Candidates clash over gun control, public education in third round of debates


(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Ten candidates crowd the stage during the third round of debates in Houston. More than 10 candidates have qualified for the fourth round of debates in October, which will take place over two nights.

Daisy Conant and James Pollard

And then there were 10. For now.

Thursday night marked another Democratic debate featuring a pool of candidates hoping to challenge President Donald Trump next November.

Despite being the third round of matchups, the Houston debate exhibited multiple firsts. Aside from taking place over one night, it was the first opportunity for the two frontrunners, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), to debate on stage. It was also the first time an extended protest broke out, in which left-wing protesters interrupted Biden’s closing bit chanting “three million deportations,” referencing the number of deportations under former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Candidates clashed over topics ranging from trade tariffs to immigration policy, with each challenging the strength of the opponents’ plans while emphasizing the need for unity in the fight against a Republican Senate.

Over the course of three hours, the presidential hopefuls spent significant time debating a number of issues that directly impact the Northwestern and Evanston communities such as healthcare, gun violence, public education and racial justice. And despite several candidates’ earlier criticisms of Obama’s record, many cozied up to it last night. They also reflected on their resilience as leaders, elucidating (finally, for some) what makes them unique in a field of 20-plus contenders.

The first question went to Biden, who was flanked by Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) , as moderator George Stephanopoulos asked him about Medicare for All.

“The senator says she’s for Bernie. Well, I’m for Barack,” he said, indicating his support for expanding the Affordable Care Act rather than removing the private option and shifting to universal health care.

“Joe said that Medicare for All would cost over $30 trillion,” Sanders later said. “That’s right, Joe, status quo over ten years will be $50 trillion!”

A contentious debate over healthcare ensued. Warren was asked if middle-class taxes would go up to help pay for Medicare for All. She would not explicitly say whether or not taxes would go up, but she did say the overall cost would decrease under her plan.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said that while Bernie “wrote the bill,” she “read the bill,” and it says we will no longer have private healthcare. Under Sanders’ plan, she said 149 million Americans would lose their private insurance. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg found himself caught in the middle of the fray, supporting “Medicare for all who want it,” which would involve placing government health insurance on the free market.

Gun control
Coming on the heels of tragedy after mass shootings in Virginia, Ohio and Texas this past month, candidates have been adamant on condemning gun violence and calling for action in Congress. Many proposed a voluntary gun buy-back program, which they laminated upon both Thursday night and in past debates.

Former congressman Beto O’Rourke, however, did not. O’Rourke, who was praised on stage by his opponents for his leadership in the aftermath of the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso went further, asserted he would confiscate weapons from gun owners if necessary.

“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against fellow Americans anymore.”

The remark received a booming ovation from the audience, which included survivors of the El Paso shooting. Beto needed a win after dropping to one-to-three percent in polls, and while it’s uncertain whether his provocative stance on gun control will get him one, many praised him for jeopardizing his electoral chances in his home state to take a hard stand against gun violence.

Additional unorthodox proposals were touched on throughout the debate, including a call to require a federal license to purchase a gun by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). Warren concurred with Booker on the point, adding that in order to put an end to gun violence one must start by combating corruption in Congress. She suggested eliminating the filibuster, a sentiment that has been shared by Trump.

Sanders was quick to disagree with Warren on that point, a rare occurrence between the two most progressive candidates in the race. However, he went on to agree that the root cause of the Democrat’s failure to pass impactful gun-reform legislation is the NRA’s hold on Republicans.

While many candidates have chosen Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as their first target in expanding gun control reform, others highlight the president’s role in encouraging racist provocations as a systemic fuel to gun violence.

For example, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) ducked a punch from Biden on the constitutionality of banning assault rifles through executive order by assuring that it isn’t an issue the country can idly wait for Congress to fix, especially after the effects of Trump’s rhetoric.

“You know, people asked me in El Paso… ‘Well, do you think Trump is responsible for what happened?’ And I said, ‘Well, look, I mean, obviously, he didn’t pull the trigger, but he’s certainly been tweeting out the ammunition,’” Harris said.

Public Education
While it didn’t elicit some of the more heated or memorable moments of the night, the discourse on investing in public school educators received much more airtime than it has in the past.

It began with a question of why tech executive Andrew Yang, the most vocal of the candidates in supporting charter schools, doesn’t believe taxpayer money is better spent fixing traditional public schools. Yang gave his go-to answer: invest in the people, in this case the families and neighborhoods of students, first before moving on to compensate educators and eliminate standardized tests.

Buttigieg countered Yang’s point, stating the first step would be to appoint a secretary of education who actually believes in public education.

“If we want to get the results that we expect for our children, we have to support and compensate the teaching profession,” Butteigeig said. “Respect teachers the way we do soldiers and pay them more like the way we do doctors.”

Warren proposed a two-cent wealth tax on the top one-tenth of one percent in this country to raise the wages of childcare workers and pre-school teachers, cancel 95% of student loan debt and strengthen teachers unions.

Harris promised to keep with her campaign proposal of closing the teacher pay gap by investing $12 trillion into HBCU educators, while Sanders stated his administration would impose a tax on Wall Street speculation to ensure every American teacher makes at least $60,000 a year.

Racial Justice
Thursday night’s debate took place at Texas Southern University, a historically black college in Houston, Texas, further pushing the issue of racism and the growing rise of white supremacy to the forefront of the 2020 campaign. ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis — the third black woman to moderate a presidential debate — pushed Senators Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris on their prosecutorial records.

Harris, who Davis noted had previously opposed marijuana legalization and outside investigations of police shootings, said she attempted to change the system from within, and added that for-profit prisons need to end.

“There have been many distortions of my record,” Harris said. “Let me be very clear. I made a decision to become a prosecutor for two reasons. One, I’ve always wanted to protect people and keep them safe and second, I was born knowing about how this criminal justice system in America has worked in a way that has been informed by racial bias.”

Cory Booker talked about systemic racism, saying “the question isn’t who isn’t a racist, it’s who is and isn’t doing something about racism.”

As for what he’s doing about it, he touted the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill signed into law by Trump last winter. It expands rehabilitative opportunities, reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related crimes and bans some practices like shackling pregnant women.

Buttigieg, whose record on racial justice has been criticized this summer after a white officer shot and killed a black man in South Bend, said racism will not end with the removal of Trump. He mentioned his Douglass Plan, which hopes to abolish the death penalty and mandatory minimum sentences as well as create a federal database of officers removed from their jobs.

Biden laughed after Davis told him she wanted to talk about inequality in schools and race. She then asked him to clarify comments he’d made in 1975, when he told a reporter, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”

“You said that some 40 years ago,” Davis said. “But as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?”

Biden responded, saying that institutional segregation exists in the country, and called for tripling the amount of funding given to “very poor schools, Title I schools.” He said he’d raise teacher salaries to $60,000.

The night’s final question asked the candidates to reflect on their biggest professional setbacks. Harris spoke about becoming the first African American and first woman to serve as California’s attorney general, and quoted her mother, who told her, “Don’t you ever let anyone tell you who you are, you tell them who you are.” Warren spoke about losing her job in special education after becoming pregnant, going to law school and then returning to teaching.

Buttigieg reflected on the experience of coming out as an openly gay elected official, and the trust he gained when voters responded by re-electing him with over 80 percent of the vote.

“I came back from the deployment and I realized that you only get to live one life,” the 37-year-old Afghan War veteran said, ”and I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer, so I just came out.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @daisy_conant

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PamesJollard