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What you missed at the 5 Democratic town halls no one had time to watch

A guide to last night's back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back town halls.

by Rex Santus
Apr 23 2019, 4:12pm

CNN hosted back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back town halls in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Monday evening, showcasing the huge Democratic field in the race for the party’s 2020 nomination. Five of the current 19 candidates appeared on the network, including four U.S. senators and one mayor from Indiana.

The marathon of questions brought a few newsworthy moments from the presidential hopefuls — Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg — especially when it came to voting rights for people in prison.

Here’s a guide for those who missed Monday’s many town halls, which were held before an audience of college students.

Bernie Sanders

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders speaks at a Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals conference where he spoke about the nursing industry and medical insurance at the Mohegan Sun Pocono, Pa., on Monday, April 15, 2019. (Aimee Dilger/The Times Leader via AP)

Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered the most bombshell moment of the night when he said the right to vote should be extended to “every single person,” even sex offenders, the Boston marathon bomber, and terrorists.

"Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away and you say, 'Well, that guy committed a terrible crime, not going to let him vote. Well, that person did that. Not going to let that person vote,' you're running down a slippery slope,” Sanders said. "So I believe people commit crimes, and they paid the price, and they have the right to vote. I believe even if they're in jail they're paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy."

Sanders’ comments, while cheered from the left, proved the most controversial moment of the night, and earned immediate pushback from Republicans like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, as well as from New York's Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.

During the town hall, Sanders refused to walk back his answer and even predicted that he would be attacked over it.

“I think I have written many 30-second opposition ads throughout my life,” Sanders said. “This will be just another one.”

Moderator Chris Cuomo also asked Sanders how he could support democratic socialism while reckoning with past examples of socialism and communism, like the Soviet Union.

“Is it your assumption that I supported or believe in authoritarian communism that existed in the Soviet Union?” Sanders said. “I don’t and never have and I opposed it. I believe in a vigorous democracy.”

“What do I mean when I talk about democratic socialism?” Sanders added. “It certainly is not the authoritarian communism that existed in the Soviet Union and in other communist countries.”

Separately, Sanders broke with his progressive counterpart Elizabeth Warren and said he wasn’t exactly gearing up to impeach Trump and was more concerned about defeating him in the 2020 general election.

“Here is my concern: At the end of the day, what is most important to me is to see that Donald Trump is not re-elected president, and I intend to do everything I can to make sure that that doesn’t happen,” Sanders said.

Elizabeth Warren

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a campaign rally Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren appeared before the audience on what was arguably the biggest day of press her campaign has had so far, with the unveiling of her plan to make undergraduate tuition free at American public universities as well as forgive student debt on a mass scale in the United States.

Warren has put forth an ever-growing list of substantive policy proposals as part of her presidential campaign, more so than all of her Democratic rivals combined. The former Harvard law professor batted off the argument that her agenda was simply too sweeping to be affordable, saying that her plans to tax America’s millionaires and billionaires would give the U.S. an extra $1 trillion, even after implementing universal pre-school, universal free college, and erasing at least some student debt for 95 percent of Americans with loans.

She said that her recent calls to impeach President Trump would not overshadow her already-earned reputation as the policy candidate, and that her decision to call for impeachment was solely a matter of principle, not politics.

“If any other human being in this country had done what’s documented in the Mueller report, they would be arrested and put in jail,” Warren said.

Warren also talked about switching from being a Republican to a Democrat in the mid-1990s, and said she did so because the GOP had sided with banks over families.

Warren also rejected the possibility that she would be “Hillary’d” — as it was phrased by a student in the audience — if she becomes the party’s 2020 nominee. Warren said she has faced sexism in politics, as many women have for decades. She pointed to her 2012 Senate race against Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts, during which her “electability” and “likability” were dissected by the press, just as those traits are being scrutinized in the press once again. She then lowered herself to one knee to show how she would talk to young girls on the campaign trail.

