HOUSTON — A group of 2020 hopefuls that included two black candidates, four women and a Latino man spent three hours Wednesday making the case to a room full of black women for why they should be the Democratic presidential nominee.
By Thursday, they could all be eclipsed by the most popular name to enter the race as former Vice-President Joe Biden is expected to join the crowded field — a move that will surprise no one but that could nonetheless jolt the race.
Biden’s decision to enter the race in a field already notable for its historic diversity has caused consternation among some Democrats, particularly women of colour, who are hoping for a nominee who better reflects the diversity of the country. At the She the People forum in Houston, billed as the first presidential forum focused on women of colour, that frustration sometimes broke out into the open.
Roxy D. Hall Williamson’s shoulders slumped at the mention of Biden’s decision to enter the race.
“I know that we have been cultured to feel that only the white man can save us,” said the LaMarque, Texas, organizer. “I just don’t feel like Biden is our answer.”
Biden’s candidacy is expected to reshape the race for the Democratic nomination, which has so far put the party’s diversity on display. Black female voters will play a critical role in the Democratic Party’s attempt to defeat President Donald Trump in 2020. An inability to earn their support in past cycles has spelled political peril for past Democratic candidates.
The raucous, standing-room crowd in the 1,800-person capacity auditorium listened intently as the candidates were questioned on issues including maternal mortality, immigration, tribal sovereignty and income inequality. The forum was held at the historically black Texas Southern University and attended by eight 2020 hopefuls: Sen. Cory Booker, former Obama Cabinet member Julian Castro, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said that she was initially eager for Biden to enter the race but now sees “strong alternatives” to him as the field has taken shape.
“I’m over white men running the country,” Brown said. “I don’t know if him getting in changes the field. He has name recognition, but his strength is also his weakness. Who is his announcing going to surprise?”
She added: “To ignite the kind of base that needs to be ignited to beat Trump, I’m not sure he moves them.”
In interviews, black women repeatedly pointed to a singular issue plaguing Biden’s candidacy: his handling of the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas and the committee’s treatment of Anita Hill, a black professor who was questioned by a panel of white male lawmakers about her sexual harassment allegations against Thomas.
Williamson said that she was “still salty” about the role Biden played in the hearing and that “it wasn’t OK then and it’s not OK now.”
Adoneca Fortier, 55, said that she hoped that Biden would more fully address his role in the hearings, perhaps by extending a personal apology to Hill.
“If there is an apology, I think it would be genuine because I think he realizes what’s happening now,” Fortier said, adding that she hoped Biden would choose a woman of colour as his running mate.
Cherisse Scott, 44, of Memphis, said the issue is “bigger than Anita Hill.”
“Though we supported President Obama, I think we still wanted to see more happening on behalf of black and brown communities, specifically black communities,” Scott said. “I think Joe Biden’s great. I think Joe Biden was a hell of a vice-president. But I wouldn’t vote for him for president.”
Cynthia Dismuke, 53, of Houston, is undecided on whom to support in 2020 but finds Biden’s openness to a female running mate attractive. Nevertheless, she was one of many women at the event who came away impressed with Warren, saying, “She’s not making promises. She has a plan.”
“I don’t necessarily want another white male ticket,” Dismuke said. “I want to see who’s going to get Trump out of office.”
Leah Daughtry, CEO of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, said Wednesday’s forum was a testament to the strength of black women at the polls.
“We show up and we make the difference in any election,” said Daughtry, the forum’s honorary co-chair. “We aren’t interested in the flash. We want to know: What are you going to do? What are your policies that are going to impact our lives?”
Juana Summers And Errin Haines Whack, The Associated Press