Updated at 6:05 p.m. ET
Eight Democratic presidential candidates faced the same basic question today in Houston: Why should women of color vote for them?
The first-ever She The People Presidential Forum — organized by and centered on questions from women of color — served as a repeated reminder of the key role that minority women play in Democratic politics.
“Women of color voters in this country are 20 million strong. Our votes matter,” Democratic operative Leah Daughtry warned the candidates. “You put us last on your list; we put you last on our list.”
“Remember: We’re a powerful voting block,” She The People founder Aimee Allison said at the beginning of the event.
“Our hope is to advance a national conversation to help voters distinguish which candidates stand with and stand for women of color in our communities. And let me tell you something: The candidate that does that best and most consistently will win the nomination and the White House in 2020.”
The questions put forward to California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and others made it clear that many women of color may not be won over by campaigns tailoring their message toward moderate and independent white voters in swing states. Topics included abortion rights, gentrification, voter suppression, transgender rights, racial disparities in criminal sentencing and police shootings of unarmed black men, among others.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker repeated his pledge to choose a woman as a running mate, should he become the Democratic nominee.
“Women of color can trust me,” he said. “My fights have been fights that have shown who I am and shown my loyalty.”
Amid the policy deep dives, every candidate faced the same basic question: Why should women of color back them in a field about to top 20 declared Democrats?
The question created a couple of moments of awkwardness for some of the men in the field, including former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who paused for a moment before answering, “It’s not something I’m owed, not something I expect. It’s something I fully hope to earn.”
Most candidates answered the question by asking the crowd of activists to look to their track records.
“I have dedicated my time in public service to making sure that people like my grandmother and mother can do better,” said Castro, and have “delivered for communities that were vulnerable, that were struggling.”
Repeating a promise first rolled out at a CNN town hall this week, Harris vowed to take “strong executive action” on gun control within the first 100 days of her administration, if Congress hasn’t passed gun measures first.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, told the forum that when police are being investigated for shootings, “I think the investigation should not be done by the police department where the officer worked. You have to have a fair process when you investigate these cases.”
The cheering Houston auditorium underscored just how hungry Democrats’ progressive activists are for detailed policy plans that, up until recently, would have been viewed as far too liberal for a candidate to run for president on: single-payer health care; legalized marijuana; reparations for slavery.
As the increasingly large candidate field has, for the most part, shifted left en masse to appeal to these voters, the moderate wing of the party has worried whether Democrats will be able to appeal to the Midwestern swing voters who put President Trump in the White House. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, expected to launch Thursday, will be centered on the bet that most Democratic voters want a more centrist candidate.
But speaking to the forum, Klobuchar argued it is possible for candidates to satisfy progressives and win back independents. “I can’t pretend to be in your shoes. I’m in one of your shoes, as the first woman in many of the jobs that I’ve had. And I know what it’s like to be in the room when people aren’t taking you seriously,” she said. “What I can tell you is that my entire life I have fought for justice.”