News+Opinion » Features

Four Democratic candidates talk black economic policy at Charleston presidential forum Saturday

Look for the forum to air on BET

by

comment
Four Democratic presidential candidates shared their ideas for improving the economic lives of black Americans on Saturday afternoon in downtown Charleston.

The presidential forum was hosted by the Black Economic Alliance at the Charleston Music Hall.

It was held blocks away from Emanuel AME, where a white supremacist shot and killed nine parishioners during a Wednesday night Bible study almost four years ago.

The afternoon marked one of the first times that multiple Democrats running for president took a single stage. The candidates — U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — were interviewed one-on-one by journalist Soledad O'Brien.



U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the second most popular contender in many Democratic primary polls behind former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Kamala Harris delivered their own messages of support via video.

Saturday's format was cleared with the Democratic National Committee, according to a BEA representative. The DNC will host the first official debates of the primary race on June 26 and 27 in Miami.

A recent poll commissioned by the BEA and cited often at Saturday's event found that 72 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the economic situation for black Americans. Eighty-one percent said it is hard for people to reach the American Dream.

O'Rourke, who narrowly lost his election against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in November, proposed tweaking federal procurement policies to ensure that federal contracts go to women and minority-owned businesses.

He called for expunging the criminal records of those arrested for possession of marijuana and supported "ban the box" initiatives to end the practice of asking about a prospective employee's criminal history on job applications.

O'Rourke also proposed a Paycheck Fairness Act.

"Allow employees to share salary, income, and wage information without being punished for doing it," O'Rourke said to cheers from the crowd. "Free them from arbitration clauses. Stop using past salary history as a basis for future salary going forward."

High-profile guests dotted the audience at the Music Hall, including Charleston Congressman James Clyburn, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, state Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Todd Rutherford, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, and Charleston First Lady Sandy Tecklenburg.

Warren, a former Harvard professor and a policy wonk, rolled out a plan for a small business equity fund, which would set aside $7 billion in grants for black and minority-owned businesses.

Warren smiled when asked how she would pay for it.

"I started every one of these proposals with how to pay for it," she said.

The plan would be funded by what her campaign calls the "ultra-millionaire tax," a two-cent wealth tax on the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans. The proposal, she says, would only affect the top 75,000 fortunes in the country.

"Why do African Americans have so much trouble getting access to capital?" she said. "A big part of that is because of discrimination that was actively fostered by the United States government."

Attendees who waited under the midday sun ahead of the forum shared a variety of concerns.

Standing in a line that wrapped around the Music Hall, Dorchester District 4 history teacher Sonya Fordham wanted to hear about employment, immigration, and education.

"They just need to redevelop the public school system, so that it reflects what actually needs to be done to bring people up, all people up, and be able to obtain jobs," she said.

Smarel Brown, the owner of local eateries Dellz and Dellz on the Macon, asked Buttigieg about programs for entrepreneurs.

"Programs that are geared toward entrepreneurs," she said outside of the venue when asked about her reason for attending. "Teaching entrepreneurs how to be good business owners, teaching them how to build their credit, as well as short and long-term programs for expanding your business."

Both Booker and Buttigieg focused on student loan debt. Buttigieg turned his attention to for-profit colleges, which he says "turned the Department of Education into a predatory lender."

Booker promoted living wages and apprenticeship programs that promote job growth.

"You don’t need a four-year college degree anymore to be successful," he said.

O'Brien pressed Buttigieg on his views on higher education. The mayor has previously said he does not support free tuition.

"I do support free tuition for low and middle-income people, people who are often the first in their family to be able to go, but I just don’t believe low-income people should be paying the very last dollar to people who are the child of a billionaire," he said.

The full debate aired on BET Sunday at 10 a.m.

Add a comment