Elizabeth Frantz / The New York Times
Tuesday, April 23, 2019 | 12:05 a.m.
Sen. Bernie Sanders backed voting rights for “terrible people” now in jail, including the Boston Marathon bomber and those convicted of sexual assault, saying that “the right to vote is inherent to our democracy.”
Mayor Pete Buttigieg disagreed, firmly saying “no” about whether he concurred with Sanders. “Part of the punishment when you were convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights, you lose your freedom,” said Buttigieg, who supported restoring voting rights after people serve their sentences.
Sen. Kamala Harris was more tentative on voting rights for people currently in prison or on death row, saying, “I think we should have that conversation.” She also backed giving the vote to the formerly incarcerated.
Their remarks Monday night came in response to questions at a marathon series of Democratic presidential town halls on CNN before an audience of college students in New Hampshire. While five candidates in all faced dozens of questions, Sanders’ answer to the voting rights question yielded the biggest news of the night and drew attacks from the Republican National Committee and others on the right.
The question of impeaching President Donald Trump also came up repeatedly, and the answers underscored how Democratic candidates are gaming out their responses to the special counsel’s report.
Warren gave the sharpest response in favor of impeaching Trump, and Harris was blunter on the issue than she had been in previous comments. “I believe Congress should take the steps toward impeachment,” she said.
By contrast, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sanders and Buttigieg avoided taking aggressive stands on impeachment.
“If the House brings the impeachment proceedings before us, we will deal with them,” Klobuchar said. She added later: “What I will say is there are very disturbing things that would lead you to believe there’s obstruction of justice.”
Warren, speaking after Klobuchar, insisted that Democrats could not ignore evidence that Trump tried to halt or derail the special counsel’s investigation.
“There is no political inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution,” Warren said, referring to the concern among many Democratic leaders that trying to impeach Trump would only fail the Republican-led Senate and strengthen the president.
Sanders said, “There has got to be a thorough investigation” by House Democrats of Trump, and added that he wished that Republican senators had “the guts” to take action against the president.
“We’ll see where it goes,” he said.
Buttigieg said he believed the president had “made pretty clear he deserves impeachment,” but added, “I’m going to leave it to the House and Senate to figure that out.”
The town hall-style forums at Saint Anselm College were a chance for college students to question Democratic candidates. (Warren and Klobuchar did not weigh in on voting rights because they spoke before Sanders.) Here are some of the highlights for each candidate.
Sanders backs voting rights for Boston bomber and rapists
Sanders said he believed that people in jail, even “terrible people” like the Boston Marathon bomber and sex assault offenders, should have the right to vote, a view that is likely to draw rebukes from both Republicans and some Democrats alike.
“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy. Yes, even for terrible people,” he said. “Because once you start chipping away, and you say, ‘Well that guy committed a terrible crime, not going to let him vote. Well that person did that, not going to let that person vote,’ you’re running down a slippery slope.”
“I believe that people commit crimes, they pay the price,” he added. “When they get out of jail, I believe they certainly should have a right to vote. But I do believe that even if they are in jail they are paying their price to society but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”
Sanders stood by his answer even after Chris Cuomo, the CNN host and moderator, gave him a chance to walk it back. He said he knew he would get hit with attack ads over it.
“I think I have written many 30-second opposition ads throughout my life,” Sanders said. “This will be just another one.”
Asked how he would reconcile his notion of democratic socialism with the failures of socialism in countries like the Soviet Union, Sanders was indignant.
“Is it your assumption that I supported or believe in authoritarian communism that existed in the Soviet Union?” he asked. “I don’t and never have and I opposed it. I believe in a vigorous democracy.”
He added: “What do I mean when I talk about democratic socialism? It certainly is not the authoritarian communism that existed in the Soviet Union and in other communist countries.”
It is among the questions that many voters across the country have about Sanders’ ideology, and one that Sanders advisers know he will have to answer if he hopes to win the Democratic nomination.
Harris sees ‘a lot of good evidence’ on obstruction
Harris took a new step on impeachment Monday night, joining other Democrats in supporting efforts to start that process against Trump.
“It is very clear there is a lot of good evidence pointing to obstruction,” said Harris, a former prosecutor and California attorney general, before calling on Congress to take steps toward impeachment.
