for a fact that the president did all he could to obstruct the investigation,” Sanders said, later getting up from his seat during a question and answer session and speaking in his trademark accent as the crowd ate it up.
Klobuchar had the unenviable task of following Sanders and tried to joke about the numerous people streaming out of the area once he left the stage.
“It is always fun to follow Bernie Sanders,” she said with a smile.
Klobuchar also emphasized a need to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act that she says was gutted by the Supreme Court. She also wants a renewed focus on nutrition.
“We have a president who just tried to cut food stamps,” she said. “My agenda is that we invest in our kids, our public schools…making sure people can retire…which hits the African-American community hard.”
Biden slid onto the stage and spoke quickly and efficiently as he brought up his vote on a 1994 crime bill and how it had the support of the black caucus and black mayors around the country.
The answer now is to restructure the criminal justice system, the charismatic former vice president said.
“We should shift the focus from incarceration to rehabilitation…I don’t think anyone should go to jail for having a drug problem,” he said.
Biden also invoked his old running mate, former President Obama, when addressing concerns over claims he was racist in any way.
“I doubt he would have picked me if I had a bad record on civil rights,” he said with a chuckle.
Biden ended by rattling off as many policy ideas as he could. Free community college and a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented citizens were among his points, in addition to the contaminated water crisis in nearby Flint.
“We should be replacing all those pipes in Flint,” he said. “What’s the matter with us?”
Harris also received a warm welcome when she walked on stage, and she pulled no punches.
“We are up for this fight. We know how to fight the good fight. I come from a family of fighters,” she said.
The senator from California had no problem summarizing what she thought of Mueller’s congressional testimony even though she had not watched it yet herself.
“From what I gathered, he said everything that was in that report. There are 10 clear separate incidents of obstruction,” Harris said.
“We have a predator living in the White House. It is the nature of predators to prey on those they perceive to be vulnerable,” she said to cheers. “Another thing about predators, they’re cowards.”
Harris received a standing ovation when she left the stage and large groups of attendees streamed from the room as Weld, a Republican, was the last to participate in the forum.
Weld, who is seeking to challenge Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2020, seemed to read the room and cut right to the chase.
“Let’s get one thing out of the way. Donald Trump is a racist,” he said.
Weld warned leaders of the Republican Party to reject the growing tide of racism or risk associating themselves with it for generations.
This year’s NAACP National Convention started July 20 and ends Wednesday night. Next year’s forum will be held in Boston.