As top Democratic presidential candidates prepared to debate in Houston yesterday, reporters from The Texan visited with both supporters and protesters rallying outside the debate hall.
Despite sweltering Houston heat and humidity, the line of supporters waiting to enter stretched halfway across the Texas Southern University campus. Several attendees shared thoughts on candidates, issues, and the opportunity to retake the White House in 2020.
“I’m trying to come in with a pretty open mind; I definitely haven’t decided on a candidate,” said Benjamin Lamb, a political science student at Rice University.
Lamb listed climate change as the issue most important to him, saying that the problem had become too costly to ignore.
When The Texan asked if he had concerns about the potential impact on Houston’s economy, Lamb replied that there “definitely needs to be a transition…not a sudden shift,” and acknowledged that both protecting jobs and dealing with carbon emissions would be a challenge.
Red Mann, a retired pipefitter, did not express any concern about the economic effects of banning offshore drilling. “I live down near the coast and I’ve seen what the oil field drilling does,” he said. “I was raised down there and the beaches used to be good and clean, or a lot cleaner than they are now.”
Going into the debate, Mann also said that he was favoring former Vice President Joe Biden. “He’s for the working man, and that’s what I’ve been all my life,” he said.
Asked if anything might sway his opinion, Mann responded, “Actually, I’m more for Biden because I think he’s more electable, and we’ve got to get Trump out of there.”
Many of those attending the debate listed healthcare as a top concern.
Deborah Shelton of Houston expressed worry over efforts to dismantle Obama-era healthcare programs. “If they do away with the Affordable Care Act [Obamacare], everything is just going to be a pre-existing condition.”
Shelton said she likes “Medicare for All” but does not want to eliminate private insurance.
“I don’t want to force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do, but I want [Medicare] to available to everyone.”
Shelton, along with her husband Michael and 13-year-old son Xander carried signs supporting Tulsi Gabbard, who did not make the cutoff criteria for the debate.
Jolea Payne, program director for Girls Inc., Houston, said she was “passionate” about women’s rights, and that education issues were also very important to her.
When asked about Democratic candidates sparring over charter schools, Payne answered that she had several friends who either worked at or sent their children to local charters. “I do not want charters to go away, but I do think we need to take a look at them to make sure they’re working right.”
Across the street from TSU, protesters included a vocal group of charter school families who carried signs in both Spanish and English reading “Charter Schools = Self Determination,” and “Save our Charter Schools.”
Another protest group displaying a “Democrats for Life of America” banner called for a pro-life Democratic nominee. Joined by former Texas State Rep. Dora Olivo (D-Missouri City), these pro-lifers included Reverend Bruce Nieli and Terrisa Bukovinac, a self-identified “atheist, liberal, feminist.”
Jacob Lupfer, a strategist for the newly-formed Pro Life Democratic PAC, said while many pro-life Democrats would vote for the party nominee regardless of abortion views, some already “have one foot out the door.”
Lupfer says he voted for Clinton in 2016, and he compared the Trump administration to a “clown show,” but on pro-life issues, Lupfer acknowledged that Trump had “delivered.”
After the debate, The Texan spoke to Leslie Laredo, another Rice University student, who found Cory Booker the most compelling.
“I really liked Booker; I liked Booker and Warren a lot,” she said. “I think they just have like, very strong answers, and when Jorge Ramos asked very pointed questions, they didn’t shy away from them…and they didn’t rely so much on their past, more focusing on what they’d do as president.”
The Texan asked debate watchers if they thought there was anything said or any candidate on the debate stage who might alienate independents and swing voters.
Laredo said she thought that maybe Biden talked too much about his vice presidency under Obama.
“I wouldn’t say he’s the weakest, I think just in general, at least with like the young voting population we’re looking for someone diverse, and he’s an older white man that’s like, served before, and he doesn’t fit that criteria.”
Ann Naut, who works for the University of Houston-Downtown Police Department, said she really liked Senator Elizabeth Warren, and also believed healthcare to be the most important issue.
When asked by The Texan if she thought any of the candidates would alienate swing voters, Naut suggested: “Maybe just Sanders; I think he pushes just a little too far.”
Naut added that while Sanders had been popular four years ago, things have changed.
“The people who liked him four years ago are now four years older. Maybe they’ve finally gotten jobs — the group that was having a hard time getting jobs. But now maybe they have since the economy has gotten a little bit better.”
Time will tell if the Democratic voting base has changed in the past four years. In just less than six months, these voters will be heading to the polls to help select the candidate to challenge President Trump next November.
You can read more about what the candidates said in the debate here.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.