Williamson says she believes in vaccines, acknowledges 'self-inflicted wound'
2020 Democrats look to cut into Biden's lead with black voters
Democrats seeking to cut into former Vice President Joe Biden's lead with black voters addressed the Poor People's Campaign in Washington on Monday, each making the case that they're best equipped to address racial economic inequality in the U.S.
Biden and eight other Democratic presidential candidates spoke at Trinity Washington University, a predominantly black school on the northeast side of the city, where they detailed how they'd address the "systemic racism" they said had led to unfair economic outcomes for racial minorities.
Over the past few days, the Democratic contenders have proposed a raft of new policy ideas, from expunging criminal records for marijuana arrests to setting up multibillion-dollar funds to support minority-run businesses.
The proposals are aimed at winning over black voters, a key Democratic constituency that will play a major role in determining the party's nominee, particularly in the early-voting state of South Carolina.
Biden kicked off the event by slamming President Trump, who he said had created an atmosphere in which different classes and races of people are seeking scapegoats for their own personal struggles.
"We have to stop letting these guys use the divisions that exist in the country, as charlatans always do, to divide the country," Biden said. "We have a guy in the White House who has turned that into an art form."
Polls show Biden, the Democratic front-runner who served as vice president under the first black president in history, with strong support among African Americans.
According to an Economist/YouGov poll released last week, 50 percent of black Democratic primary voters surveyed said they support Biden. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was a distant second place at 10 percent support, followed by Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), who is of Indian and Jamaican descent, at 7 percent support.
Biden's ability to hold on to the black vote will be a major test for his campaign, as a Park Strategies survey released Monday found that 77 percent of likely Democratic voters are "likely to change their minds."
On Monday, Biden said he'd eliminate loopholes for the wealthiest Americans and the GOP's tax cuts to pay for new programs for the poor. Biden also said he'd cut the military budget and pull the United States out of costly foreign conflicts to pay for new initiatives, such as "universal Medicaid," free community college and child tax credits.
"We have all the money we need to do it," Biden said.
Hundreds of activists from all 50 states gathered for the event inside the Trinity gymnasium, where they danced and sang spiritual hymns and advocated for "a national call for moral revival" with a focus on closing the wealth gap between white people and people of color.
The Poor People's Campaign is led by Rev. William Barber II, a black religious leader whose events have become a must-stop for the 2020 Democratic contenders.
Barber started the "Moral Mondays" movement in North Carolina, which is credited with helping to elect a Democratic governor and cutting into the GOP's majority in the state's General Assembly.
Monday's forum comes as the 2020 Democratic contenders increasingly hone their messages to appeal to black voters. All of the candidates present at Monday's forum promised to pressure the Democratic National Committee to hold a debate focused solely on poverty and systemic racism.
Sanders described gerrymandering as a GOP effort to "undermine democracy" that is "based on race."
And he hammered Republicans as "political cowards," saying they've engaged in voter suppression efforts to keep black people from the polls because "they know that if poor people and people of color and young people are allowed to vote they will lose in large numbers."
The Vermont senator has been criticized for saying that incarcerated individuals should be able to vote, but the crowd cheered as he doubled-down on that point on Monday.
"If you are a citizen of America, you have the right to vote, even if you are in jail," Sanders said.
Harris spoke about how poor minorities are more likely to plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit because they can't afford legal fees.
"This is an economic justice issue as much as it is a criminal justice issue, and it must be addressed quickly," Harris said.
Harris, the former attorney general for California, also said the U.S must eliminate the for-profit prison industry.
Over the weekend, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) received standing ovations at the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Forum in Charleston, S.C.
Warren has proposed a $7 billion fund to support minority-owned small businesses.
On Monday, Warren, who has been rising in Democratic primary polls, focused heavily on her proposed tax on the ultrawealthy, which she said would be used in part to pump $50 billion into funds supporting historically black colleges and universities.
The Massachusetts Democrat also cast climate change as an emergency that primarily impacts low-earning individuals.
"Environmental issues are poor people issues," Warren said.
"No one needs that more than people whose livelihoods are taken away, whose clean air is taken away, whose water is destroyed and undrinkable. We have to be in that fight."
Several 2020 contenders who did not make it to Monday's forum have sought to speak to African American voters at other venues recently.
Booker, who is African American, has proposed "baby bond" savings accounts worth $1,000 for every newborn child and a plan to make rent more affordable for low-income Americans through housing credits. At the Charleston forum, Booker spoke at length about his time as mayor of Newark, which is among the poorest cities in New Jersey.
Julián Castro, the Housing and Urban Development secretary under former President Obama, released a "People First Housing Plan" on Monday detailing his intentions to expand the housing choice voucher program and create a renter's tax credit for low- and middle-income Americans.
And South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was the only 2020 contender to join Barber and other local religious leaders last week on a march to the White House meant as a "prophetic indictment and a moral impeachment against the Trump administration."
Buttigieg is raising big money and posting impressive polling numbers but he appears to have hit a ceiling, as he has struggled to attract support from black voters.
Last week, Buttigieg released a "Douglass Plan for Black America," named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The proposal would reform credit scoring in an effort to increase access to credit for poor minorities and ban voter ID laws.
While the focus of Monday's forum was largely on the dynamics between racism and poverty, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang warned Democrats they still have their work cut out for them to reach the white voters in the Midwest and Rust Belt states that propelled Trump to a victory in the Electoral College in 2016.
"We need to make it so that 'Democrat' is not a dirty word in certain parts of the country," Yang said. "I've been shocked ... talking to a working-class people in Ohio or other parts of the country and when I say I'm a Democrat, you can feel the vitriol rising. And to me, as a Democrat, we're the party of the working class ... we need to make that case to the American people."
Updated at 7:43 p.m.