“I’d usually get down — I’m a teacher— and I would say, ‘Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I’m running for Senate because that’s what girls do.’”

Then she’d make the girls pinky-promise that they, too, would one day run for Senate.

Amy Klobuchar

Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar speaks during a roundtable discussion on health care, Tuesday, April 16, 2019, in Miami. Klobuchar met with local medical professionals and advocates to talk about the cost of prescription drugs access to healthcare. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the centrist Democrat from Minnesota, began the evening with her very own “please clap” moment a la Jeb Bush.

Klobuchar was highlighting her success in purple districts, which she said would be crucial to winning in 2020.

“I am someone that runs in a purple state,” she said. “Every single time I have run, I have won every single congressional district in my state, including Michele Bachmann’s, OK?”

The audience did not applaud.

“That’s when you guys are supposed to cheer, OK?” she said.

Apart from that, Klobuchar’s most stand-out moment was telling a room full of college students that, unlike Warren, she would not be pushing plans to forgive student debt and that she would not support tuition-free or debt-free college policies.

“I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs. I do. Don’t look. It’s not there,” she told the audience in New Hampshire. “I wish I could do that. But I have to be straight with you and tell you the truth.”

Kamala Harris

Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority South Central Regional Conference in New Orleans, Friday, April 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Sen. Kamala Harris’ time on the stage was defined by taking more middle-ground stances on issues that Sanders and Warren were explicit about.

Harris staked out her clearest position yet on the question of impeachment, saying that Congress should begin making the moves to impeach the president.

“It is very clear there is a lot of good evidence pointing to obstruction,” Harris said of special counsel Robert Mueller’s 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

CNN’s Don Lemon also specifically asked Harris about Sanders’ comments that felons and other people in prison — even people on death row — should be allowed to vote.

“I think we should have that conversation,” Harris replied.

Harris also said she'd use her executive power to enact gun control if Congress did not begin taking action within her first 100 days as president.

"Upon being elected, I will give the United States Congress 100 days to get their act together and have the courage to pass reasonable gun safety laws," she said. "And if they fail to do it, then I will take executive action."

Pete Buttigieg

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg during a campaign stop at a dairy company in Londonderry, N.H., Friday, April 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Last up was the only participant who's not a sitting member of the United States Senate. Pete Buttigieg, who is already positioning himself as a moderate alternative to Sanders and Warren, stood out in moments when he took a more centrist stance on the progressive candidates’ hallmark issues.

"Part of the punishment when you are convicted of a crime and you're incarcerated is you lose certain rights. You lose your freedom," Buttigieg said of extending the right to vote to people in prison. "And I think during that period, it does not make sense to have an exception the right to vote."

The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, also dismissed Warren’s higher education plans as too extreme. He acknowledged her ideas to erase huge amounts of American student debt sounded “pretty appealing” but then highlighted his and his husband’s own debt and said he had more research to do.

"I still want to do some math around it," he said of Warren’s proposal, which she says would be financed through a 2 percent annual wealth tax on America’s “ultra-millionaires.”

Buttigieg also addressed something he did as South Bend's mayor that has become a controversy for his presidential campaign. In 2012, Buttigieg fired the city’s black police chief, Darryl Boykins, over audio tapes that allegedly recorded conversations between South Bend cops that contained racist remarks about Boykins. Buttigieg ultimately fired Boykins, over allegations that he taped the calls improperly.

Asked by an audience member what was on the tapes, Buttigieg, who has refused to publicly release them, said he did not know.

“The answer is, I don’t know,” the mayor said. “And the reason I don’t know is these tape recordings were made in a way that violated the federal wire tap act. That is a federal law that controls when you can and can’t record people.”

Body: Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders speaks at a Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals conference (Aimee Dilger/The Times Leader via AP); Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a campaign rally in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer); Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar speaks during a roundtable discussion on health care. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee); Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority South Central Regional Conference in New Orleans (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert); Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg during a campaign stop at a dairy company in Londonderry, N.H (AP Photo/Charles Krupa).