At a forum in Houston on Wednesday hosted by the political group She the People, Democratic presidential candidates spoke directly to a crucial constituency in their party’s primaries: women of color.
The questions spanned a range of topics, from voting rights to health care, and were all asked by women of color, who make up about one-fifth of the primary electorate and more in some key states, Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, noted in her introductory speech.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who was the first candidate to speak, touched on climate change, the tax code and Islamophobia, and promised once again to choose a woman as his running mate if he is nominated. In the first question of the afternoon, which concerned his environmental policies, he noted the disparate impact of climate change and pollution on communities of color.
Much has been made of the need to address climate change within 10 to 12 years, Mr. Booker said, but in cities like Newark, where he served as mayor before being elected to the Senate, “the life-or-death issues are happening right now.” Asked about the prospect of declaring a state of emergency to address climate change — as President Trump did over border security — he said the nation needed “to act with that sense of urgency,” but did not endorse a state of emergency to get it done.
In another key moment, an audience member asked Mr. Booker about Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, whom Mr. Trump has targeted over her comments on Israel. Ms. Omar has reported an increase in death threats as a result.
“The criticisms of Congresswoman Omar, what Donald Trump has been saying about her, is reprehensible, it is trafficking in Islamophobia, and it should be condemned by everyone,” he responded. The president’s language, he added, fuels the far-right attacks that have been the most common type of terrorism in the United States since the 9/11 attacks.
Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, spoke repeatedly of universal pre-kindergarten as a crucial measure to support low-income Americans, and especially people of color. As mayor of San Antonio, he established a public pre-K program that he has suggested replicating at the national level.
He also addressed the issue of gentrification, calling for “a greater supply of affordable housing so that people can afford to live in their own neighborhood,” and also for some form of property tax relief.
Asked whether he believed some Wall Street bankers should have gone to prison for their actions before and during the recession, he did not answer directly, but he said, “I will make sure that no matter who you are, no one is above the law in this country, and that includes Wall Street.”
Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has drawn criticism for her record on gay rights, said she wanted to repeal Mr. Trump’s ban on transgender service members. Having deployed twice to the Middle East, she said, she knew gender identity didn’t matter among soldiers: “If it came down to it, they would give their life for me, I would give my life for them.”
Ms. Gabbard also denounced “regime change” wars and said, in response to a question about Syria, said that the United States could not continue to be “the police man of the world.” Asked about Russian interference in the 2016 election, she pointed to legislation she supports that would require paper ballots or “voter-verified paper backups.”
The event, billed as the first-ever presidential forum for women of color, took place at Texas Southern University, a historically black university in Houston. It was also scheduled to include Senators Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Representative Tulsi Gabbard and former Representative Beto O’Rourke.
Before the first candidate came onstage, Leah Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Church in Washington and former chief of staff for the Democratic National Committee, led the audience in a chant:
“Our votes matter. Our votes matter. Our votes matter.”