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Six Democratic Presidential Candidates Speak at Forum on Wages and Working People, A “Live-ish-blog” As It Happens (Part 1: Harris, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke)

Today, I’m writing to you from the National Forum on Wages and Working People. Six Democratic presidential candidates have come to Southern Nevada to answer workers’ questions on what they plan to do to bring about economic justice should one of them defeat President Donald Trump next year.

Because today is so action packed, I’m doing something different. This may not be a full-on live-blog, but I will be posting updates and analysis as these candidates enter and exit the stage.

What is this, and why are they all here? (9:45 AM)
Photo by Andrew Davey

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing for the long day ahead of us. The Center for American Progress (CAP) Action Fund’s and Service Employees International Union’s National Forum on Wages and Working People will kick off with 30 minute conversations with U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California), U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). After a fairly brief lunch intermission, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D), and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) will have their own respective 30 minute conversations. This is Hickenlooper’s Nevada debut as a presidential candidate, while the others have already begun racking up frequent flyer miles to campaign here.

There’s already been a lot of talk of “the rigged system”, economic inequality, and the quest for intersectional justice. Yet thus far, some candidates have already begun offering detailed policy plans while others have mostly stuck with broader platitudes. In the run-up to today’s event, organizers have been expressing their hope that more candidates offer more specifics on matters like workers’ rights, living wages, and pursuit of the kind of economic development that also results in economic justice.

In 2007 the two groups hosted a health care forum here in Las Vegas, and that may have played a key role in the development of what would become the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare). Then candidate Barack Obama felt the pressure to match rivals Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in offering a more substantive universal health care plan. Less than three years later, then President Barack Obama signed into the law the biggest health care reform bill the nation has seen to date. Organizers must be hoping a similar dynamic emerges from today’s forum.

(Stay here for reports on Kamala Harris’, Amy Klobuchar’s, and Beto O’Rourke’s respective presentations. To see Julián Castro, John Hickenlooper, and Elizabeth Warren in action today, read Part 2.)

“The truth is that America’s rising inequality didn’t just happen. It’s a strategy that […] hurts the many and often helps the few.”
– Mary Kay Henry, SEIU (10:15 AM update)
Photo by Andrew Davey

The forum began with opening speeches by SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and CAP President Neera Tanden. Henry condemned Trump’s xenophobic brand of “populism” and countered his blaming of communities of color for the nation’s economic problems as she declared, “We know what the real problem is: too much power in too few hands has thrown our economy out of balance.”

Henry called for reform to the nation’s labor laws so that “everyone who wants to join a union has the power to join one”, as well as improving upon the ACA, acting on climate change, and comprehensive immigration reform. So did Tanden, who later added, “The truth is that America’s rising inequality didn’t just happen. It’s a strategy that […] hurts the many and often helps the few.”

Tanden continued, “Today’s event is about finding real answers. We can continue to accept low and stagnant wages, […] or we can accept policies that improve the lives of the many.” Henry and Tanden then turned the stage over to former New York Times economics reporter Steven Greenhouse to kick off today’s parade of candidates.

“Over the decades, the rules have been written in a way that excludes working families. […] We have to be honest. This system is not working for working families.”
– Kamala Harris (10:35 AM update)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Kamala Harris was up first, and she hit the ground running as she declared, “There is a direct correlation between the concerted attacks on organized labor and the growth of economic inequality.” She continued, “We need a President of the United States who will fight for working people, and who will fight in a way that will support the right to strike and the right to organize.”

Harris called for a nationwide ban on “right-to-work” laws that restrict union organizing at workplaces, as well as a $15 per hour national minimum wage, a monthly rent relief tax credit, and what sounds like a significant expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit: “If your family is making less than $100,000, you will receive up to $6,000 tax credit, which can be distributed to qualifying families at up to $500 per month. […] It will be the most significant middle-class tax cut this generation.” (Editor’s Note: Thanks to @HillzMyPrez for the correction and clarification.)

Harris then explained how she’ll pay for all this: “On Day One, we are going to repeal that tax bill that only benefits the top 1% of wealthy people and corporations. That’s how we are going to pay for it. That’s how we are going to help working families get by.”

Harris also pledged larger systemic change: “Over the decades, the rules have been written in a way that excludes working families.” She then added, “We have to be honest. This system is not working for working families.” “In our America, people shouldn’t have to work more than one job. […] People deserve to have a wage that keeps up with the cost of living.”

If we have everyone in Medicare, that will reduce their cost and ensure that they have the care they need. […] I believe this is a moral issue. This is a reflection of our values.” 
– Kamala Harris (10:55 AM update)
Photo by Andrew Davey

When local SEIU 1107 member and Sunrise Hospital nurse Jody Dominieck asked about health care, Harris responded, “The biggest barrier to people having access to the health care they need is money, so what we need to do is do something about that. If we have everyone in Medicare, that will reduce their cost and ensure that they have the care they need.” She continued, “I believe this is a moral issue. This is a reflection of our values.”

Then in explaining what she will do to lower prescription drug costs, Harris pointed to “Medicare for All” single-payer as part of the solution: “When everyone is in the Medicare system, we can negotiate the cost down.” However, Harris also promised further action: “We need Medicare for All, then we can look at cost savings and see what [else] can be done and must be done.”

Harris later zoomed back out to the larger picture as she stated, “Nobody should have to fight their fight alone. That is a basic principle, and that’s how organized labor came into being. […] Anyone who stands in the way of that basic principle is basically unreasonable.”

Throughout her presentation, Harris seemed to connect quite strongly with the room of SEIU workers. When she said, “This is a moment of time that requires us to fight for who we really are,” a good number of them appeared ready to fight alongside her. When Harris closed by saying, “It’s about reminding them that they have the power, the power is with the people,” she received a standing ovation from most of the room.

