Transcript of the Third Democratic Primary Presidential Debate

Jun 28, 2007

June 28, 2007

The following is a transcript of the Democratic primary presidential debate on PBS. The participants were Senator Joseph Biden, Jr. (D-Del.); Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.); Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.); Former Senator John Edwards (D-S.C.); Former Senator Mike Gravel (D-Ak); Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio); Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.); and Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.). The moderator was Tavis Smiley, host of “Tavis Smiley” on PBS. The panelists were Michel Martin, journalist and NPR host; Ruben Navarrette, Jr., nationally syndicated columnist; Dewayne Wickham, USA Today and Gannett News Service columnist. The debate took place at Howard University on Thursday, June 28, 2007. Transcribed by the Federal News Service, a private transcription agency.

MR. SMILEY: To ask the first question tonight, I’m pleased to be joined by Crecilla Cohen Scott from Bowie, Maryland. She is a winner of our online contest in which we asked the listeners of the Tom Joyner Morning Show to submit questions to the website, This question will go first to Senator Clinton, and we’ll work our way, of course, down the line. Please welcome, from Bowie, Maryland, Crecilla Cohen Scott for tonight’s first question. CRECILLA COHEN SCOTT (Bowie, MD): (Applause.) Good evening, candidates. In 1903, the noted intellectual W.E.B. DeBoise said the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. Is race still the most intractable issue in America, and especially, I might add, in light of today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision which struck down the use of race as a factor in K through 12?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, thank you for that question. And it is abundantly clear, especially today, that race and racism are defining challenges not only in the United States but around the world. You know, we have made progress. You can look at this stage and see an African American, a Latino, a woman contesting for the presidency of the United States. But there is so much left to be done. And for anyone to assert that race is not a problem in America is to deny the reality in front of our very eyes. (Applause.)

You can look at the thousands of African-Americans left behind by their government with Katrina. You can look at the opportunity gap, the Cradle to Prison Superhighway that The Covenant talks about, and you can look at this decision today, which turned the clock back on the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, that was resting on the fact that children are better off if they are a part of a diverse, integrated society.

So, yes, we have come a long way, but, yes, we have a long way to go. The march is not finished, and I hope that all of us, the Democratic candidates, will demonstrate clearly that the work is yet to be done. And we call on everyone to be foot soldiers in that revolution to finish the job. (Cheers, applause.)

SEN. BIDEN: The answer to your question: It is still the defining issue. And the decision today — look at the minority views. The minority stated, had the rationale that was applied by the majority been applied the last 50 years, we would have never, never overcome the state’s effort to ignore Brown versus the Board.

But we can do something about it, and the place to start is through the next president of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. As some of you know, some of the people out on this stage and the press criticized me for being awful tough on Justice Roberts and awful tough on Alito; the problem was the rest of us weren’t tough enough on them. (Applause.) They have turned the court upside down, and the next president of the United States will be able to determine whether or not we go forward or continue this slide. It’s the single most imperative generational decision the next president will make, and you better pick the right person to make it. (Applause.)

GOV. RICHARDSON: Leading on the issues of race is about being authentic, about speaking honestly. Race is a major issue in this country, and the next president has to talk about it. Race is not just passing new laws. Race is not just naming solid Supreme Court justices. Race is also dealing with bigotry and racism that exists in this country.

And I believe very strongly that the next president is not just going to have to pass laws and take the steps necessary to reaffirm affirmative action and take steps to make sure that our schools are integrated, but also the next president is going have to lead and speak passionately about a dialogue among all people.

And I believe very strongly that issues of diversity, for me, the first Latino to run for president, aren’t talking points; they’re facts of life. (Applause.)

MR. EDWARDS: Well, let me say first, thank you to the Howard Bison for hosting us here tonight. We’re very proud to be here. This is one of the great HBCUs in America, which all of us should be proud of. I’m proud of some that we have in my home state of North Carolina.

And I also want to thank you for hosting this debate where finally we can talk about inequality in America, which is at the heart and soul of why I’m running for president of the United States. The truth is that slavery followed by segregation followed by discrimination has had an impact that still is alive and well in America, and it goes through every single part of American life. We still have two public school systems in America. These two Americas that I’ve talked about in the past — man, they are out there thriving every single day. We have two public school systems in America — one for the wealthy, one for everybody else.

We have two health care systems in America, and we know that race plays an enormous role in the problems that African Americans face and the problems that African Americans face with health care every single day. There are huge health care disparities, which is why we need universal health care in this country. But we have work to do. All of us have work to do. And by the way, also making sure that every single American, including people of color, are allowed to vote and that their vote is counted in the election — (applause) — and that we know that their voice is heard in the election. But we have, all of us — all of us have a responsibility to build one America that works for everybody, across all racial barriers that still exist in this country. (Applause.)

