Democratic hopefuls roll out anti-poverty plans at Poor People’s Campaign
Rev. Dr. William J. Barbar II of the Poor People's Campaign speaks with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of the nine presidential candidates attending their conference. | Warren's Twitter post

WASHINGTON—Hoping to gain activists and energize a large voting bloc, nine 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls – including one nobody’s ever heard of – tackled the problems of the poor and voter suppression of black and brown people, among other topics, at a candidate forum here June 17.

The eight-hour-long session, minus a dinner break, marked the opening of the New Poor People’s Campaign’s headline three-day D.C. conclave, which saw more than 1,000 participants brainstorming on how to bring the problems of the poor and near-poor to the top of the U.S. political agenda, and keep them there.

And there are more poor and near-poor than people realize, campaign co-chairs Revs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis repeatedly told the nine: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Silicon Valley businessman Andrew Yang, New Age author and activist Marianne Williamson of California, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., Miramar, Fla. Mayor Wayne Messam – the unknown – and Sens. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., in that order.

Barber, Theoharis, and questioners pointed out that calculations show 140 million people, some 43% of the U.S., live below, at, or slightly above the U.S. poverty line. And contrary to both media imagery and right-wing propaganda, a plurality (66 million) are white.

“We invited Republicans, Democrats, and even the president because we have extreme poverty” to discuss, Barber said. But 14 of 23 Democratic hopefuls were no-shows. So was GOP President Donald Trump.

Speakers also pointed out that half the country does not have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency. Harris, the closer, echoed that point when she linked poverty and infrastructure.

Repeating a comparison she’s used before, Harris asked: “Do you know how much it costs to get all four tires for your car?” Tires are busted, ripped, and torn “from all the potholes” because the U.S. is filled with decaying and dangerous roads. Repairing them can provide well-paying infrastructure jobs for the poor and near-poor, she said. And it would prevent those $400 tire emergencies too, she added.

Harris’s comment echoed a theme of the questions. The U.S. has the wealth to address the problems of the poor and the near-poor, speakers said. It just “doesn’t have the moral capacity to turn to your neighbor and say ‘It’s time to change,’” Barber said.

Thus the session and the questioners challenged the hopefuls on their spending priorities, with Theoharis constantly hammering home the theme that 53 cents of every discretionary federal spending dollar goes to the military – and that it’s time to cut that. The NPPC’s new Moral Budget makes that same point, in detail.  The candidates, except Sanders and Warren, sidestepped that demand. “We need to tell the Pentagon ‘Stop demanding more, more, more,” she added

Barber also said the candidates must campaign in the South, which has the largest share of U.S. poor, and that, unlike in 2016, they devote one of the upcoming party-sponsored debates to poverty and racism. Reid added immigration, telling Swalwell that Democrats “are tiptoeing around” Trump-stoked “fears of a black and brown wave.”

Sanders responded by previewing a campaign speech he’ll give on poverty and racism next week in Mississippi. And Harris said she’d, by executive order, abolish Trump’s detention camps for migrants and asylum seekers.

“We have babies sitting in cages because of the policies of this administration,” she said.

All the hopefuls agreed a debate should focus on poverty, racism, militarism and the interactions between those issues. But only Swalwell promised to take that debate demand to the Democratic National Committee “or anybody else” who makes such decisions on debate agendas.

Swalwell was also the only hopeful to discuss workers’ rights, but even then, he had to be asked, by McDonald’s worker Bobby Fields.

“Folks like us to work so hard to make ends meet deserve to live with dignity,” Field explained. “We need a living wage now, and not in 10 or 12 years” as legislation pending in Congress or passed in the states, enacting a $15 hourly minimum wage, calls for. And, Field said, “we need to ensure the right to organize in a union is protected.”

“I would bring the minimum wage to $15,” Swalwell replied, though he wouldn’t give a date to achieve that. “And I would make it easier to organize. I’m leading by example because my campaign staff has organized with Teamsters Local 238.” Several other contenders’ staffs have also organized, with most of the others linking to a new independent union.

“And in solidarity with you, I have a 2-year-old son who loves McDonald’s, but we won’t go into McDonald’s until they get this (issue) right.” The fast-food giant has raised the wages of workers only at its directly-owned restaurants – 10% of the total – and not at its franchises.

