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Democrats’ Debate Focuses on Minority Issues

June 29, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT

ANNOUNCER: Live from Howard University in Washington, D.C., it’s the All-American Presidential Forums on PBS.

KWAME HOLMAN: The eight Democratic presidential candidates faced off for the third time last night at historically black Howard University. The audience of students and prominent minorities gave a special greeting to Illinois Senator Barack Obama.


KWAME HOLMAN: Tavis Smiley of PBS served as moderator.

TAVIS SMILEY, PBS Host: Where do you stand on the issues that matter most to people of color in America?

KWAME HOLMAN: The candidates’ focus on issues particularly affecting minorities opened with reflections on yesterday’s Supreme Court decision striking down the integration plans of two public school districts. They all saw it as a blow to the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated schools.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: This is where Thurgood Marshall and the team from Brown crafted their strategy. And if it hadn’t been for them, I would not be standing here today.

And it was their fundamental recognition that for us to achieve racial equality was not simply good for African-Americans, but it was good for America as a whole, that we could not be what we might be as a nation unless we healed the brutal wounds of slavery and Jim Crow.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: It is still the defining issue. And the decision today, look at the minority views. The minority stated, had the rationale that was applied by the majority been applied the last 50 years, we would have never, never overcome the states’ effort to ignore Brown v. the Board.

Investing in education

KWAME HOLMAN: The candidates also agreed that education was the key to bringing down high unemployment rates among the nation's 40 million African-Americans.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: I talk about education -- and this is the first time we have talked about it in any debate -- the first thing you hear is, how are you going to pay for it? Nobody asks how we're going to pay for the war, but it's important to state that improving our schools, improving education, access to education to all Americans should be America's foremost priority.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), Ohio: Dr. King recognized that, when there's a war, people of two countries suffer, because what he was talking about was the link between war and fear and poverty, as opposed to peace and security and prosperity.

But we have to remember that, with a nation, right now, that will spend anywhere from $1 trillion to $2 trillion on this war, that is money out of the educational lives of our children. We need to remember the connection.

I'm ready to see at least a 15 percent reduction in that bloated Pentagon budget. Stop funding war, start funding education. That's where we get the money.

FORMER SEN. MIKE GRAVEL (D), Presidential Candidate: Dennis, you're a little too modest on that. I think we can cut a little more than 15 percent. 7.6 million teachers could have been hired last year if we weren't squandering this money. Now, how do you think we got into this problem? The people on this stage, like the rest of us, are all guilty, and very guilty. And we should recognize that, because there is linkage.

HIV/AIDS among minorities

KWAME HOLMAN: There were questions about the high rate of HIV and AIDS among young blacks, which prompted this popular response from Hillary Clinton.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.

This is a multiple-dimension problem, but if we don't begin to take it seriously and address it the way we did back in the '90s, when it was primarily a gay men's disease, we will never get the services and the public education that we need.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: It isn't just HIV-AIDS. The minority community, the African-American community in our country suffers from a lack of access to a wide variety of health care needs. Infant mortality among the black community is two-and-a-half times what it is in the white community. The problems of cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes, you go down a long list.

Taxes and economic disparity

KWAME HOLMAN: Ruben Navarrette of the San Diego Union-Tribune asked about tax policy and economic disparity.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE, JR., San Diego Union-Tribune: This week billionaire Warren Buffett said that the very wealthy aren't taxed nearly enough. In fact, he noted that he's taxed at a lower rate than some of his employees who earn much less. Do you agree that the rich aren't paying their fair share of taxes? And if so, what would you do about it?

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: We need to get rid of George Bush's tax cuts for rich people, which have distorted the tax system in America. I would use that money to pay for universal health care, to make sure everyone's covered.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: We are paying a very big price for this, because middle-class and working families are paying a much higher percentage of their income. That was Warren Buffett's position, that he pays about 17 percent -- because, don't forget, it's the payroll tax plus the income tax. We have to change the tax system, and we've got to get back to having those with the most contribute to this country.

KWAME HOLMAN: And when the focus shifted to those New Orleans' residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the candidates targeted the Bush administration.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I think that what's most important, though, that we have a president who is in touch with the needs of New Orleans before the hurricane hits, because part of the reason that we had such a tragedy was the assumption that everybody could jump in their SUVs, load up with some sparkling water, and check into the nearest hotel.

KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout the evening, there was very little disagreement among the Democratic candidates. The Republicans will participate in their own All-American Debate Forum in September at Morgan State University in Baltimore.