SEN. OBAMA: First of all, thank you for the question. Tavis, thank you for helping to organize this. All the contributors of the covenant, thank you. And thank you to Howard and Dr. Swygert and all of you who have made me what I am. You know, this is where Thurgood Marshall and the team from Brown crafted their strategy. And if it hadn’t been for them, I would not be standing here today. (Applause.)

And it was their fundamental recognition that for us to achieve racial equality was not simply good for African-Americans, but it was good for America as a whole; that we could not be what we might be as a nation unless we healed the brutal wounds of slavery and Jim Crow. Now, we have made enormous progress, but the progress we have made is not good enough. As many have already mentioned, we live in a society that remains separated in terms of life opportunities for African-Americans, for Latinos, and the rest of the nation. And it is absolutely critical for us to recognize that there are going to be responsibilities on the part of African-Americans and other groups to take personal responsibility to rise up out of the problems that we face.

But there has also got to be a social responsibility, there has to be a sense of mutual responsibility, and there’s got to be political will in the White House to make that happen. (Applause.) That’s what I’m committed to doing. That’s the reason I’m running for president. (Cheers, applause.)

REP. KUCINICH: I want to share the remarks of Barack Obama, because the fact of the matter is that racial inequality is real, that it affects every area of our lives, as the Covenant pointed out. Now, it’s interesting the philosophy that’s guiding leaders at every branch of — in the executive and the judicial branch of government, because they go out and tell people, “Pull yourselves up by the — by your bootstraps,” and then they steal their boots. (Laughter.)

We need to have a policy in education which first of all is guided by certain fundamental rights. Jesse Jackson, Jr., has a bill that makes having an equal opportunity for education a matter of a constitutional privilege. And with this Supreme Court ruling, it is imperative that we have a constitutional amendment guaranteeing educational opportunity equality. (Applause.)

Next, in the meantime, universal free kindergarten. Every child age 3, 4 and 5 should have access to full, quality daycare. Eliminate those disparities that we see early on in school. Eliminate No Child Left Behind, which is aimed at testing instead of improving children’s educational opportunity through language, music and the arts. (Applause.) And finally, we need to take the resources away from war and military buildups and assure that every child should have a chance for a quality college education as well.

Thank you. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. GRAVEL: First off, let me thank the organizers. This is the fairest debate or forum that we’ve had thus far this year.

Let me add that racism was here with us at the beginning of this country. It was here in the last century, and it’s going to be with us in the 21st century. And one of the areas that touches me the most and enrages me the most is our war on drugs that this country has been putting forth for the last generation.

In 1972, we had 179,000 human beings in jail in this country; today, it’s 2.3 million, and 70 percent are black, African-Americans. (Light applause.) And I hope my colleagues will join me in standing up and saying, like FDR did with Prohibition, “We’ll do away with that.” And FDR did it. And if I’m president, I will do away with the war on drugs, which does nothing but savage our inner cities and put our children at risk. (Applause.)

There’s no reason for this. There’s not an American that doesn’t understand the culture and the understanding that Prohibition was a failure, and so we repeat it again like we repeated Iraq after we had the failure of Vietnam. When will we learn? When we learn that the issue of drugs is a public health issue. Addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal issue where we throw people in jail and criminalize them to no advancement to the people — (applause) — and if there’s one group of people in this country that needs to face up to that problem, and we have to face up to it, and that is the African American community.


MR. DODD: Well, let me add — let me add my voice in thanking Howard University for hosting this this evening and Tavis, thank you as well.

It’s an appropriate first question that was asked here. And to bring up the issue of education, of discrimination, at this wonderful institution is critically important. The shame of all of this is that long before the decision was reached today or yesterday in the Seattle cases, the shame of resegregation has been occurring for years in our country here. The reality that our public educational system is today a segregated system and that we have not taken enough leadership over the years to understand the great damage that has done to our country.

This evening there’ll be many subjects that’ll be raised, and important ones. None is more important, in my view, than the issue of education. Whether or not from the earliest education opportunity to the highest level of education opportunity, this is the key to equal access to our society. It is something that can never be taken away from you if you get it. To say today that you’re going to exclude race as a means of allowing for the diversity in our communities is a major step backwards. And as president of the United States, I would use whatever tool is available to me to see to it that we reverse this decision today, get back on the track to see to it that our country once again will identify with the identity of unity as a nation, blind, if you will, to the racial distinctions in our society. That’s the only way we’re going to deal with the new frontiers of the 21st century. The barrios, the ghettos, and the reservations of our society. That’s what I stand for, that’s what we’ll achieve as a Democratic administration.


