Senior Correspondent

WASHINGTON ( – Historically Black Howard University played host to the first Democratic presidential debate focusing on issues important to Black and other non-White voters on June 28.

Senators Barack Obama (Ill.), Joseph Biden (Del.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Christopher Dodd (Conn.); former Senators John Edwards (N.C.), and Mike Gravel (Alaska); Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio); and former Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.) all took the stage before an audience which included members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), civil rights leaders, educators, and activists, as well as viewers watching live on public television stations.

The convener of the “All American Presidential Forum” was PBS-TV host Tavis Smiley, and the panel of journalists questioning the candidates was made up of Michel Martin of National Public Radio; Ruben Navarrette, from The San Diego Union Tribune; and DeWayne Wickham with USA Today–a Black woman, a Latino man, and a Black man–the first time the journalists asking the questions and the moderator were all non-White.


The candidates freely discussed their views on topics concerning race and the disparities caused by race in this country with regard to poverty, health, education, crime and justice, housing, the AIDS pandemic, Hurricane Katrina relief and the right of displaced residents of New Orleans to return to their hometown, issues which Black voters have complained have been ignored in previous candidate forums.

“I thought this was the first debate where we got beyond talking about the problems facing our country in Iraq only,” Donna Brazille, former campaign manager for Al Gore’s presidential bid in 2000 told The Final Call. “We spent 40 minutes talking about education, health care, the criminal justice system; we addressed urgent concerns of the African American community.”

“We have made enormous progress,” said Sen. Obama, who is in second place in popularity polls and has raised more money in the reporting period ending June 30 than Mrs. Clinton and all the other candidates, “but the progress we have made is not good enough.”

Sen. Obama repeated a well known theme, that Blacks must share the responsibility for improving their own condition in this country. Too many Blacks, he said, “think it’s acceptable if they don’t achieve.”

Concerning the Bush administration’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina–the worst natural disaster in more than 100 years in this country–Mr. Edwards was the most pro-active by pointing out that he launched his campaign in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which was destroyed by flooding after the hurricane. He also promised to appoint a special White House counselor whose job would be to report to him daily on the city’s reconstruction, if he were elected.

“What we should do is allow the people of New Orleans to rebuild their own city. We ought to pay them a decent wage, give them health-care coverage, instead of having big multi-national corporations get billion-dollar contracts with the government,” Mr. Edwards stated.

Rep. Kucinich frequently related debate topics to his long-standing opposition to the war in Iraq, insisting that funding for education and other urban issues has been channeled to military spending overseas.

“It’s interesting the philosophy that’s guiding leaders at every branch of the executive and judicial branches of government,” said Mr. Kucinich, “because they go out and tell people, ‘Pull yourselves up by the boot—by your bootstraps.’ And then they steal their boots.”

Mr. Kucinich promised that if he was elected, he would “decrease the Pentagon budget by 15 percent.”

“I think you’re being too modest,” said Mr. Gravel, who spoke next, indicating that military spending should be drastically cut, and he condemned another war–the so-called War on Drugs. “We are losing an entire generation of young men and women to our prisons,” said Mr. Gravel. “Our nation’s ineffective and wasteful ‘war on drugs’ plays a major role in this. We must place a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and prevention. We must de-criminalize minor drug offenses and increase the availability and visibility of substance abuse treatment and prevention in our communities as well as in jails and prisons.”

Mr. Kucinich, one of only two House members to vote against a House resolution (H. Con Res. 21) condemning Iran just days before the debate, later emphasized that he will combat the “Islamophobia” that is rampant in the United States at this time. To note, Rep. Ron Paul [R-Texas], who is also a candidate for his party’s presidential nomination, was the other no vote on H. Con Res. 21. CBC Dean Rep. John Conyers did not vote, however, all other CBC members, including Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison [D-Minn.], were among the stampede of 411 who voted in favor of the resolution which calls on the U.N. to find Iran’s President in violation of the 1948 convention against genocide, because of Iran’s criticism of Israel.

“The Muslims are my brothers and sisters,” Rep. Kucinich told The Final Call. “I am going to take the steps that are necessary to stop ‘Islamophobia.’; to stop the kind of profiling that’s been going on; to stop the Justice Department from misusing its power going after people because they happen to be Muslims.

“As someone who understands the deeper meaning of the phrase: As-Salaam-Alaikum. I know the meaning of that. When people extend peace–Wa-Alaikum-Salaam–it means, ‘And unto you peace also.’ We need a president who understands the deeper meaning of that,” Mr. Kucinich said.

“I was disappointed at the lack of substantive conversation about higher education,” Dr. Julianne Malveaux, President of Bennett College told The Final Call. “While they were able to break down things like the prison system and other things, I really would have like to have heard more about higher education.

“Our children are not able to afford to go to college. Although I realize there a lot of issues to touch on, I would have like to have seen more on the college experience, because we know that education transforms lives. We have all learned that in the HBCU-world. Education transforms lives.” The candidates should have spoken about what they would do to strengthen Howard University and the 105 other HBCUs said Dr. Malveaux.