WASHINGTON — Nine presidential candidates, including a former vice president, three senators and one congressman, were questioned Monday at a presidential forum hosted by a coalition of left-leaning religious leaders and activists.
The Poor People’s Campaign is holding its Moral Action Congress this week in the nation’s capital to "call for moral revival," opposing policies and actions that the campaign says are erasing civil rights gains and furthering “policy racism” in America.
The campaign, which was launched last year, bills itself as a “moral fusion movement aimed at tackling the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and our nation’s distorted morality.”
The campaign is co-chaired by the Rev. William Barber, a well-known NAACP leader and Disciples of Christ bishop; and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and a longtime social justice advocate.
Since its founding last year, the group claims to have led the “most expansive wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in U.S. history.” On Monday, the campaign released its “moral budget” co-authored by the Institute for Policy Studies, Barber’s Repairers of the Breach and the Kairos Center.
“There is a movement building in states from the ground up,” Theoharis said. “This is more than just a series of rallies and actions. It’s a new model of organizing that has been catalyzed in this country. … We’re saying, ‘somebody has been hurting our people, it’s gone on for far too long, and we won’t, we won’t, we won’t be silent anymore.’”
The campaign hosted the presidential forum to kick off its three-day congress with the intent of focusing on issues of poverty. Theoharis said there wasn’t a “single serious discussion or debate about systemic racism or poverty” despite there being 26 debates held during the 2016 presidential election.
Each candidate was given four minutes for introductory remarks. Then, they were questioned by Barber, Theoharis, and MSNBC’s Joy Reid about how they would help alleviate suffering for impoverished communities, reign in wealth inequality and fight back against racial voter suppression and gerrymandering.
Each candidate entered the stage while the song “Give The People What They Want” by The O’Jays played.
The first speaker was former Vice President Joe Biden, a former senator from Delaware who served under President Barack Obama.
Biden criticized the Trump administration's policies that he claims discriminate against minorities, refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers at a time when there are such “deep inequities” across society.
Biden indicated his support for things such as a $15 federal minimum wage, ensuring that everyone has access to Medicaid, tripling Title I spending for underprivileged schools and increasing the daycare tax credit.
When asked how he would get past Republicans in the Senate who were successful in blocking the Obama administration's proposals in the latter years of the administration, Biden touted his ability in the past to get Republicans to change their minds on certain issues.
He also said that it's imperative to do the grassroots work and campaigning needed to unseat Republicans in Congress through the ballot box so that it will be easier to pass policy initiatives should he or another Democrat win next November.
Biden also decried the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down provisions within the Voting Rights Act that the Poor People’s Campaign argues has opened the door for racial voter suppression.
“The truth of the matter is, I thought we had made real progress. I was chairman of the [Senate] Judiciary Committee and the ranking member when we extended the Voting Rights Act last time for 25 years. At the time that happened, we had a unanimous vote. All the southern boys and women voted for it. I thought maybe things were beginning to change,” he said.
“But what I vastly underestimated was how deep and systemic racism is and why in fact it never gives up. It is like cutting grass. You gotta do it every week. If you let it go for a month, six months or a year, you got a forest growing in your yard.”
California Democrat Sen. Kamala Harris, who was the final candidate to speak, told the crowd that her policy views are influenced by the parable of the “Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10.
Harris explained that affordable housing is one of the most important and least talked about issues, saying that full-time minimum wage workers cannot afford market rate for a one bedroom apartment in 99 percent of the counties in the U.S.
She also touted her bill, the Rent Relief Act.
“Renters who are paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent plus utilities, they will receive a tax credit so they will be able to get through the month paying rent,” The 54-year-old senator explained.
Harris said that last year, 12 million people took out payday loans of $400 on average at interests rates near 300 percent.
“I have long words and I have curse words. But I am not going to say those because this is a religious gathering, kind of,” Harris said. “But let me say, I find it interesting that these supposed leaders here in Washington, D.C., in particular, this administration, they walk around peacocking about how [great the economy is].”
“Then when you ask them, ‘How [are you] measuring the greatness of this economy of yours?’ They point to the stock market,” Harris continued. “Well, that's fine if you own stocks. Then we ask, ‘How else? Do you have another measure for the greatness of this economy of yours?’ Then they talk about the unemployment numbers. Well yeah, [people] are working two and three jobs. In our America, nobody should have to work more than one job to have a roof over their head and food on the table.”