HOUSTON — The groans erupted halfway through Bernie Sanders’s appearance Wednesday at a presidential candidates’ forum sponsored by She the People, a group that aims to drive up voter participation among women of color.
Before an audience of about 1,700, many of them African American and Hispanic women, the moderator asked Sanders (I-Vt.) how he would handle the rise in white supremacy. Sanders spoke of fighting discrimination and running a campaign “to bring our people together around an agenda that speaks to all people” — then returned to a familiar message on universal health care.
For many in the audience, that was insufficient. “Come on!” a woman shouted from the back, as others began to jeer and boo.
The reception reflected Sanders’s struggle to win support from minority voters, a problem that dogged his 2016 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. Sanders has taken steps since to improve his outreach, including meeting with black leaders and talking more frequently about the difficulties facing minorities, but Wednesday’s event suggested the senator still faces challenges.
Sanders at one point mentioned his long record on civil rights, but it did little to mollify the crowd.
“I was actually at the March on Washington with Dr. King back in 1963, and — as somebody who actively supported Jesse Jackson’s campaign, as one of the few white elected officials to do so in ’88 — I have dedicated my life to the fight against racism and sexism and discrimination of all forms,” Sanders said. That prompted audible groans.
Sanders may have come into the event at a disadvantage, since many black women supported Clinton in 2016. Some Clinton backers believe Sanders did too little to help her after she won the nomination.
Sanders did eventually coax a warmer reception when he vowed to use the presidential “bully pulpit” to counter hate.
Wednesday’s event, billed by organizers as the first-ever presidential forum for women of color, took place at Texas Southern University, a historically black institution in Houston, one of the most rapidly diversifying cities in the country.
Democrats hope minority voters, especially black women, will turn out in bigger numbers in 2020. Clinton won the black vote in 2016 with 89 percent to then-candidate Donald Trump’s 8 percent — but just 59 percent of registered black voters turned out. The group is a central part of the Democratic coalition.
Sanders was one of eight Democratic presidential hopefuls who appeared at the She the People forum, and the candidates sought to appeal to the attendees in various ways.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) repeated an earlier pledge to choose a woman as his running mate. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who has faced criticism from some liberals who think she was too tough as San Francisco’s district attorney, promised to pardon low-level drug offenders if she wins the White House.
“We have to have the courage to recognize that there are a lot of folks who have been incarcerated who should not have been incarcerated and are still in prison because they were convicted under draconian laws,” Harris said.
Looming over the event was former vice president Joe Biden’s anticipated entry into the race on Thursday. Biden has close relations with many in the African American community, but some are unhappy with his treatment of Anita Hill in 1991, when she accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Biden chaired the Judiciary Committee at the time and oversaw Thomas’s confirmation hearing.
Jamila Taylor, a 41-year-old policy analyst from Virginia, arrived at Wednesday’s event wearing a shirt that read, “I still believe Anita Hill.” She said that Biden had the right to seek the presidency but that his record should be a factor.
“He should be under scrutiny just like everyone else in the race,” Taylor said. “Speaking for myself, I think it was mishandled.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) took the stage after Sanders and presented herself as a candidate of ideas. She was asked whether Democratic women might choose a male in the primary season out of concern that the broader electorate would not support a woman for president.
Warren warned against making such choices based on fear. “Are we going to show up for people that we didn’t actually believe in because we’re too afraid to do anything else?” she said. “That’s not who we are.”
The forum highlighted Democrats’ need to appeal to a diverse array of voters in 2020. Energizing liberal minority women is one key task for the party, but some Democrats say it’s equally important to appeal to centrist and even conservative voters, including those who supported Trump.
One major topic was the criminal justice system and how it treats minorities. Sanders had created a stir earlier in the week by saying that convicted criminals should be able to vote while serving prison terms.
Two other candidates, interviewed Wednesday outside the forum, took a different view.
“I would think, especially for nonviolent offenders, that we rethink removing the right to vote and allow everyone, or as many as possible, to participate in our democracy,” O’Rourke said. But he added, “For violent criminals, it’s much harder for me to reach that conclusion.”
And former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro said it makes sense to discuss the issue, but “where I would draw that line is . . . with the people who were incarcerated having the opportunity to still vote.”
Michelle Ye Hee Lee contributed to this report.