She had previously said that the behavior of Trump’s administration was troubling but had stopped short of calling for the president’s ouster.
Harris has also emphasized that she wanted Mueller to testify on Capitol Hill, saying “Congress needs to see the full, unredacted Mueller report and all of the investigation’s underlying evidence.”
Harris, who is a member of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, became a political star for her pointed questioning of other key members of Trump’s orbit, including former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
On gun control, Harris announced that, as president, she would sign an executive order mandating background checks for customers of any firearms dealer who sells more than five guns a year. She would also include new regulation of gun manufacturers that could result in revoked licenses or prosecution.
Klobuchar touts ‘purple state’ success and asks for a cheer
Klobuchar also highlighted her political successes in Minnesota, citing her electoral record there as proof that she can win back votes in heartland states that helped deliver Trump the presidency.
“I am someone that runs in a purple state,” she said.
“Every single time I have run,” she added, “I have won every single congressional district in my state, including Michele Bachmann’s.”
When the audience remained silent, she said, “That’s when you guys are supposed to cheer, OK?” Some students laughed and cheered while others appeared unmoved.
Klobuchar also answered questions on race relations, education, climate change, health care and the cost of higher education during the town hall.
“I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs,” she said in response to a question about why she does not support tuition-free or debt-free college policies. (Warren on Monday proposed a $1.25 trillion plan to eliminate undergraduate tuition at public colleges and cancel loan debt for many students.)
Warren takes a knee
Warren has a well-earned reputation as a policy wonk, but on Monday night she talked about the sexism she has faced in politics, drawing in audience members with a personal anecdote that had nothing to do with her plans for government.
Asked by a student about sexist criticism of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and what lessons she learned from it, Warren noted that sexism in politics did not start two years ago, but rather has faced women in politics for decades. Then she recounted her 2012 Senate race against Scott Brown, then the Republican senator in Massachusetts, during which Warren’s personal appearance and likability were scrutinized in news coverage and among some voters.
In response, Warren said she made it a priority to connect with young women on the trail.
“I’m going to be in this race, and I’m going to make something count every day,” Warren recalled thinking.
Then she got down on one knee to demonstrate how she talked to young girls on a regular basis: “I’d usually get down, I’m a teacher, and I would say, ‘Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I’m running for Senate because that’s what girls do.’” Warren also said she asked them to pinkie promise to run for Senate one day.
The crowd cheered as Warren got up, and she concluded by saying, “That’s how I’m going to become the first woman elected president.”
Buttigieg talks about race and South Bend
Buttigieg acknowledged that he had not been sufficiently sensitive to the concerns of people of color early in his mayoral term, including in his 2012 decision to fire South Bend’s first black police chief, Darryl Boykins.
A student asked Buttigieg about Boykins’ dismissal, which came amid an investigation into allegations that Boykins had improperly recorded the telephone calls of several officers. One police employee alleged that the recordings captured officers using racist language and discussing potentially illegal behavior.
Asked what the tapes contained, Buttigieg replied, “I don’t know,” and explained that a state judge was still deciding whether they could be disclosed. He said he dismissed Boykins in part because the chief had not informed Buttigieg promptly that he was facing an investigation.
But Buttigieg conceded he had been “slow to understand how much anguish” was involved in African-Americans’ reaction to Boykins’ ouster. “It was about whether communities of color trust that police departments have their best interests at heart,” Buttigieg said.
Prodded about the dismal representation of black officers on the city force, Buttigieg listed other steps the city had taken to improve race relations, including bias training for public employees.
On a separate subject, Buttigieg stressed his more moderate instincts on the subject of college affordability. Invoking the “six-figure student debt” shared by himself and his husband, Chasten, Buttigieg said he found Warren’s plan to forgive student debt “pretty appealing,” but questioned whether it should help relatively affluent people.
For people making more than $200,000, he said, “Maybe you’re at the point where we could ask you to take care of that.”
Near the end of the five-hour marathon, Buttigieg was asked to respond to Richard Grenell, the United States ambassador to Germany, who has sharply criticized Buttigieg for questioning the moral authority of evangelicals like Vice President Mike Pence. Both Buttigieg, a devoted Episcopalian and Grenell are gay.
“I’m not a master fisherman, but I know bait when I see it, and I’m not going to take it,” Buttigieg said, drawing extended applause from the audience.