In South Carolina on Saturday, the Republican candidates for president got together to discuss what they would do to address poverty in America. If you missed it, they promised that if elected they would do everything in their power to make things worse by cutting services, slashing corporate taxes and furthering the dehumanization of people of color and the poor.
What a contrast to what was happening at the same time in the heartland, where real solutions, ambitious strategies and fierce hope led the agenda.
In Iowa, 1,000 grassroots leaders from across the Midwest came together at the Putting Families First Presidential Summit. In a standing-room-only church in the center of Des Moines, 16 activists and grassroots leaders asked tough questions of Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders about actual solutions not just to poverty, but in the areas of criminal justice, health care, immigration and deportation, predatory lending and the need for corporations to pay their fair share.
By putting real people at the center, this event, sponsored by Center for Community Change Action and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, was able to focus on critical issues that have largely been missing from the public debate so far this cycle.
Notably absent from the event was candidate Hillary Clinton, who was invited but declined to attend. It’s a shame that Clinton chose not to come to First Christian Church and hear what real Americans, struggling in this economy and facing the evils of structural racism every day, are facing. That would have given the undecided voters in the room a chance to hear how her plans compare to those of her Democratic primary opponents.
Structural racism and inequality were themes that emerged repeatedly. Leaders from Maryland, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota told their stories and asked the candidates how they would tackle the ongoing and pervasive disinvestment in urban communities of color and rural communities. O’Malley, a former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor, responded with his plan for investment, including doubling funding for the Community Development Block Grant program, investments in affordable housing, transportation and workforce investment.
And when Anthony Newby from Neighborhoods Organizing for Change in Minneapolis asked Vermont senator Sanders if he would commit to investing $200 billion in primarily communities of color, Sanders responded, “No, I will invest a trillion dollars.”
Sanders went on to say, “Maybe we should invest in education and jobs, rather than in jails and incarceration. And here’s another radical idea: instead of having more people in jails in this country, how about having the best educated workforce in this country?”
Another dominant theme was our broken immigration system and the increasingly aggressive enforcement actions of the Obama administration. Grassroots leaders brought the raw emotion of living with the fear of deportation for themselves and those they love to the candidates in ways that were inescapable. O’Malley brought the crowd to its feet with this impassioned call: “I will end the for-profit prison industry…and open to the doors to refugees.” O’Malley added, “The symbol of America is not a barbed wire fence, it’s the Statue of Liberty.”
“My father was born in Poland,” Sanders said in a comment that highlighted the racist overtones in the current immigration debate. “Nobody has asked me for a birth certificate. Maybe it has something to do with the color of my skin.”
Several other issues were highlighted at the event, including the need for a more equitable health care system, an end to predatory credit, and the urgent need to address our climate crisis.
Gretchen Maune from Missouri shared her moving personal story of losing her sight while in college and how Medicaid helped her as she learned to cope with blindness. She called out the states, such as Missouri, where Republicans have blocked Medicaid expansion, leading to hundreds of unnecessary deaths every year. “Health care is a human right!” she thundered as the crowd rose to its feet.
Angela McCall, also from Missouri, told Sanders her personal story of facing financial hardship and getting trapped in triple-digit interest payday loans. Sanders responded by noting that according to every major religion “usury is a sin.” Sanders promoted proposals for an 18 percent nationwide cap on interest rates and give the U.S. Postal Service the authority to provide affordable financial services across the country.
Ross Grooters, from Iowa, told his story of being a union rail worker and an environmentalist, decrying efforts to pit those fighting for higher wages and good union jobs against those who are fighting climate change and environmental disasters-in-waiting, such as the proposed Iowa Bakken crude-oil pipeline. Both O’Malley and Sanders spoke about the environment, with O’Malley promising to put the U.S. on a path to “100% electric renewable energy” and Sanders touting his legislative proposal on climate change that includes funding for displaced workers.
It was an inspiring event and shows what you get when you move past poll-tested questions and push the debate to go beyond bland generalities. When real people ask real questions, we get the debate that Americans are clamoring for, with real solutions and real leadership that puts you and me and our families at the center of the story. Quite a contrast to the corporate-money fueled, anti-family policies and racist rhetoric that dominated the stage in South Carolina on Saturday.
Liz Ryan Murray is policy director for National People’s Action.