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Ahead of the first debate, Democratic candidates address poverty, injustices at forum

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By Roey Hadar

Gwen Ifill Fellow

Twenty Democratic candidates have their most prominent opportunity yet to make an impression on voters at the first set of presidential debates this week in Miami. Candidates have been honing their platforms and visions and hope they can resonate with both the party’s progressive base and the broader Democratic electorate.

Nine presidential candidates addressed many of the issues they hope to touch on in the debates at a presidential forum with activists on June 17 that focused on poverty, inequality and racial injustice.

Presidential contenders including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren outlined plans such as raising the minimum wage, expanding voting rights and erasing student loan debt for millions of Americans in front of a crowd of a few hundred state and local activists for the Poor People’s Campaign, an advocacy group led by clergy members fighting to end poverty and systemic racism.

Former Vice President Joe Biden kicked off the event and received a relatively tepid reception from the crowd but talked about addressing poverty issues; he pledged that the first action he would take as president would be to repeal the 2017 tax cut pushed by President Donald Trump.

Biden also advocated for an expansion of both children’s health insurance plans and Medicaid.

“What I would do is make sure that every single person, this is what I propose, every single person in the United States has access to Medicaid right off the bat,” Biden said, later adding, “there isn’t a single reason in the world why every single solitary child in America is not covered by health insurance.”

Biden affirmed his commitment to voting rights, proposing expanding the Voting Rights Act. Later in the day, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called for going a step further, pledging to give both ex-felons and people in prison the right to vote.

“I’ve been criticized widely for saying this but this is what I believe. If you are a citizen of America, you have the right to vote even if you are in jail,” Sanders said, drawing applause from a crowd that had been advised on multiple occasions during the day not to do so for any candidates.

“Because voting is not a question of good people or bad people. It’s a question of maintaining universal right to vote for all citizens.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) focused on explaining her plan to use a 2% wealth tax on people with fortunes of over $50 million to fund her new proposed anti-poverty programs—universal child care and pre-K, making public technical schools and colleges tuition-free, cancelling up to $50,000 in student loan debt for every American and committing $100 billion over 10 years to fight the opioid epidemic.

“We’re just saying, you make it really big in this country, pitch in two cents so everybody else has a chance to make it in this country,” Warren said.

The organization had invited every major presidential candidate from both parties, including President Donald Trump. In addition to Biden, Sanders and Warren, six other candidates—Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Wayne Messam, Michael Bennet, Eric Swalwell and Marianne Williamson—spoke at the forum, making this the largest presidential forum so far in the 2020 election cycle.

But of those, it was Williamson who received perhaps the warmest reception. With her energetic delivery and strong rhetoric on addressing poverty in America, Williamson drew multiple applause lines, despite the crowd being asked not to applaud. 

“The economic system in America today is a system of economic tyranny. The economic system that prevails in America today does not just ignore the poor. It does not just turn a blind eye to the poor. There is a systemic war on the poor in America,” Williamson said.

Beyond decrying the threat from unfettered capitalism, Williamson laid out some of her policy proposals, including reparations for slavery, a wealth tax similar to Warren’s and cutting America’s military budget by $386 billion to roughly half its current levels.

Janie Baricelli, an activist and retired high school teacher from Long Island, was a fan of what both Warren and Williamson had to say and credited them for their candor.

“I really thought Warren addressed things very definitively and I didn’t even remember Marianne Williamson was running and I was glad to her what she was saying,” she said. “They’re addressing the real issues head on, not flinching, which is a natural default position from politicians. I’m just really glad that they’re kind of called on the carpet and forced to have to talk about these things.”

Art Brown, an activist based in Philadelphia, was impressed by both Sanders and Warren and more broadly encouraged by seeing all the candidates pay lip service to the issues he sees as most important. Brown felt that the event made candidates commit to progressive ideas that they could be held accountable for in the future.

“At least they’re put on notice. And at least what you have right now is you have something recorded. And so therefore you can go back to them and deal with accountability. This is what you said, at this particular time, at the poor people’s conference, and we’re going to hold you to that.”

Voters like Brown will have more opportunities to judge the candidates and hold them accountable. In addition to the first set of debates this week, the Democratic National Committee will be holding another round of debates next month.