By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 29, 2007
In the first presidential debate designed to focus on minority issues, the Democratic contenders aggressively sought to outmuscle one another on the topics of race and poverty and derided yesterday's Supreme Court decision banning most affirmative action in public schools.
The forum at Howard University seemed to be a guaranteed fit for Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the only black candidate in the race. He repeatedly discussed racial disparity, education and AIDS and used his unique status to call for greater responsibility from African Americans, one of his frequent themes. But the audience largely embraced the other seven Democrats on stage as well, applauding Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) when she called for a greater focus on AIDS research and cheering Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) when he called for an end to the Iraq war.
By the end of the 90-minute forum -- attended by numerous prominent black leaders, including Al Sharpton and Princeton scholar Cornel West -- the group had covered an array of issues, such as the genocide in Darfur and disparities in education.
"You can look at this stage and see an African American, a Latino, a woman contesting for the presidency of the United States," Clinton said. "But there is so much left to be done, and for anyone to assert that race is not a problem in America is to deny the reality in front of our very eyes."
Obama, when it was his turn, said, "We have made enormous progress, but the progress that we have made is not good enough."
Just hours after the Supreme Court handed down a decision restricting public school districts' use of race in most school-acceptance decisions, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) described the ruling as "a major step backwards." He added: "And as president of the United States, I would use whatever tools available to me to see to it that we reverse this decision today."
Referring to the Bush administration, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) said: "They have turned the court upside down, and the next president of the United States will be able to determine whether or not we go forward or continue this slide."
With more than six months to go until voters begin casting ballots in the primaries, last night marked the third time the Democratic contenders gathered to debate -- or at least appear together on the same stage; no direct exchanges were allowed.
Hosted by Tavis Smiley and sponsored by PBS, the "All-American Presidential Forum" will be repeated in September with a debate among the Republican candidates. Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick introduced the contenders, saying it is "a heady time for Democrats" with the Bush administration so unpopular and so many Democrats newly installed in power.
A question about whether the candidates would support a federal law guaranteeing a right to return for New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina produced one of the most spirited discussions. The Democrats roundly condemned the Bush administration for its response to the storm and offered a series of pledges to use the power of the White House to help rebuild the ravaged city. Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina said he would appoint a White House counselor with the responsibility to report to him daily on the pace and progress of reconstructing the city.
"What we should do is allow the people of New Orleans to rebuild their own city," he said. "We ought to pay them a decent wage, give them health-care coverage, instead of having big multinational corporations get billion-dollar contracts with the government."
Clinton, touting a 10-point plan for Gulf Coast recovery, said rebuilding must come before repatriation. "This administration has basically neglected, with almost criminal indifference, the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, in particular New Orleans and the parishes," she said. "So even if we were to give people a right, there is nothing to return to."
Obama said that what may be most critical is having a president who is in touch with the problems of a city such as New Orleans before disasters hit. "Part of the reason that we had such a tragedy," he said, "was the assumption that everybody could jump in their SUVs, load up with some sparkling water and check into the nearest hotel."
A question about the links between race, poverty and education produced a united front among the candidates, who called for more federal assistance to help cut the education and income gaps between whites and Americans of color.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said concerns about the cost of such programs should be secondary. "The first thing you hear is: How are you going to pay for it?" he said. "Nobody asks how we are going to pay for the war."
Obama also stressed the importance of spending more to educate children. "When you've got a bill called No Child Left Behind, you can't leave the money behind for No Child Left Behind," he said. "And unfortunately, that's what's been done."
Dodd said he has devoted his 26 years in Congress to education issues and would continue to do so as president. "I have walked the walk on these issues," he said.
Clinton, playing off the title of a book she wrote as first lady, said, "I really believe it takes a village to raise a child, and the American village has failed our children."
Edwards called poverty "the cause of my life" and said he would provide teachers with incentive pay to work in inner cities and rural areas, raise the minimum wage, and help give workers more rights to organize into unions.
Kucinich repeatedly drew the audience's attention back to the war in Iraq, saying funding for minority education and other urban issues has been redirected to military action overseas.
Former senator Mike Gravel of Alaska bashed the other Democrats onstage, at one point saying his colleagues were "very guilty" for the recent conduct of the government. He later closed the debate by saying: "We have to have a president who has moral judgment. Most of the people on this stage with me do not have it and have proven it by what they have done."
All of the candidates, asked about law enforcement disparities, called for a revision of the way the mandatory minimum sentences are applied. Several also demanded that different laws aimed at crack and powder cocaine be brought into closer alignment.
A question about the soaring rates of HIV and AIDS among black teenagers provoked some of the liveliest replies. Several of the candidates, including Edwards and Obama, said a universal health-care system is needed to treat people across the economic scale. Edwards drew applause with a three-point plan for AIDS: searching for a cure, funding treatment for all patients, and guaranteeing that HIV and AIDS treatments are covered by Medicaid. Clinton drew an enthusiastic response from women in the audience when she said that, if AIDS were afflicting young white women at the rate it is affecting black women, "there would be an outraged outcry in this country."
"If we don't begin to take it seriously and address it the way we did back in the '90s, when it was primarily a gay men's disease, we will never get the public services and the education that we need," Clinton said, eliciting a loud round of applause.
When it was his turn, Biden encouraged listeners to take an AIDS test, declaring that he had.
Obama noted that he and his wife had been tested for AIDS together.
"I just want to make clear: I got tested with Michelle, when we were in Kenya, in Africa," he said. Michelle Obama, sitting in the audience, laughed.
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.