The third of 12 Democratic debates scheduled by the Democratic National Committee took place last night, and while the night was filled with skirmishes and zingers, many of the questions early on about topics like healthcare and immigration were same-old same-old compared to the previous two debates. Then Linsey Davis started talking.
Davis, the Emmy Award-winning ABC correspondent, brought heat to the debate, asking candidates about the racial divide in America, criminal justice reform, and public education, while also pressing them to offer actual solutions—not just more pandering. Her questions forced Mayor Pete Buttigieg to address his mishandling of race-related issues in his town of South Bend, Indiana, and made Senators Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar reckon with their prosecutorial records, which have come under fire in recent months.
Per Ashley Allison, an executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Davis is also only the third Black woman to ever moderate a presidential debate.
Davis talked to Refinery29 about prepping for the debate, writing a children’s book aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion called One Big Heart, and what she has coming down the pipeline.
Refinery29: When did you receive news that you’d be moderating this debate, and what does the process look like for developing questions?
Linsey Davis: "I learned about three months prior to the debate that I was going to be participating as one of the main moderators. I was super excited and super nervous at the same time. It’s a really daunting task, especially since I tend to do general assignment and day-of news for multiple platforms. I spent the last three months reading up on the candidates and their platforms.
One good thing about [the debate] being one night [is that] we got to see a healthier debate between all the candidates. Having them all onstage at one time showed the daylight between where their policies differ.
Part of what makes [moderating] such a complex process is that you have to make sure that everybody gets fair time, which isn't equal time. You might anticipate that you have a pointed question for Candidate X and Candidate Y but due to the previous segment, another candidate wasn’t able to get in on that debate, so you have to make sure you’re able to pivot and go to that person so that they’re getting their time and opportunity to be heard.
It’s quite a delicate dance, especially when all of the candidates want in on a particular topic. Last night, we saw that with healthcare and charter schools, they became really anxious. They were raising their hands, and become exasperated if didn't call on them. So, you don’t want to create any hard feelings or make it seem like you're playing favorites. It’s a big balance."
Much of the post-debate chatter was about the lack of questions on issues like abortion, childcare, and other areas that are generally considered women-centric, in addition to a lack of conversation about LGBTQ+ rights and disability rights. Can you shed light on how the process of deciding what to talk about or prioritize comes together?
"You have these big issues [you have to discuss], like you must talk about healthcare. And then we also listen to our viewers; we solicit questions from them and ask what the things are that people really want to hear about and become more informed about.
We were prepared. We had a lot of questions about voter suppression and abortion and the Supreme Court. Three hours seems like it’s a long time, but once you throw in that commercial break and divide that [three-hour block] into 10 candidates talking about each question, [it goes by quickly].
I wasn’t even able to get in my one of my biggest questions in my education segment, which was about student debt. Ninety-seven percent of the students at [Texas Southern University, where the debate was held] graduate with student debt. We’re talking about $1.5 trillion of student debt in this country and 44 million borrowers. I thought that was going to be a real hot topic and something that people wanted to know about, especially because you have candidates like Senator Sanders saying he wants to erase all student debt and then Senator Klobuchar saying that it's just not realistic. I thought that was something that would not only cause a healthy debate but also something that Americans really wanted to hear about.
Unfortunately, we just have such limited time that you get kind of boxed in. And also, it depends on the subjects that the candidates just really want to go in on. For [moderator George Stephanopoulos], for example, healthcare really took all of his time. He had some other big issues he wanted to get to, and unfortunately he just had to move on."
As a journalist and a correspondent, why is it important that we hold the candidates' feet to the fire?
"Not to be cliche, but the past is often the best indicator for the future. When candidates flip-flop or do something just for political expediency, I think that [holding them accountable is] necessary. You don’t want somebody who’s not going to have their own firm beliefs at their core. You don’t want somebody who’s going to do something just to get elected. This is essentially a job interview for the highest position in the land. Your past record is certainly a big indication of where you’re going to go in the future. Candidates have to expect that anything from their past is fair game in being interviewed by Americans for the presidency of the United States."
"I have a five-and-a-half-year-old son who’s my muse. When I was reading books to him, I decided, 'You know, I could do that.' It’s not right up my alley, but I consider myself a storyteller. I’ve been a journalist for almost 20 years now. That’s what I like to do, and that’s what I do in my day job, if you will. Quite often I do a lot of murder and death and destruction for the news, so this was a way to channel and change that, and write some uplifting, joyful, and inspiring words that also related to my son.
In my first book, The World Is Awake, my spirituality and relationship with God that my parents introduced me to as a child was important. I wanted to be able to pass that onto my son in a very subtle way. [The book] is a celebration of everyday blessings.
With this second book, the climate in the country today — and certainly racism isn’t anything new but the rhetoric is — has gotten to a point where I had to reaffirm what my son and what children already inherently know, which is that we are more alike than different. We have these differences but it’s more important to embrace what we have in common. I think that when children are hearing direct and subtle messages about a “them versus us” attitude, it’s really important that we combat that messaging. I think that these are life lessons or love letters to my son of what I hope to instill in him and what I think other parents will appreciate and want their children to embrace as well.
Quite often, people will say that children don’t see color; I totally disagree with that premise. I think they do see color, [but] they just don’t assign a value to it. It’s adults who do that. This book and its messaging is just as much for adults as it is for children."
What are the stories are you excited about reporting in the future, and what other projects are you working on?
"I have two books coming up. One is going to again use my son as a muse. My husband’s parents have unfortunately passed away, and my son came home and said, 'How come my friend has two sets of grandparents and I only have one?' We talked about how his grandparents are gone. It’s going to be a look at how children think you get to heaven in a physical way.
The other book is basically a look from a parent’s perspective of all the ideal things a child possess at an early age that you’re just savoring — like [hoping] they’re not going to lose their innocence, their joy, or their purity as they grow older."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.