HOUSTON (CN) – Elizabeth Warren’s parents were desperate. Her father had suffered a career-derailing heart attack, the family station wagon had been repossessed and Warren, then a middle-school student, felt the foreboding as she eavesdropped on her parents’ late night conversations about their mortgage.
In a Democratic presidential candidate forum Wednesday in Houston that included U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke and onetime Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Warren’s story about her family’s struggles stood out.
Sitting on the edge of her seat on the dais in an auditorium at Texas Southern University, pulling up the sleeves on her green jacket, Warren recalled walking into her parents’ room, seeing her mother’s best dress laid out on the bed and her mother in tears.
“She was 50 years old, she had never worked outside the home and she was terrified,” Warren said.
She said her mom put on the dress and her high heels, walked to Sears and got a minimum wage job answering phones. “That minimum wage job saved our home and it saved our family,” she said.
Warren, 69, said years later the most important lesson from that experience sunk in.
“It’s a story about government. And about no matter how hard you work, the rules made by the people in government will still make the big difference in your life,” she said.
She said when she was a girl a full-time minimum wage job in America would support a family of three.
“It would pay a mortgage, it would cover the utilities and it would cover food. And today a minimum wage job in America will not keep a momma and baby out of poverty. That is wrong. That is worth fighting for,” she said.
It’s a story well-polished from stops on the former Harvard Law School professor’s hectic campaign schedule, and it brought the more than 1,000 people, mostly women, in the audience to their feet to close out the She the People Forum.
Founded in San Francisco, She the People is a network focused on increasing the political power of women of color.
Its founder Aimee Allison moderated the forum, alongside MSNBC anchor Joy Reid, and kicked it off with a focus on minority women’s clout at the ballot box.
“Our hope is to advance a national conversation to help voters distinguish which candidates stand with and for women of color in our communities. And let me tell you something, the candidate who does that best and most consistently will win the nomination and the White House in 2020,” Allison said.
She said one in five voters in primaries are women of color.
“We are 25 percent of the voters in the key swing states of Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Arizona,” she added.
Allison called each candidate to the stage separately for 20-minute sessions in which they took questions about how they will change a U.S. criminal justice system in which minorities receive harsher punishments than whites for the same crimes, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, marijuana legalization, climate change, the wage gap between women and men and the alarmingly high rate at which black women in America die from childbirth.
Sen. Booker, 49, the first black U.S. Senator from New Jersey, said he still lives in the same neighborhood he did when he was elected mayor of Newark in 2006, a position he held until 2013.
Allison said a United Nations report found we have 12 years to sharply reduce carbon dioxide emissions before we reach irrevocable ecological catastrophe and said people of color are more likely to live near polluting plants.
She asked Booker what he’d do about pollution and poverty as president. Booker said, “The reality is if you live in a community like mine, the environmental urgencies, the life and death issues are happening right now.”
Booker said he’d rejoin the Paris climate agreement, which President Donald Trump withdrew from shortly after taking office, recommit to clean energy standards discarded by Trump’s administration and give tax breaks the government now gives oil and gas companies to renewable energy companies.
Booker also pledged to pick a woman for vice-president if he wins the nomination.
Julián Castro, 44, former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, said as HUD secretary under Barack Obama he visited 100 different communities, and if he had to grade them he would not give one of them an A for how they are combating gentrification.
Austin, Texas is a prime example, he said. Over the past 15 years East Austin has lost more than 50 percent of its black population.
As HUD secretary, Castro said, the agency passed a ruled called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. “It basically said to communities that get federal taxpayer money through HUD, ‘You have to get more serious about equal housing opportunity in your jurisdiction.”
He said HUD began receiving the first plans from cities to comply with the rule in October 2016, only to have the Trump administration “put that on ice.” He said he’d revive the program as president.
Castro’s mother raised him and his twin brother, Texas U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, from age 8 when his parents separated. The moderators asked all the candidates this question: “Why should women of color choose you as their nominee?”
Castro said, “I’m only here because of two very strong women of color. My grandmother 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.”
