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Kamala Harris pulled off an impressive performance Thursday night during the Democratic presidential candidates debate as racial issues haunted Pete Buttigieg and Joseph Biden.
When the smoke cleared after the debate concluded in Miami, Harris came out as a favorite based on her responses throughout the evening that served a combination of steak and sizzle, appealing to emotion as she laid out policy.
Touting the importance of a universal health care plan, Harris pulled heartstrings when she talk about hesitation a mother endures if she wants to take a child to an emergency room because of the child’s high fever, but is worried about the cost.
“And they say, take the child to the Emergency Room,” Harris said. “And so they get in their car and they drive and they are sitting in the parking lot outside of the Emergency Room looking at those sliding glass doors while they have the hand on the forehead of their child, knowing that if they walk through those sliding glass doors, even though they have insurance, they will be out a 5,000 deductible, $5,000 deductible when they walk through those doors. That’s what insurance companies are doing in America today.”
When moderators momentarily lost control of the debate, Harris was the one issuing a call to order.
“Hey, guys, you know what?” Harris said. “America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we are going to put food on their table.”
But the moment of greatest contention among the candidate was when moderator Rachel Maddow asked Mayor Pete Buttgieg, who made history that night by being the first openly gay person to participate in a major party presidential debate, about a recent shooting in South Bend, Ind., under his watch by a white police officer who killed a black man.
Citing a statistic that 26 percent of South Bend is black, but only 6 percent of its police force is black, Maddow asked him why that hasn’t improved.
“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg replied. “My community is in anguish right now because of an officer-involved shooting, a black man, Eric Logan, killed by a white officer. And I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back. The officer said he was attacked with a knife, but he didn’t have his body camera on. It’s a mess. And we’re hurting.”
Recognizing the issue as an national problem, Buttigieg said this is an issue “facing our community and so many communities around the country,” calling for a moving policing “out from the shadow of systemic racism.”
“And I am determined to bring about a day when a white person driving a vehicle and a black person driving a vehicle, when they see a police officer approaching, feels the exact same thing a feeling not of fear but of safety,” Buttigieg said.
But Buttigieg’s competitors on the debate stage weren’t letting him off the hook that easily.
Directly questioning the South Bend mayor, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said “the question they’re asking in South Bend and I think across the country is why has it taken so long?”
“We had a shooting when I first became mayor, 10 years before Ferguson,” Hickenlooper said. “And the community came together and we created an Office of the Independent Monitor, a Civilian Oversight Commission, and we diversified the police force in two years. We actually did de-escalation training. I think the real question that America should be asking is why, five years after Ferguson, every city doesn’t have this level of police accountability.”
Buttigieg insisted he’s taken steps to increase police accountability and “the FOP just denounced me for too much accountability.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) weighed in, telling Buttigieg, “If the camera wasn’t on and that was the policy, you should fire the chief.”
Buttigieg said under Indiana law “this will be investigated and there will be accountability for the officer involved,” but Swalwell continued, “You’re the mayor. You should fire the chief — if that’s the policy and someone died.”
Marianne Williamson, an author whose unconventional responses drew attention throughout the debate, jumped in with a call for slavery reparations.
“All of these issues are extremely important, but they are specifics; they are symptoms,” Williamson said. “And the underlying cause has to do with deep, deep, deep realms of racial injustice, both in our criminal justice system and in our economic system. And the Democratic Party should be on the side of reparations for slavery for this very reason.”
Biden was next in the hot seat. Harris said she agrees with Williamson the issue of race is still not being talked about truthfully and said “there is not a black man I know, be he a relative, a friend or a coworker, who has not been the subject of some form of profiling or discrimination.”
That’s when Harris delivered the blow against Biden, who recently took heat for being nostalgic of the days when he reached out to others he disagreed with to get things done, including senators who built their careers on racial segregation.
“I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden, I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” Harris said. ” “But I also believe, and it’s personal — and I was actually very — it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”
Harris said she also took issue with Biden’s opposition to bussing because “there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day, and that little girl was me.”
But Harris concluded with a blow to Buttigieg, saying “as attorney general of California, I was very proud to put in place a requirement that all my special agents would wear body cameras and keep those cameras on.”
Biden wouldn’t stand for the suggestion he was a racist.
“It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board,” Biden said. “I did not praise racists. That is not true, number one. Number two, if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that.”
Biden delivered a counter-punch, referencing Harris’ career as a prosecutor, a career which she has taken criticism in progressive circles.
“I was a public defender,” Biden said. “I didn’t become a prosecutor. I came out and I left a good law firm to become a public defender, when, in fact — when, in fact, when, in fact, my city was in flames because of the assassination of Dr. King, number one.”
Biden said under his policy Harris would have been able to go to the school “the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your city council.” Asked by Harris if he was wrong to oppose bussing, Biden said, “I did not oppose bussing in America. What I opposed is bussing ordered by the Department of Education. “
Harris came back by asserting action by the federal government was the point.
“Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” Harris said. “I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education. So that’s where the federal government must step in.”
The issue of race proved the most contentious in an evening where, like the previous night, health care and immigration were major topics.
Candidates made frequent references to LGBT people even though no question on LGBT issues was asked Thursday night.
Bernie Sanders mentioned LGBT people when asked whether he values diversity as a member of the Democratic Party.
“But in addition to diversity, in terms of having more women, more people from the LGBT community, we also have to do something else,” Sanders said. “And that is, we have to ask ourselves a simple question, in that how come today the worker in the middle of our economy is making no more money than he or she made 45 years ago, and that in the last 30 years, the top 1 percent has seen a $21 trillion increase in their wealth?”
Kirsten Gillibrand made a reference to made her efforts leading the fight to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” saying helped make it happen despite opposition from the Pentagon. (In 2010, Defense Secretary Robert Gates came out for repeal before the final vote in December.)
Biden made said called for advancements in civil rights to “include not just only African-Americans, but the LGBT community.” Harris enumerated the Equality Act as part of her goals to advance civil rights.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.