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Breakout Moments From the September Debates

The top 10 Democratic candidates debated health care, race relations and immigration policy on Sept. 12. Photo Courtesy of ABC News.

By Osaro Grayson and Zaina Fairey

The top 10 Democratic candidates met at Texas Southern University on Sept. 12 for the third presidential debate. Prior to the debate, the Howard University Student Association (HUSA), the Howard University College Democrats (HUCD), the Howard University Texas Club, and the Politicking Mobile App collaborated to hold a panel discussion about the current political climate and the race for the Democratic nomination.

The pre-debate panel discussion, moderated by HUSA Chief of Staff Kylie Burke, included the co-founders of Politicking, Jordan Wilson and Wen-Kuni Ceant, Howard University NAACP President Warner Dixon, HUCD Communications Director Kasayah Alexis, and Howard University Assistant Professor Dr. Niambi Carter. Among the topics of discussion were the reliability of polling, the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections, and what voters want to see from the current Democratic presidential candidates. Dr. Carter urged young people to “stay engaged, stay motivated, stay mobilized, and stay ready” as we approach the presidential election next November. 

When asked what she would like to see from the Democratic candidates, Warner Dixon said that she was “sick and tired” of Democrats focusing their debate on who can beat President Trump, asking “what will [candidates] do for me as a young, Black woman?”

Going into the debate, former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) held a commanding lead as they are the only candidates polling in the double digits.

The night began with an unprecedented move by entrepreneur Andrew Yang, a message from Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) directly to President Donald Trump, and an impassioned opening statement by former Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX).

Andrew Yang announced that his campaign will now give a Freedom Dividend of $1,000 a month for an entire year to 10 American families. 

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Sen. Harris, addressing President Trump, stated “you have used hate, intimidation, fear, and over 12,000 lies as a way to distract from your failed policies and your broken promises,” adding that she plans on “unifying our country, winning this election, and turning the page for America.”

Rep. O’Rourke took the opportunity during his opening statement to address gun violence. He stated that, as a consequence of Donald Trump’s presidency, “racism and violence that have long been a part of America was welcomed out into the open.” The congressman is referring to his hometown of El Paso, Texas, where a gunman who O’ Rourke believes was “inspired to kill by our president,” killed 22 people and wounded dozens more on Aug. 3. 

When asked about his position on buybacks and how to best address mass shootings, Congressman O’Rourke stated, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”  

“We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans any more,” he added. O’Rourke’s plan to combat gun violence has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for being too radical. Following the debate, Republican Texas state Rep. Briscoe Cain, tweeted at O’Rourke, saying, “My AR is ready for you Robert Francis,” a perceived death threat against the presidential candidate. The tweet has since been removed by Twitter and the FBI was notified of the threat by the O’Rourke campaign.

Senator Booker argued that “if you need a license to drive a car in this country, you should need a license to buy a gun.” His plan will require potential gun owners to obtain a federal license in addition to passing a background check before getting a gun. 

“We can’t wait for this issue to personally affect us before we demand action,” Booker said before invoking the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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With his plan to combat gun violence, Booker hopes to bring a fight to the National Rifle Association and the corporate gun lobby “like they have never seen before.”

Health care was an important subject matter at the debate. Biden clashed with Sanders and Warren because his plan would build upon ObamaCare rather than completely replace it with Medicare-for-all. Biden also questioned how Sanders, who wrote the bill, and Warren who is a supporter of the bill would pay for a complete overhaul of the Medicare system. Sen. Harris, who is no longer a co-sponsor of Medicare-for-all, turned the attention to President Trump and his efforts to weaken and repeal the Affordable Care Act. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, while trying to contrast his health care plan with Biden’s, questioned Biden’s memory in an attempt to point out inconsistencies in his statements during the debate. While Castro insists that his comment was not intended as a personal attack on Biden, he has faced public backlash and even lost the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Vicente González (D-TX).

The next issue discussed was racism.

“Several recent polls indicate that [young Black voters’] number one concern is racism,” said the moderator, Linsey Davis. 

The round began with a statement by O’Rourke.

“We can mark the creation of this country not at the Fourth of July, 1776, but August 20, 1619, when the first kidnapped African was brought to this country against his will, and in bondage, and as a slave, built the greatness and the success and the wealth that neither he nor his descendants would ever be able to fully participate in and enjoy,” O’Rourke said. 

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He then called attention to racial disparities in schools’ disciplinary actions, maternal mortality rates, and the presence of a wealth gap. He vowed to sign into law Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s reparations bill to address these issues. O’Rourke pulled no punches, referring to President Trump as a white supremacist who “poses a mortal threat to people of color all across this country.”

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-IN) stated that what America needs is a “systematic approach to dismantle [systemic racism].” He continued, “In the same way that a dollar saved compounds, so does a dollar stolen.” Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan is a comprehensive plan to tackle systemic racism in housing, education, health, employment, and beyond. 

Senator Kamala Harris’s positions on popular race-related issues, including the legalization of marijuana and investigations of police shootings, were questioned by the moderators who asked, “When you had the power, why didn’t you try to affect change then?” 

Harris defended her controversial prosecutorial record, which has received mixed reactions from the public, by explaining that it had been her goal to reform the criminal justice system from the inside. Harris’s current plan aims to end mass incarceration, take the profit out of the criminal justice system, and shut down for-profit prisons. 

Immigration, which has been one of President Trump’s top priorities since taking office, was also a hot topic of debate. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Biden voiced his support for a wall at the United States’ southern border with Mexico, and served as vice president of an administration that deported 3 million people. When asked, Biden failed to answer whether or not he made a mistake in having those policies carried out, prompting Secretary Castro to call him out for attempting to distance himself from former President Barack Obama when their administration is criticized.

Senator Warren denounced the current immigration system for not being able to differentiate between “a terrorist, a criminal, and a 12-year-old girl,” adding that families are fleeing their conditions to come to the United States “in no small part because we have withdrawn help from people in Central America who are suffering.”

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Rep. O’Rourke wants to rewrite this country’s immigration laws “in the image of Houston, the most diverse city in the United States of America, in the image of El Paso, one of the safest cities in the United States of America,” adding, “safe not despite the fact that we are a city of immigrants, safe because we are a city of immigrants.”

This debate featured strong performances by Rep. O’Rourke and Sen. Booker, proving that the front-runners still have some competition to overcome. 

Each of the 10 candidates, in addition to billionaire Tom Steyer, have met the qualifications for the next debate, which is scheduled to be held on Oct. 15 at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.


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