“Unions are about lifting people up. They’re about shared prosperity.”
– Amy Klobuchar (11:15 AM update)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Klobuchar opened by sharing her family’s story, including her grandfather’s work as a union iron ore miner:“I wouldn’t be here on this stage if it wasn’t for unions. Unions made him safe.” She the spoke of the greater societal value of unions in declaring, “Unions are about lifting people up. They’re about shared prosperity.” She then added, “I stand with you in the fight for 15. We need a living wage!”

Klobuchar then went through her platform, which includes repealing the 2017 tax law, undoing the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, expanding the ACA, expand access to long-term care, and creating the “Up Savings Account” to ensure workers who currently don’t have IRA or 401(k) savings plan have a new, portable savings plan that will always be there for them. As Klobuchar sees it, “If we want to secure America, we have to make sure Americans are secure in their retirement.”

Klobuchar then opened up some more on another issue she spoke about during her prior trip to Nevada: “This is essentially the new gilded age. We need to change some of these rules and have these corporations prove that these proposed mega-mergers won’t hurt competition.” Klobuchar specifically called for stronger antitrust enforcement to curb the kinds of monopolies that have become commonplace in our contemporary economy.

Greenhouse then asked Klobuchar about her “trillion-dollar infrastructure plan”. Klobuchar pointed out real-world examples of how it would work and who it would help: “When you look at Flint, Michigan, they’re still drinking bottled water. We have to do something about it.” She continued, “People of color are disproportionately affected by the lack of transit options. […] We should be making it easier for people to get to work.” Basically, Klobuchar envisions a larger version of Obama’s 2009 Recovery Act (or “stimulus bill”) that funds a greater number of infrastructure improvement projects.

“This is about patriotism. I don’t believe immigrants diminish America. I believe immigrants are America!”
– Amy Klobuchar (11:30 AM update)
Photo by Andrew Davey

On health care, Klobuchar stressed, “The Affordable Care Act was just the beginning. We can improve it. We must have a public option, whether it’s based on Medicare for Medicaid.” Though some health care activists have pushed back on Klobuchar and the other candidates who have not embraced “Medicare for All” single-payer, she didn’t seem to lose this room over it.

When it was time for audience questions, Miriam Pineda, a SEIU janitor from Maryland, shared her story as a refugee who escaped extreme violence in Honduras and asked Klobuchar what she will do to provide permanent protection for her and other TPS refugees. Klobuchar responded, “You should be able to stay in this country. This is our value statement.” She continued, “As President, I will create a permanent status. We must pass comprehensive immigration reform.”

Klobuchar then specifically promised TPS refugees and DREAMers will have a path to citizenship under her immigration reform plan. “This is about patriotism. I don’t believe immigrants diminish America. I believe immigrants are America!”

When she wrapped up, Klobuchar also received a standing ovation from a fairly significant chunk of the audience.

“When we’re investing in the American workers, we’re also investing in their families, and we’re also investing in this country.”
– Beto O’Rourke (11:45 AM update)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Next up was Beto O’Rourke. He declared, “We have an economy that works too well for too few, and not well enough for too many,” then continued, “Our democracy must work, and that means we must have economic democracy as well.” For O’Rourke that includes a $15 minimum wage, affordable child care, expanding broadband internet access to  and many of the proposals that Harris and Klobuchar also talked up.

O’Rourke then spoke of how the hundreds of thousands of Republican crossover votes for him in last year’s U.S. Senate race proved how, according to him, “We don’t have to let our partisan differences divide us on matters of economic equity.” He added, “When we show up, we act, and we deliver, we will win those votes.”

O’Rourke continued to speak in mostly broad strokes, occasionally peppering in some details throughout his presentation. As he described his vision of economic justice, O’Rourke said, “When we’re investing in the American workers, we’re also investing in their families, and we’re also investing in this country.”

While O’Rourke was generally well received by the audience, he didn’t seem to get as much praise as Harris and Klobuchar did. When it came time for audience Q&A, Terrence Wise, a McDonald’s worker in Kansas City, Missouri, made a pointed request for specifics on what O’Rourke will do as President to help the people in this room. O’Rourke responded by reiterating his Fight for 15 support, describing his proposal to stop forced arbitration (which prevents workers from seeking justice in court when their employers have acted against them), and restating his commitment to protecting workers’ rights.

“Instead of wars, why don’t we invest in our future?”
– Beto O’Rourke (12:30 PM update)

But then, O’Rourke transitioned to larger and more pervasive matters of injustice: “I used to think the inequality in America is a function of our criminal justice system […], but you speak to a larger problem. There is ten times the wealth in white America than in black America.” O’Rourke then promised to tackle matters of economic and social injustice equally: “I want to make clear, as important as $15 is the [wage] floor, we have to face the legacy of segregation, Jim Crow, and the continuing [racial] inequality in this country today.”

Packy Moran, a tenured University of Iowa professor, then shared his story of having to rent hosuing due to his family’s inability to afford buying their own home, as well as his union’s ongoing struggle to secure better benefits. His response? “Instead of wars, why don’t we invest in our future?” O’Rourke then committed to free community college and debt forgiveness for students who then serve the community as teachers and other public servants: “We should wipe that debt clean so you can focus on building a better life for your family.”

O’Rourke largely regained his footing towards the end of his presentation, to the point where some in the audience also gave him a standing ovation. Still, I could sense he had a harder time connecting with most in the room, at least until he pivoted to civil rights and racial justice. And since this post has already grown so long, I posted a Part 2 for the other three candidates’ presentations.

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