In this election cycle, there are several focused presidential forums, organized by specific voters and activists within the Democratic Party, that have challenged the candidates to release specific plans that affect their communities. These forums have allowed such communities to assert themselves more forcefully in the primary process, and also send the crowded Democratic field a message: If you want our votes, you’re going to have to work for them.
In the Democratic presidential primary, candidates have appeared at forums devoted to women of color, women’s reproductive health, Native Americans and LGBTQ people. On Thursday night, CNN will broadcast a town hall on LGBTQ issues, in what its primary organizer, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, says is the first such event.
Over the course of a 4½-hour broadcast, nine candidates will face questions from some of CNN’s highest-profile journalists, including Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, who will press the candidates on LGBTQ issues.
“Largely, we do have agreement among the field about the top line for what the priorities are for LGBTQ people,” HRC spokesman Lucas Acosta said. “But what we want to hear, and what the town hall will afford us to have the opportunity to hear, is: ‘What are your plans to address those things? How are you going to do that?’ So we can hear, as LGBTQ people, who has the most well thought out and most able to be done plan.”
The forum comes the same week the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in three cases that will decide whether gay and transgender people are protected by federal anti-discrimination laws. The issue will probably feature in the town hall, Acosta said, along with other specific policy subjects such as adoption, health issues such as HIV and AIDS, and combating violence against the LGBTQ community, and, in particular, trans women of color.
HRC held candidate forums in 2004 and 2008 but never had the exposure of a prime-time cable news broadcast, according to Acosta. “We’re going to be having the biggest audience we ever had in our history,” he said.
While other events have not had the scale of HRC and CNN’s LGBTQ town hall, they have helped push the 2020 Democratic candidates to bring specific policy proposals to the table for communities that are typically taken for granted, if not outright neglected, by the political establishment, the groups said.
“Indian country has been locked out of presidential campaigns and elections since the beginning of time,” OJ Semans Sr., co-executive director of Native American voting rights organization Four Directions, told The Washington Post. This year, he wanted things to be different.
Four Directions was a lead organizer of an August forum devoted specifically to Native American issues. The unconventional format, which featured candidates speaking alongside tribal elders and members in Sioux City, Iowa, was intended to not only allow Native American voters to get to know the candidates but also to introduce the politicians to leaders and voters in the community.
Initially, Semans told The Post that the campaigns were slow to respond, but after the event began to pick up media coverage, he started getting more confirmations, including from Marianne Williamson, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Warren notably used the forum to apologize for taking a much-criticized DNA test last year to prove she had Native American ancestry.
“I am sorry for harm I have caused,” Warren told the audience. “I have listened, and I have learned a lot, and I am grateful for the many conversations that we’ve had together.”
Semans told The Post he had not expected such a response from Warren, and appreciated her remarks. He believed the 2020 Democratic candidates were taking Native American issues far more seriously than in any other contest he can remember, and praised candidates such as Warren and former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro for releasing multipronged policy proposals.
“We have started a discussion that hasn’t happened in hundreds of years, in which we were at the table talking about major issues that can really up the social and economic conditions on reservations,” Semans said. He hoped to hold another forum in January, just weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
Just as these forums present opportunities for Democratic candidates to demonstrate the scope of their commitment and win over skeptical voters, they also present new ways for politicians to stumble.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an openly gay presidential candidate, faced questions from some Democrats after he initially declined to attend an Iowa LGBTQ forum in September because of schedule conflicts, BuzzFeed reported. He later reversed the decision and attended.
“When politicians skip out and people skip out, they’re going to feel that,” said Lyz Lenz, a columnist at the Cedar Rapids Gazette who co-moderated that forum. “Especially in a race where there are so many of them, every little voting bloc matters.”
At that same event, former vice president Joe Biden stumbled when he called his female moderator Lenz “a lovely person” after receiving a tough question from her about voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, reinforcing critiques that the septuagenarian candidate is out of touch with today’s social trends. As Lenz pointed out, Biden has evolved on the issue and now supports same-sex marriage, but a video of his tense response became the headline from the event.
Lenz told The Post she pressed Biden on the issue after hearing from the local LGBTQ community that they wanted his record addressed.
“To speak to the base of voters requires a language, it requires a cultural competency, an attention to the detail of policies,” said Aimee Allison, who organized April’s She the People presidential forum devoted to policy issues facing women of color. She believed that “none of these candidates are going to be able to win the primary without winning over and building” support among diverse groups.
“If you want to represent the American population,” Allison said, “you have to get the skills or get out of the way.”