Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum

People attending the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum were seen taking notes and listening intently to the four Democratic presidential candidates that participated Saturday, June 15, 2019. Brad Nettles/Staff

Four of the Democratic presidential candidates were in Charleston on Saturday outlining their plans — in 15 minutes or less — for improving the livelihood of African Americans.

The two-hour event was the first large televised gathering to date of the Democratic primary candidates in South Carolina, for a  forum hosted by the Black Economic Alliance, a nonpartisan group of black business leaders. About 800 people attended. 

"This forum is a love letter to the black community," said Akunna Cook, executive director of the group. "A declaration that our concerns matter, that our voices matter and that our votes matter and — without a doubt — that our lives matter." 

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke and U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren attended Saturday's forum.

The candidates appeared individually on the stage at the Charleston Music Hall for 15 minutes a piece, during which they answered questions from journalist Soledad O'Brien.

No candidate had any major gaffe.

The Black Economic Alliance also sent invitations to three other contenders: U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and former Vice President Joe Biden. Their campaigns sent in short video clips.

The taped two-hour event will air 10 a.m. Sunday exclusively on BET Networks.

Here's what the four had to say about their plans to build work, wages and wealth in black America:

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas

Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke answers a question during the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum held Saturday, June 15, 2019, at the Charleston Music Hall. Brad Nettles/Staff

The big thing: O'Rourke cited his Friday meeting with Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah-Geechee Nation, and a vow to "tell the full American story" about slavery. He pledged to support Majority Whip Jim Clyburn's "10-20-30" plan, which requires 10 percent of funding for certain federal programs go to communities where 20 percent or more of its residents have lived below the poverty level for 30 years or more.  

Plan to address white-black wealth gap: O'Rourke broadly called for the end of discrimination. He pledged to sign the Paycheck Fairness Act into law if elected. The legislation aims to close the gap between what men and women make for doing the same job. 

Biggest applause: Calling for expunging arrest records for those with marijuana convictions.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren responds to a question during the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum held Saturday, June 15, 2019, at the Charleston Music Hall. Brad Nettles/Staff

The big thing: Warren was the only candidate to receive a standing ovation and the only candidate who used some of her stage time to joke and talk directly to the audience. Warren and O'Brien joked about the realities of being a woman in the public eye. "I once had someone say to me, they couldn't understand something I was saying on television because my bangs got in the way," O'Brien said, eliciting laughter. "So your bangs got in their ears," Warren replied, before delivering the biggest one-liner of the afternoon: "You know what I've noticed in Washington? It seems that money gets in people's ears."

Plan to address white-black wealth gap: Warren discussed her recent proposal for a $7 billion fund, which would be run by her new Department of Economic Development, to support 100,000 minority-owned businesses. The fund would be administered by black or other minority entrepreneurs and by women. She said it comes down to access to capital. "The people who have capital, and who make the decisions about if your business is going to get the startup money and your business is not, tend to give to people who look like themselves," she said.

Biggest applause: When she said 2020 is about changing government into an economy that works for everyone, not just those born into privilege.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg

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Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum

South Bend, Indiana mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg responds to a question during the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum held Saturday, June 15, 2019, at the Charleston Music Hall. Brad Nettles/Staff

The big thing: Buttigieg has said he has more work to do in making inroads with the African American community. The forum may help him move the needle after rolling out a plan this week specifically meant to help African Americans and naming it the "Douglass Plan" in honor of abolitionist Fredrick Douglass. 

Plan to address white-black wealth gap:  Buttigieg said the percentage of government contracts going to minority-run businesses should be increased. He envisions a "carrot and stick" relationship between the states and the federal government where the federal government leads by example but also rewards states "for doing the right thing." 

Biggest applause: Buttigieg took aim at the Trump administration by saying the president is not wielding influence in the correct way. He cited an interaction the city of South bend had with the Department of Justice. Buttigieg said he received a letter from the DOJ threatening to take away grant funding for the South Bend police department unless they got involved in immigration. "We told them what they could do with that letter," Buttiegieg said, to cheers.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ

Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker responds to a question during the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Candidates Forum held Saturday, June 15, 2019, at the Charleston Music Hall. Brad Nettles/Staff

The big thing: As the only African-American to participate in the forum, Booker personalized his appeal to voters in a way that his white counterparts could not. "I am the only person in the United States who lives in a black and brown inner city community below the poverty line," Booker said. "My whole professional life has been dealing with these issues and you can't separate them out."

Plan to address white-black wealth gap: Booker said his strategy as president will be a "full-court press" when it comes to  housing, education, access to capital and health care. Booker cited his "baby bonds" plan to close the racial wealth gap. Under the plan, the federal government would give newborn babies in the United States a savings accounts, starting with $1,000. Over time, he said the account would grow, depending on the income of the child's family. By the time the child turns 18, the account could grow to as large as $50,000, which Booker said could be used toward things like buying a home, "things that we know create generational wealth," he said.

Biggest applause: When Booker said action is needed immediately ensuring that people who work full-time make a living wage.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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