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Oaklanders root for Warren and Harris at Democratic debate watch party

on October 17, 2019

On Tuesday night, about 40 people gathered at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle in downtown Oakland to watch the Democratic presidential debate. The debate started at 5 pm, so most people came in business attire, which underscored the formality of the white tablecloths and stately white columns in the room. Attendees sat in rows facing a large projection screen, balancing on laps and tables their glasses of wine and paper plates limp from generous portions of fish, chicken, mac and cheese, beans and greens.

The debate, which aired on CNN and took place in Ohio, was the fourth for the contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. That night, 12 participants squared off over healthcare, gun control, foreign policy and the characteristics—including age—a president should have. To qualify for the debate, contenders had to reach at least 2 percent in polls and raise money from 130,000 unique donors. Some of the 12 candidates who participated included former Vice President Joe Biden, California Senator Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) organized the event, along with other groups like Women’s March, the Oakland branch of the NAACP and the Alameda County Democratic Lawyers Club. BWOPA is a nonprofit that encourages African American women to participate in politics.

George Holland, president of the Oakland NAACP branch, said this was the first time his organization co-sponsored a watch party with BWOPA. “We want to make sure that our community is totally informed,” he said, so that “we have something to do with the choice that’s made.”

Holland said he views voting as a right that must be exercised. “We can’t complain if we don’t vote, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

As the debate began, long stretches of silence during which people dutifully stared at the screen were broken up by knowing glances at friends, somber nods and occasional eruptions of laughter. One uproarious moment for the crowd came when Biden responded to a question about his son’s business dealings in Ukraine. He said President Donald Trump knows “if I get the nomination, I will beat him like a drum.” Another moment that produced chuckles was when, on the subject of Medicare for All, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders started a comment off with his well-known refrain “Well, as somebody who wrote the damn bill…”

But, while attendees became animated during Biden and Sander’s comments, most of them were interested in the women running for the Democratic nomination: Senators Warren and Harris. As was frequently mentioned that night, Harris is a Bay Area native who was born in Oakland and served as California’s Attorney General before she was elected to the Senate in 2016.

“A lot of people will be proud to see her on the debate stage no matter what happens, which is awesome,” said Maddie Franklin, deputy state director for Harris’ campaign for president. The campaign opened an office for Harris last month on Grand Avenue in Oakland. Franklin said the staff know it as Hometown HQ “because this is her hometown.”

Lucinda Thomas, a teacher who came to the watch party as a member of the Oakland Education Association, said she was particularly interested in what Warren and “homegirl” Harris would have to say about funding for public schools, the expansion of charter schools and student loans. In Oakland, Thomas said, teachers need better salaries. “A lot of them can’t afford to live in Oakland. Or, if they live in Oakland, they live with three or four people and can’t afford their own place,” she said.

Many people in the crowd said they came to the watch party to experience a sense of community and exchange ideas about which country the direction needs to go. Cynthia Dorsey, a member of both BWOPA and the NAACP, said she invited a few people to the watch party because it gives “you an opportunity to network with people and hear what they have to say—and the bigger screen always lets you have a better experience.” 

Kari Bible, who came with a friend involved with the Women’s March, said that the event made her feel like there’s still a sense of community in Oakland because “these days town halls don’t exist anymore. Town halls are on Facebook.”  

For Uche Uwahemu, the senior field representative for California Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-15), people sitting together and debating who to vote for encapsulated “the beauty of democracy.” In other countries, he said, “you can’t even do this. People get killed.”

But Clifton Cooper, vice president of the NAACP’s Oakland branch, cautioned that while engaging in politics and voting are essential, they don’t do away with corruption, and people must work to overcome the defects of democracy. Fundamentally, Cooper said, “the Electoral College should be looked at as being outdated” because “the majority vote should rule.”

By the end of the debate, the mood in the room was friendly, as people agreed that overall it had been a good discussion and a delicious dinner. But few minds had been changed: Most people said they still preferred Harris or Warren as candidates.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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