O’Rourke, 46, represented his hometown of El Paso for three terms in Congress before he gave up the job to challenge Ted Cruz for his seat in the U.S. Senate. O’Rourke broke fundraising records for a U.S. Senate race but narrowly lost to Cruz last November.
He said he’s for granting citizenship to young immigrants who’ve been approved for protection from deportation under DACA and their parents. He said he would end the U.S. Immigration and Custom’s practice of arresting undocumented immigrants in workplace raids, but he would not abolish the agency.
Sen. Kamala Harris, 54, of California, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, said she would legalize marijuana.
Harris, California’s attorney general for six years, said there’s no question the war on drugs was a failure. “And part of the problem was that what is essentially a public health issue became a criminal justice issue,” she said.
She said the real issue is undiagnosed trauma, particularly in poor minority communities and people self-medicating to deal with it. She said she would push for “mental health care on demand” and “drug treatment on demand.”
Though Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a 58-year-old former prosecutor, got a subdued reception from the crowd compared to Harris, she also scored some points with plans to reform criminal justice.
Spurred by a question about Philando Castile, a black man who a policeman shot to death during a traffic stop outside St. Paul, Minn. in July 2016, Klobuchar noted the officer was acquitted. She said she would make sure police involved in questionable shootings are not investigated by their departments but by independent agencies.
Senator Bernie Sanders, 77, was grilled by an audience member about what he would do to fight the rise of terrorism by white men in America. She mentioned the recent arrest of a 21-year-old man in Louisiana on suspicion he had torched three black churches near Opelousas.
With his trademark feistiness Sanders, of Vermont, said, “I was at the march in Washington with Dr. [Martin Luther] King in 1963 . . . I have dedicated my life to fighting racism, sexism and discrimination of all forms and at the top of my agenda will be that all discrimination has to end. If someone wants to go around committing hate crimes that person will have to pay a very heavy price indeed.”
Asked about Trump’s nomination of numerous judges to federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, who one of the moderators described as “right-wing people who are against women of color,” Sanders said he’s for scraping lifetime appoints for Supreme Court justices.
“What we can do is something fairly novel, is that after a member of the Supreme Court serves for a certain period of time, perhaps 12 years, that justice then rotates to an appeals court. That will give it some fresh blood,” he said.
Sanders took some flak from the audience. When Reid asked him, “Why should women of color vote for you?” a woman yelled, “We don’t know.”
Sanders said that when he ran for president four years ago his platform, including the “idea that health care is a right not privilege” and to reform a prison system in which more citizens are incarcerated than any country in the world, were not popular ideas, but now many of his fellow presidential candidates have taken those positions.
Sen. Warren came on last and stole the show after a woman from the audience told her, “The United States is one of only 13 countries in the world where the rate of maternal mortality is worse than it was 25 years ago.”
“Yes ma’am,” Warren said.
“For black women the risk of death for pregnancy related causes is three to four times higher than for white women … What will you do to address this crisis?” the woman said.
Warren said the higher mortality rate cuts across demographics for black women, from the poor to the wealthy and well-educated.
“The best studies that I’ve seen put it down to just one thing: Prejudice. That doctors and nurses don’t hear African-American women’s medical issues the same way that they hear the same things from white women,” Warren said.
Her folksy style connected with the crowd, who exhorted her with shouts of “go ahead” and “tell it.”
“I got a plan,” she said. “I want to talk to hospitals and talk to them in a language they understand: Money.”
Warren said she would push for hospitals to get a monetary bonus from the government if they lowered mortality rates. “If not they will get money taken away from them,” she said.
The second-term senator who spearheaded creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also said she has a plan to address the dearth of affordable housing in the U.S.
“We’re going to put new money in from the federal government to build new housing units. I have a proposal to build 3 million new housing units in America,” Warren said.
But Warren drew the loudest applause with her response to Reid’s claim that many women of color are afraid, in light of Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016, that the country is unwilling to elect a woman president.
“Let me just say this about confidence,” Warren said. “Look, this is the heart of it. It’s: How are we going to fight? Not just individually but together. Are we going to fight because we are afraid? Are we going to show up for people that we don’t actually believe in, but because we are afraid to do anything else? That’s not who we are. That’s not how we’re going to do this.”