By Mrinal Gokhale
“You want our vote? Come get our vote! You want our vote? Come get our vote!” was shouted by a group of activists protesting at the 2016 Democratic Presidential Debate on February 11, featuring Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders.
Hundreds of reporters combined filled the spin room at the UW-Milwaukee and the UW-Milwaukee Helene Zelazo Center down the street. Large groups of people were holding signs advocating for Black Lives Matter, $15 per hour minimum wage and more near the Zelazo Center, spin room and UWM Union first floor. Kenwood Boulevard was completely closed off to traffic from afternoon to night and the UWM Union parking lot was closed at 11 am.
Every seat was filled in the Zelazo Center at the sold out show, as Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill of PBS NewsHour moderated the debate.
The candidates were asked questions regarding how they would address poverty, gun control, college tuition, healthcare and other controversial issues, if they became president. The actual debate ironically didn’t cause as much commotion because Sanders and Clinton rarely disagreed on issues. Moderators later started reading questions from their Facebook partners, a curated group of people who are undecided on who to vote for. The first question was regarding Wisconsin’s high African American incarceration rate, and how it can be addressed. Sanders answered first.
“Today, a male African American baby has a one-in-four chance of going to jail and it’s unacceptable,” he said.
“We need to put an end to over policing and reform police departments,” he said.
Clinton said she agreed with Sanders but had a little more to say. She discussed the late Dontre Hamilton from Milwaukee, a young African American male who was shot by a police officer last year, describing the incident as “tragic.”
“Wisconsin’s statistics are troubling because it has the highest African American incarceration rate in the nation, which is twice the national average,” she began.
“We know of the tragic, terrible event that lead to the death of Dontre Hamilton right here in Milwaukee, a young man unarmed, who should still be with us,” she said.
She also mentioned other racial discrepancies between whites and blacks in Wisconsin for education, employment and factors where young men are pushed out of school and denied employment.
“When we talk about criminal justice reform, and ending the era of mass incarceration, we also have to talk about jobs, education, housing, and other ways of helping communities,” she said.
Audience members clapped loudly.
“I don’t disagree with anything Secretary Clinton said,” said Sanders.
“Here’s my promise, at the end of my first term as president we will not have more people in jail than any other country. We will invest in education, and jobs for our kids, not incarceration and more jails.” Another controversial question came from a middle aged woman from Milwaukee, regarding food assistance.
“Our next Facebook question is from Farheen Hakeem,” said Ifill. “She writes, ‘My father gets only $16 in food assistance. How will you ensure low income seniors get the help they deserve?’”
Sanders said, “Here’s an area where Secretary Clinton and I believe we have a difference. I have long supported the proposition that we should lift the cap on taxable income coming into the Social Security Trust Fund, starting at $250,000.”
At the end of the debate, many politicians came to the spin room; neither Sanders nor Clinton came. Mayor Tom Barrett was asked how he felt about Wisconsin’s racial discrepancies being discussed in the debate. And he said that it is okay.
“It’s good that we’re addressing Wisconsin’s issues at the debate. Both candidates are genuine and smart and trying to discuss solutions to these issues,” he said.
Barrett admires how Sanders and Clinton rarely disagreed, and made sure to disagree civilly the few times they felt differently.
“The Republican presidential debate was a circus,” he said, referring to Milwaukee’s Republican debate a few months ago. Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz feels similarly.
“When you listen to the Republican debate, you listen to jokers who think a debate means they should throw as many personal character assaults against one another,” she said. She feels Sanders and Clinton did a better job articulating their views, compared to Republican candidates.
“They differ on some issues, but both discussed the importance of building the progress we made on things like e national security, healthcare and education. The Republicans spent more time attacking each other.”
Mayor Barrett feels positively about both Sanders and Clinton, but thinks Clinton was the winner. “I thought Hillary was very strong in foreign affairs and her finish was extremely strong. Sanders has a lot of passion and it comes through. But at the end of the day, she has showed the depth people appreciate,” said.