Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT), former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and Hillary Clinton convened in Iowa Monday night to weigh in on the issues that Black and Latino voters say most impact them.
The Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum, which bills itself as the “oldest minority-focused presidential forum,” was hosted by news outlet Fusion and offered the candidates a chance to sit down and answer questions without interruptions from their fellow candidates.
The night’s line of questioning hit on everything from Kim Kardashian’s selfie strategies to more serious discussions of how each candidate’s platforms—including those related to sex education, abortion rights, immigration, higher education, gun control, and criminal justice reform, to name just a few—relate to issues of race, gender, and class
In this election season, debate moderators, sponsors, and even party leaders have continuously faced criticism for failing to provide voters with an unbiased and well-informed account of the candidates’ platforms. Through a series of tough questions and follow-ups on a number of issues typically excluded by the debates, Monday’s forum illustrated how journalists can better push candidates to answer to the issues that matter to the public.
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Here are some of the night’s highlights:
Bernie Sanders Spoke Out Against Abstinence-Based Sex Ed
Bernie Sanders kicked off the night with the first round of moderator and audience questioning—including an inquiry from a student about whether he would continue to fund abstinence-based sexual education should he be elected.
“Let me start off by saying something very radical,” Sanders replied. “I am a United States senator who believes in science and who believes in facts.”
“I think when we have too much unwanted pregnancy, I think that obviously women have the right to get the contraceptives that they need. When sexuality is an intrinsic part of human life, we should not run away from it,” he continued. When it comes to sex education, he concluded, “We should explain biology and sexuality to our kids on a factual basis. Period.”
In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report surveying the policies and practices of schools throughout the country, finding that less than half of high schools and one fifth of middle schools are teaching all of the sexual health topics recommended by the CDC, such as how to use and obtain condoms and other forms of contraception.
Sanders Called for a “Serious National Discussion” on Campus Sexual Assault
Sanders answered questions about campus sexual assault during the forum, calling for a “serious national discussion” on the matter.
“Rape and assault is rape or assault, whether it takes place on a campus or on a dark street. And if a student rapes a fellow student, that has got to be understood to be a very serious crime,” said Sanders.
“It has got to get outside of the school and have a police investigation. And that has got to take place. Too many schools now are seeing this as, ‘Well it’s a student issue, let’s deal with it.’ I disagree with that,” the senator continued, explaining that schools should treat rape seriously by turning over their investigations to police.
When moderator Alicia Menendez followed up by asking Sanders about whether he supported affirmative consent policies and bystander programs, the Democratic presidential candidate responded with a simple “of course I do,” noting that it was time to have a “serious national discussion about sexuality” and consent.
But not everybody was onboard with Sanders’ plan to turn over cases of rape on campus directly to law officials.
In a post for Feministing urging Sen. Sanders to revisit his position, senior editor Alexandra Brodsky, who co-founded Know Your IX, an organization that works to end sexual violence on campus, explained that “school responses to gender violence are necessary to protect students’ right to an education regardless of gender.”
“Absolutely, it’s essential that students who feel like reporting to the police is best for them be able to do so,” explained Brodsky. “At the same time, school remedies, like dorm changes and tutoring, are crucially important for a survivor’s ability to learn. That’s why the anti-discrimination law Title IX requires schools to prevent and respond to sexual assault in addition to, not in place of, criminal law enforcement,” she continued.
Although higher education has consistently been an important part of Sander’s platform, the candidate has largely not engaged the issue of sexual violence on campuses—despite rival Hillary Clinton releasing her own platform on the issue, calling for increased prevention efforts and resources for survivors.
Martin O’Malley: No Situations Where a Man Should Be Able to Tell a Woman What to Do With Her Body
One of Martin O’Malley’s brightest moments of the night did not come until the end of his time with the forum, when he plainly asserted the autonomy of all women.
Responding to a moderator’s question in the “rapid fire” round about under “what scenario, if any, should a man ever be able to tell a woman what to do with her body,” O’Malley paused briefly before replying, “no scenario.”
During his time as mayor of Baltimore, O’Malley went on the record as “pro-choice” and earned a 100 percent rating from the Maryland chapter of NARAL, according to CBS News. His universal health care plan also includes a promise to “support universal access to reproductive health care” in order to help people “make the best possible choices for themselves and their future.”
Hillary Clinton Reasserted Support for Repealing the Hyde Amendment
Hillary Clinton once again pushed support for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which overwhelmingly limits government funding for abortion, telling the forum moderators that the restriction inhibits many low-income and rural women from accessing care.
“[The Hyde Amendment] is just hard to justify because … certainly the full range of reproductive health rights that women should have includes access to safe and legal abortion,” said Clinton.
“But if state governments, if politicians, use their power to try to restrict that right, well-off people are still going to have it. You know, we know that. But a lot of poorer women, rural women, isolated far from a place where they can get services, are going to be denied,” Clinton explained, detailing how poor women are disproportionately impacted by abortion restrictions, such as Hyde, which make cost a barrier to abortion care.
Last night wasn’t the first time Clinton has voiced her opposition to Hyde. Although the former secretary of state made headlines earlier this week for speaking out against the restriction on abortion funding while accepting Planned Parenthood’s endorsement in New Hampshire over the weekend, her campaign confirmed to Rewire in 2008 that Clinton was against the Hyde Amendment.
Clinton Called Criminal Justice Reform a Top Priority for the Next President
When asked by Fusion contributor and debate moderator Akilah Hughes how she would prove that Black lives matter as president, Clinton detailed the importance of reforming the criminal justice system, including policing and incarceration, and addressing institutional racism.
“Criminal justice reform, policing reform, incarceration reform—and I believe strongly that this has to be the highest priority of the president,” Clinton explained, outlining her intentions to build on President Obama’s work on the matter.
Pointing to the system as it currently stands, Clinton called out the ways that institutional racism contradicts U.S. values. “It is such a violation of what we say our values are, you know, ‘equal before the law,’” Clinton explained. “Well, we have systemic racism and bias that is implicit in our system, and unless we begin to go after that and expose it and end it we won’t solve this problem.”
In her almost four-minute-long case for criminal justice reform, Clinton went on to call for the disruption of the school-to-prison pipeline, emphasizing the need for more investment in education and jobs for inner-city and rural communities.
Clinton’s mass incarceration reform agenda has been a priority for the candidate on the campaign trail for much of the last year, although she has had what have been described as “tense” meetings with Black Lives Matter activists.
In late October, Clinton released a comprehensive criminal justice reform platform, which included her intentions to push legislation to end racial profiling and for fairer drug sentencing.
Sanders has also voiced support for criminal justice reform, calling the number of incarcerated persons in the United States an “international embarrassment” and saying that reforming it is “one of the most important things that a president of the United States can do.”