Presidential hopefuls attend Brown and Black forum in Iowa on MLK Day

Just two weeks out from the first-in-the-nation caucuses, eight presidential candidates, seven of them white, attended the Brown and Black forum in Des Moines, where Joe Biden keyed in on his support from black voters.

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Presidential hopefuls attend Brown and Black forum in Iowa on MLK Day

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Black and Brown Forum in Des Moines on Monday. VICE interviewed each of the presidential hopefuls still in the race on their records, plans, and a minute of short answer questions.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Black and Brown Forum in Des Moines on Monday. VICE interviewed each of the presidential hopefuls still in the race on their records, plans, and a minute of short answer questions.

Wyatt Dlouhy

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Black and Brown Forum in Des Moines on Monday. VICE interviewed each of the presidential hopefuls still in the race on their records, plans, and a minute of short answer questions.

Wyatt Dlouhy

Wyatt Dlouhy

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Black and Brown Forum in Des Moines on Monday. VICE interviewed each of the presidential hopefuls still in the race on their records, plans, and a minute of short answer questions.

Julia Shanahan, Politics Editor

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DES MOINES — A panel of eight presidential candidates, seven of them white, attended a forum in Des Moines focused exclusively issues affecting underrepresented communities just two weeks out from Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Vice News hosted the Brown and Black forum at the Iowa Events Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a forum that has been taking place in Iowa ahead of the caucuses since 1984. 

Sofia Mehaffey, 35, attended the forum with the Cedar Rapids-based Black Maternal Health Collective. Mehaffey asked Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., what he would do as president to address the racial disparity in maternal health and child mortality. 

In Iowa, there are about 41 deaths per every 100,000 African American infants, according to the United Health Foundation. For white infants, that number is about 22 deaths per every 100,000. Nationally, women of color are three times more likely to die from preventable complications due to childbirth as white women, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I had to redirect the conversation away from access and income levels to the issue that actually exists, which is bias within the health-care field,” Mehaffey said.

Mehaffey is the director of Community Health and Nutrition for a family service alliance in Cedar Rapids, where she also oversees Meals on Wheels programs. She said she plans to caucus, but she is still undecided.

As it comes down to the wire for candidates to garner support for the Feb. 3 caucuses, former Vice President Joe Biden pushed his decades of experience in politics, saying he has had a foot in the black community throughout his entire career. He said that unlike the Democratic Party, he has never taken the black vote for granted.

Biden grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he said he was the only white employee at a local swimming pool when he was a teenager. Biden said that growing up in a working-class family and in a town with a large minority population, he’s seen the systemic racism that underrepresented communities in the U.S. face on a day-to-day basis.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks with moderators during the Black and Brown Forum in Des Moines on Monday, January 20, 2020.

“They know me, they know where my heart is,” Biden said during the forum.

Moderator Alzo Slade, a Vice News correspondent, pushed back on Biden’s response, saying that spending time in a community does not translate to being a part of it or fully understanding inequalities.

In an early January poll from The Washington Post and Ispos, Biden had overwhelming support nationwide from black voters, with 48 percent of respondents saying Biden is their first-choice candidate. Biden led the poll by 28 points, with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., placing second with 20 points.

The poll, conducted Jan. 2-8, polled a random sample of 1,088 non-Hispanic black voters and had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Mehaffey said she thinks the African American support for Biden is largely generational. 

“The first thing that Biden did when he got on stage was tell me that I should smile, so that’s never a good starting point,” Mehaffey said, who was sitting near the stage through the duration of the forum.

Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition Chair Prakash Kopparapu, 45, said he thought Biden knocked his performance out of the park. Kopparapu, whose organization is based in Des Moines, watched the livestream of the forum. 

Kopparapu, an Indian immigrant, said based on Biden’s performance today, he can understand why black voters connect with him. He said he didn’t think Biden crossed a line when he claimed to understand minority issues.

“He knew the language, he knew the subject, he was so precise,” Kopparapu said. “I don’t think anyone else was so specific in their plans.”

Some other issues Biden hit on was building off of the Affordable Care Act, closing down immigrant detention centers U.S.-Mexico border, and community engagement.

Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has had trouble in the polls with minority communities, specifically African American voters. Buttigieg released a plan to target money and resources toward minority communities that he dubbed as his Frederick Douglass Plan. The plan looks at investing money in public education, criminal-justice reform, and health care.

Wyatt Dlouhy
South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg takes a question from an audience member during the Black and Brown Forum in Des Moines on Monday, January 20, 2020. A Vice News correspondent interviewed each of the presidential hopefuls still in the race on their records, plans, and a minute of short answer questions.

Buttigieg was challenged by the moderators over his decision to fire South Bend’s first African American chief of police, saying the decision was made based on wrongdoings within the department. 

Kopparapu said Buttigieg could have elaborated more on his decision to fire the police chief, and also on why Buttigieg appointed him in the first place. Despite being pushed by moderators, Kopparapu said he thought Buttigieg did well. Kopparapu has not yet committed to a candidate.

Iowa is the fifth whitest state in the U.S. and has been criticized for being the state that starts the presidential nominating process. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who dropped his bid for the presidential nomination Jan. 2, often talked about how a more diverse state should get the opportunity to start the process. 

The other candidates who attended the forum included: Former Rep. John Delaney, D-Maryland; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; and businessman Andrew Yang.

Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, who formerly campaigned for the Democratic nomination, were candidates of color who dropped their presidential bids. Booker failed to qualify for the December debate stage and dropped out of the race Jan. 1, leaving Yang as the only candidate of color on stage in December. No candidates of color qualified for the January debates. 

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick are the only other two candidates of color still in the race.

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