The candidates’ answers on how they’d help the poor varied, as they weaved their responses into their general campaign themes.

Sanders said turning the nation’s priorities upside down, to emphasize aiding the poor and near-poor, would be part of “waging a political revolution, not only in this election,” but for years to come.

“You are the answer,” he urged the crowd. “We will never have any change unless we stand up and say to the wealthy campaign contributors, the corporate interests, the billionaire class and the 1%…that the country belongs not to you, but to all of us.”

“Millions will have to come together to tell those that have the power now that this power structure will no longer continue,” he declared. “If we don’t do that, all the speeches and legislation in the world won’t do.”

Nevertheless, Sanders and all the others said that includes restoring the strength of the Voting Rights Act. But the senator went farther, repeating his proposal to let everyone aged 18 and above vote, including people now in jail for felonies. The U.S. Constitution does not bar felons from voting, but many state laws and constitutions do – a legacy of Jim Crow.

“The future of this country rests with defeating Donald Trump and the best way to do that is to register millions of young people, working people and people of color and get them involved in the political process. Will my campaign be involved in that? You can bet your last dollar on it,” Sanders stated.

Biden, the leadoff speaker and currently first in public opinion polls – but behind “undecided” — stressed his Senate and vice-presidential experience. That included extending the Voting Rights Act for 25 years before the Supreme Court’s 5-man GOP-named majority gutted it.

Biden claimed his experience will let him get things done in D.C. by working across party lines. He floated one new idea: Force states that did not expand Medicaid to all eligible recipients, as the Affordable Care Act permits, to let the left-out people into Medicare, without paying premiums. Biden also reiterated he would triple federal education aid, to $45 billion yearly.

Some 14 states, all Republican-run, refuse to expand Medicaid. As a result, millions of people, with the biggest share in Texas, lack health care coverage. The other states, blue and red, accepted the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, and the federal funds that accompany it. “There isn’t a single solitary reason why every child isn’t covered by health care,” Biden said.

Biden’s Medicare proposal, however, led the third questioner, MSNBC newswoman Joy-Ann Reid to ask Biden – as she did all the others – how they’d get around Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., and his legislative blockade.

“If you can’t get consensus, you get abuses of power by the executive,” Biden replied, a reference to Trump. “So if you can’t do that, go into the races” for the House and Senate, plus the presidency, “and beat them.”

Biden, like the others, also advocated repealing the Trump-GOP tax cut for corporations and the rich, raising $2 trillion over a decade, He would then close unspecified tax loopholes, adding another $1.6 trillion. That could be used to reduce income inequality and pay for domestic programs, Biden said.

“Those guys” – the Republicans – “don’t value education, the poor or anything else you’re talking about,” he stated. Both Biden and Bennet said more federal education aid money should go to schools with the poorest students. Bennet included the rural poor in that group.

Warren was blunter about McConnell. If he executes more blockades, as he does now and as he did during Democratic President Barack Obama’s 8-year White House tenure, she’d demand senators abolish the legislative filibuster. That’s the Senate minority’s last remaining tool to stop legislation.

McConnell has already ended filibusters to grease the skids for right-wing judicial and Trump administration nominees, though none of the contenders mentioned that.

“Who is the government going to work for?” Warren asked. “The rich and the powerful? Or a government that works for everyone else – and I’m in this fight for everyone else.”

As an example, she advocated a small wealth tax: Two cents on the dollar for every dollar earned over $50 million. It would hit the top 75,000 rich in the U.S. – including Trump, though Warren didn’t say so – and would raise enough money to fund universal pre-K education, eliminate student loan debt for 95% of college grads, and extend child care, she said.

But how do you achieve all this, Reid asked, in the face of Trump, McConnell and the GOP?

Like Sanders, Warren’s answer was a mass movement – and exposing the GOP’s divide-and-conquer tactics. “So long as” African-Americans and white workers are pitted, by the GOP and the elite “against each other, they don’t notice who’s picking their pockets,” she commented.

As for the mass movement, “I’ve got more time” to campaign than other White House hopefuls “because I’m not spending my time behind closed doors with corporate lobbyists,” seeking campaign contributions, she said – a subtle dig at Biden. “I’m building a grass-roots organization.”

Besides, Warren added, “There’s more of us than there are of them.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.