All wanted to talk about their plans, black wealth, and their mothers; none spent more time on Trump than necessary. 

2019 democratic presidential candidates photos kamala harris, cory booker, elizabeth warren
Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren

The African-American woman’s vote is so important to the success of any Democratic presidential nominee that seven candidates made appearances at the Morial Convention Center at the Essence Festival last weekend. Bill DiBlasio, Michael Bennett, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg all made their pitches to the crowd before being interviewed briefly by Rev. Al Sharpton, Essence publisher Michelle Ebanks, and Essence owner Richelieu Dennis. 

The new Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate gave Tyler Bridges’ coverage of the candidates’ appearances the headline, “Democratic Candidates rip Trump, lay out plans at Essence Festival,” which is not the story’s online hede, likely because it was misleading. Harris, Booker and Warren referred to President Trump as little as possible and instead focused concerns about health care, the economy, and the wealth gap that is entrenching more and more money in fewer and fewer hands—usually white, male ones. Still, Trump lurked in the backdrop of their presentations as the candidates spelled out visions of America and the lives led in it that were in contrast to the situation we’re in now.  

Kamala Harris

Not surprisingly, Kamala Harris framed her story specifically for the predominantly African-American and predominantly female Essence Festival audience. She talked about herself as a daughter whose mother motivated her. When she complained, her mother used to ask her, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” Her answer today: I’m going to run for President.” I can’t imagine that she hasn’t used that a lot on the stump, but it really worked for the family-centric convention center audience.

She talked about how the economy, health care, and the wealth gap are all “black people’s issues,” and about her plan to invest in the HBCUs so that they can develop STEM programming so that African Americans can participate in what she calls the new Industrial Revolution. She plans to improve access to capital and credit for black entrepreneurs, and wants to change the way credit scores are kept since the system as it is tracks not economy responsibility but the credit history of those who already have wealth and assets.

While Harris sees issues that particularly affect African Americans, she contends that dealing with them is good for everybody. “It doesn’t just lift up Black America; it lifts up all America.”

She only briefly dealt with Trump. In her speech, she raised his “Make America Great Again” slogan—“What does ‘again’ mean? Before the Civil Rights Act? Before the Voting Rights Act? We’re not going back.” Later, when asked by Rev. Al Sharpton about the prospect of running against Trump in the general election, she revived her “predator” riff, and banged on the way he has believed and buddied up with America’s enemies and people who don’t share America’s values, often in opposition to American intelligence.

Harris also addressed reproductive rights and encouraged local action. “We have to go on the offensive,” she said, and announced that her Department of Justice would review laws passed in states with a history of restricting reproductive rights and forcing them to pass constitutional muster before they could go into effect, in much the same way that the Voting Rights Act worked until the Supreme Court gutted it in 2013.

Cory Booker

Cory Booker wasn’t as impressive as Kamala Harris, who was onstage at the Essence Festival at the Convention Center an hour earlier. That had more to do with her strength and style than any weakness in his game, and it didn’t help that she hit many of the same points and tropes first. Like Harris, he talked about his mother, who “keeps me grounded,” he said. He started with a comedy riff on his mother loving Michelle Obama more than him, then recalled how during his days as Newark’s mayor, she introduced him to the city’s Civil Rights leaders and instilled in him the importance of knowing his history.

“The agenda of African-American women has to be at the center of the agenda for the Democratic Party,” he said, and, like Harris before him, talked about how they get paid 61 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. He also emphasized the importance of helping African Americans get access to capital. He linked health care and wealth when he talked about mothers having to decide whether a child is sick enough to merit taking time off from work and losing pay to deal with it.

Booker sounded the grimmest note we heard this weekend when he said, “If America hasn’t broken your heart, you don’t love her enough.”

He talked passionately about the importance of taking on gun violence and not just reproductive rights but mothers’ care—two things Harris missing from Harris’ speech earlier in the day. He also announced that if elected, he would set up an Office of Reproductive Freedom. He contends that the laws criminalizing abortion “are targeting and coming after black and low income women.”

Booker didn’t get the same love Harris did, in part because he didn’t have enough to distinguish himself from her—how the candidates separate themselves in this field is one of the challenges—and because he was lighter on policy. He let his intensity do much of the work, but since Harris is intense as well, that wasn’t a separating factor. To be fair, he also shouted into a microphone, which is one of my pet peeves. That created a kind of high energy monotone that didn’t wear well.

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren has seemed professorial on television, perhaps because of her background as a teacher. In person at the Essence Festival, she was anything but. She told her story with feisty energy a self-deprecating sense of humor while clearly valuing herself and her ideas. “I have a plan for that” become a running joke for her speech and a core truth for her campaign.

“We must win, but winning is not enough,” she said. “When we win, we must make real change in this country. And yeah—I’ve got a plan for that.”

Like Harris and Booker before her, Warren knew her audience and started by talking about her mother. “My mother called me ‘The Surprise,’” she said, referring to her place in a long line of children in the family, but rather than belabor family relations, she moved to what is likely the standard opening of her stump speech—the narrative of how she got from a girl who wanted to be a teacher to presidential campaign. The story of trying to raise a family, go to school, and work connected Warren to the issues we face as a country as health care, the job market, and the economy all impacted her life in the ways that they impacted the lives of many in the audience.

“I could do hard,” she said. “I couldn’t do child care.”

Warren’s speech was probably the one least tailored to the Essence audience, but one of her many plans if elected president is to use an executive order to force government contractors to reflect the country’s diversity in hiring, and to make sure than men and women are paid equally. Like Harris and Booker before her, Warren talked about the damaging impact of red-lining on African-American home ownership and how that made it harder for African Americans to accumulate wealth. 

Essence publisher Michelle Ebanks asked Warren how she could be sure that the proposed wealth tax she planned to levy to help pay for some of her plans would pass. Since her proposed tax would only apply to the top one-tenth of one percent, Warren was certain that it would have bipartisan support, particularly when linked to what it would pay for. Ebanks didn’t look convinced.

Warren appeared to be enjoying the moment, which translated to a very different energy and confidence onstage. Harris presented the strength to face any challenge head-on, whereas Warren looked like she knew political jiu-jitsu.


These pieces first appeared on my Facebook page.