Billed as the oldest forum that addresses minority issues, the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum began in 1984 and is a prominent event in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. The host of this year’s forum also served as the venue of the Democratic candidates’ second debate.
Though the terror attacks in Paris had dominated the November debate, policy issues such as economic development, immigration, education, health care and bias in the justice system came to the forefront Monday.
Each of the three remaining candidates in the primary took pains at the forum to volley forthright questions about recent police shootings, campus rapes and the deportation of children to uncertain fates in Central America.
Clinton also scored the two biggest laughs of the night – the first one came with her question if “the Republicans will be next” to take the stage.
Though the GOP candidates were in fact asked to participate, scheduling conflicts ended in the cancelation of a similar event last month.
To end the night, Clinton merrily dodged an attempt to have her predict who would next hold the Oval Office. “Who would have ever thought Donald Trump would be leading a race for president,” she asked. “For those of you who have ever thought of running: Take heart.”
With the temperature at snow-covered Drake University campus threatening to dip into single digits overnight, the atmosphere in Sheslow Auditorium was notably different than at the November DNC debate.
There were few people outside on campus, and no demonstrations by supporters of any of the three candidates, but the event came at a crucial moment in the election with the first primaries arriving in three short weeks.
A poll released over the weekend by NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist showed Clinton holding a 3-point lead over Sanders in Iowa, with Sanders holding a 4-point advantage in New Hampshire.
In the same poll, Clinton leads Sanders nationwide 50-44 among Democrats, although Sanders performs better than Clinton against all likely Republican opponents in hypothetical general election matchups.
Given that Sanders sees his weakest support among minority voters, the evening provided an opportunity to make up some ground. Sanders appeared somewhat evasive and aggressive at times, but the audience greeted him with enthusiasm and was receptive to his message of expanding economic and educational opportunity to all economic and racial classes. The senator seemed worked up from the start, but it would be out of place to see anything different at this point.
Sanders’ biggest moment came when asked to reconcile his longtime reputation as a pro-Labor politician with more recent stances that appear more open to immigrants.
“Guest-worker programs are akin to slavery,” Sanders answered, pivoting the immigration question to more of a Labor question that is in his wheelhouse.
Sanders also scored big points by naming “Washington, D.C.,” as the state that dislikes him the most and by lighting up when co-moderator Jorge Ramos asked if he has noticed Clinton’s building aggression in the past few weeks.
“The inevitable candidate might not be so inevitable today,” Sanders said of his rival.
An experienced, often-poetic politician in a year when these qualities have become albatrosses, O’Malley capably answered tough questions about race relations, criminal justice and what Alicia Menendez described as Maryland’s “apartheid school system.”
Both O’Malley and the moderators poked fun at his status as the bottom-polling candidate with jokes about his small staff and low budget campaign, the fact that the character Tommy Carcetti from HBO’s “The Wire” was based on his time as mayor of Baltimore, and a question from co-moderator Akilah Hughes that prompted him to lament DNC policies for the primaries that favor presumed nominee Hillary Clinton at every turn.
O’Malley was slammed on numerous questions about race relations and criminal justice that focused on his experience as mayor of Baltimore, a city that’s become a focus of national attention in the wake of the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray.
Though O’Malley came off as a slick politician much of the time, he did score points by numbering his success in lowering police shootings and the overwhelming support he received from black voters in Baltimore in his successful mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns.
The fledgling network deserves praise for updating what has been a largely stale debate format. All three candidates received equal time – a rare occurrence in a modern election, as O’Malley lamented during his segment – and each faced numerous tough questions.
Moderators posed wide-ranging questions, many of which had not really been heard before Monday on a national stage in a planned event.
The event itself was novel, fun and perhaps surprisingly hard-hitting for this reason. Not shy about posing the uncomfortable questions, the moderators voiced several questions worthy of a highlights reel.
What does the term white privilege mean to you and name a moment when you benefitted from it?
Is white extremism as much of a threat to some people in this country as is Islamic terrorism?
All candidates say they believe that black lives matter; how can you prove that you believe that black lives matter?
Will you be the next deporter-in-chief?
Posing such questions to major candidates for president in a forum they are forced to answer does not happen every day.
Rounding out the trio Fusion anchors, Ramos, Menendez and Hughes, was New York Magazine writer Rembert Browne.
The Democratic candidates face their next formal debate, the fourth of the primary season, on Jan. 17 in Charlotte, N.C., with host NBC News.
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