Wealth Tax, Weed & Black Twitter: Here’s What Happened At The VICE Brown & Black Democratic Presidential Forum

As we head into the Iowa caucuses on February 3, the pressure is building for the Democratic presidential candidates to distinguish themselves from the pack and convince voters that they’re the one who could finish off Trump this November. With a historically diverse electorate — one-third of voters are predicted to be non-white in 2020, up from a quarter in 2000 — the Brown & Black Democratic Presidential Forum hosted by VICE News was a deciding moment for the candidates to prove that they have the interests of communities of color in mind.
The Forum, taking place on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, was established in 1984 and is the only nonpartisan presidential forum that exclusively addresses issues faced by communities of color in the U.S., including Black, indigenous, Latinx, and Asian people. Refinery29 was on the ground in Des Moines, IA, for the event, and while it was bitterly cold outside, the excitement at hearing candidates’ concrete plans around issues such as criminal justice, immigration, maternal mortality, and economic development heated up the Iowa Events Center with energy.
Candidates on stage included Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. However, with several candidates of color — including ex-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey — having recently dropped out of the race, many believe the conversation was missing crucial voices.
The Forum was moderated by VICE News correspondents Antonia Hylton, Alzo Slade, Paola Ramos, Dexter Thomas, David Noriega, Krishna Andavolu, and Roberto Ferdman. After a thorough Q&A session with the moderators, candidates took questions from members of the audience. Then came what’s arguably the hardest part for most politicians: a segment called The Short Answer, during which the moderators volleyed rapid-fire questions, to be answered briefly. Spoiler alert: Most of them missed the memo and went on tangents instead.
Ahead, key highlights from the Forum. (If you missed the event, you can still catch the action on the VICE News Facebook page, or right below.)

Michael Bennet: the "bland white guy you’ve never heard of"

The moderators grilled Bennet on the fact that no one in Iowa seems to know who he is (he is currently polling at around 1%). He grudgingly agreed that he's the “bland white guy you’ve never heard of.”

Pete Buttigieg knows all the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner." (Please clap.)

Hylton and Slade pressed Buttigieg on his handling of the police force and racial issues in South Bend, IN, where he was mayor. They wanted to know why the already small number of Black police officers dwindled by half since he took office, according to a joint investigation by the Young Turks and The Root. Buttigieg admitted that his city struggled to retain Black police officers, but defended his administration by saying that its non-responses to Black officers have been taken out of context.
In case you were curious, when asked in The Short Answer to what song he knows all the words, he said “The Star-Spangled Banner,” to groans from the audience. 

Andrew Yang thinks universal basic income will fix a lot.

Thomas brought up the fact that a number of Black economists have questioned the Value-Added Tax plan Yang has proposed to pay for his universal basic income program, which promises to give each American $1,000 a month, no strings attached. The VAT would impose a 10% levy on certain goods and services. Yang defended it by saying the VAT will be applied to things like yachts and other luxury items, but not diapers and other things “regular” people buy — and that giving everyone a grand a month will even out the higher tax.
Slade questioned Yang about his nonprofit organization Venture for America, which aims to revitalize communities through training young people to work in startups. The organization has promised to create 100,000 new jobs by 2025, but has only created 4,000 so far. What if, as president, he fails at his promises in a similar fashion? “I can do big things while I’m president,” Yang responded, to laughter from some in the audience.
If you had any doubts about his confidence, Yang left the stage shouting, “I’m gonna be president!” — Jack from Titanic-style ("I'm the king of the world!").

John Delaney defends his existence.

“So, you’ve spent over $12 million of your own money on this campaign,” Slade said to the former Maryland Congressman, whose polls in Iowa hover at around 0%.  (“$10 million,” Delaney corrected him.) “Couldn’t you have used that money on something else?” Slade pressed him, like paying a big chunk to replace the ailing water pipes in Flint, MI, which would be estimated to cost around $55 million. He asked the question in several different ways. Delaney simply said, “I don’t think there’s anything else I can do that’s better than try to fight for the future of our country and engage in the battle of ideas,” and listed the philanthropic projects he and his wife have worked on.

Elizabeth Warren says the 2% wealth tax is good, and so is Black Twitter.

Warren invoked Dr. King when she spoke about the division President Donald Trump is sowing in the country. “This notion of turning people against people is a way to build strength for yourself,” she said. She spent the rest of her interview defending her 2% wealth tax — it would pay for universal childcare and so much more, she argued — and affirming her commitment to spending $50 billion on HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) if she were to become president. 
“It sounds great, but also it’s too good to be true,” said Slade of the HBCU proposal. “The question is, when it gets too hot for you and you need to compromise on some things, how do we make sure it doesn’t end up on the cutting-room floor?” 
“The pander radar goes off a bit” with that proposal, agreed Andavolu. 
Warren replied, with her trademark enthusiasm: “YES, this is what I want to do! This is what we’re fighting for! It’s a battle plan!”
In The Short Answer, moderators asked Warren, “What’s Black Twitter?” She responded, “Good!”
Backstage, Warren and Sanders seemed to have a serious disagreement...on Indian food. 

Bernie Sanders: “Medicare for All will help fix the maternal mortality crisis.”

Asked why he doesn’t have a plan that specifically addresses the Black maternal mortality crisis, Sanders answered that a single-payer healthcare system like what he is proposing with Medicare for All would help solve major crises like high maternal and infant mortality rates. “Under Medicare for All, we are going to make sure that people can go to medical school and practice the kind of medicine that needs to be practiced,” he said, i.e., help underserved communities. 

Joe Biden: “Black people love me, okay?”

While Biden is the overwhelming favorite with Black voters, according to a recent poll, Sanders is most popular with Black voters under 35, with 42% to Biden’s 30%. When Hylton asked him about this, Biden answered, “He’s not. I’m leading with all voters.” The moderators pressed him on his relationships with members of the Black community, to which he told a story about being “the only white lifeguard in the projects” and talking to his coworkers about their experiences with racism. “Just because you’re the only white guy in a community of Black people doesn’t mean you understand them,” pointed out Slade. Biden agreed, but said he had spent his entire career with the Black community, and that “they know where my heart is.” He also stressed the need for community policing to reduce police brutality.

Amy Klobuchar defends her record as a prosecutor.

Like Sen. Kamala Harris, it now looks as though Klobuchar will spend time defending her eight-year (1999 to 2007) record as a “tough on crime” prosecutor in Hennepin County, MN. During her tenure, she pushed harsher sentences for nonviolent offenses such as drug crimes, which wasn’t unusual for a prosecutor at the time but is being read as cruel or unnecessary in this age of criminal-justice reform. Fresh off a joint endorsement with Elizabeth Warren from The New York Times, Klobuchar defended herself by saying there was actually a reduction in African-American incarceration rates during her tenure. She also noted that she worked with the Innocence Project to review DNA in cases and improve witness identification, as well as interrogation practices.
In The Short Answer, moderators asked Klobuchar when she had smoked weed for the last time. “You have to go back to college days,” she replied.

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