MR. SMILEY: I want to thank Crecilla Owen Scott for her question. Crecilla, thank you very much. (Applause.)

MS. SCOTT: (Off mike) — thank you —

MR. SMILEY: Please thank Crecilla for her question. (Applause.) It just — it just seemed to make sense to us to start this conversation with a question from an everyday person in America.

Now I want to turn over this conversation to a terrific panel of journalists I’ve asked me to — join me in handling questions this evening. Although I may use moderator discretion if necessary — (mild laughter) — from time to time to remind you of that clock out there. So that you can know that we’re keeping answers, by the way, to one minute per person.

First up, DeWayne Wickham, syndicated columnist for USA Today and the Gannett News Service. (Applause.) Next, Michel Martin, former “Nightline” correspondent and now host of her own NPR show called “Tell Me More.” (Applause.) And Ruben Navarette, Jr., nationally syndicated columnist and member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. (Applause.) DeWayne Wickham’s question will be answered first by Senator Joe Biden. MR. WICKHAM: Thank you, Tavis. This question is about the link between education and poverty. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2006 the unemployment rate of black high school graduates — black high school graduates — was 33 percent higher than the unemployment rate for white high school dropouts. To what do you attribute this inequity, which keeps many black families locked in the grip of poverty?

SEN. BIDEN: You know, DeWayne, one of the things that we all talk about is this achievement gap. We should remind everybody that the day before a black child, a minority child, steps into the classroom, half the achievement gap already exists. That is, they already start behind. So the moment they walk into that school, they are already behind.

And that gap widens. And it widens because we do not start school earlier. We do not give single mothers in disadvantaged homes the opportunities that they need in order to know what to do to prepare their children. A mother who talks to her child on a regular basis from infancy to being a toddler, that child when it’s two years old will have a vocabulary 300 words more than a child not talked to.

So it’s simple. You’ve got to start off and focus on the nurturing and education of children when they’re very young, particularly children from disadvantaged families. You’ve got to invest in starting kids in preschool at age four. They have a 20 percent better chance of graduating when they’re there. And you’ve got to make sure, as you go through the system, you have smaller classrooms, better teachers in the disadvantaged schools.

MR. SMILEY: Senator Biden.

SEN. BIDEN: It’s a — time’s up. Thank you.

MR. SMILEY: Sorry about that. (Applause.) Thank you very much, sir.

Governor. GOV. RICHARDSON: You know, sometimes when I talk about education, and this is the first time we have talked about it in any debate, the first thing you hear is, how are you going to pay for it? Nobody asks how we’re going to pay for the war. (Applause.) But it’s important to state that improving our schools, improving education, access to education to all Americans, should be America’s foremost priority. You know, I want to just state that for the record, I am for a minimum wage for teachers. The key to a good education is to pay our teachers and have accountability. (Applause.)

And we have to have also — we have to make sure that we deal with this achievement gap. One out of two minorities in this country, one out of two African-American, Latino kids don’t make it through high school. They drop out. That has to be combatted with at-risk programs, with programs that deal with more parental involvement. We have to start early, universal preschool. We did this in New Mexico. We did this. Kids under 4 — full-day kindergarten.

MR. SMILEY: Governor —

GOV. RICHARDSON: We have to have healthy breakfast for every child.

And finally, we have to find a way to give every American access to a college education.

GOV. RICHARDSON: Thank you, sir. (Applause.)

Senator Edwards.

MR. EDWARDS: Let me say, first, DeWayne, this issue of poverty in America is the cause of my life. It’s the reason I started a poverty center at the University of North Carolina. It’s the reason I’ve been working so hard on this issue.

And I think the starting place is to understand that there is no one single cause of poverty. You know, when you have young African- American men who are completely convinced that they’re either going to die or go to prison, and see absolutely no hope in their lives; when they live in an environment where the people around them don’t earn a decent wage; when they go to schools that are second-class schools compared to the schools in wealthy suburban areas, they don’t see anything getting better, there are lots of things that we need to do.

I actually agree with what Senator Biden said about early childhood, but I think we should start much earlier than 4 years of age, which is what the focus has been.

I think it’s also true that we need to pay teachers better. I think we ought to actually provide incentive pay to get our best teachers in the inner-city schools and into poor rural areas where they’re needed the most. But it goes beyond that. We also have to make work pay for young men who are graduating from high school, the very group that you’re describing, which means we’re going to have to do a whole group of things. We need to significantly raise the minimum wage. We need to strengthen the right to organize. And we need to help low-income families save —

MR. SMILEY: Senator Edwards.

MR. EDWARDS: — so they’re not prey to predatory lenders that are taking advantage of them today. (Applause.)

MR. SMILEY: Thank you, Senator.

Senator Obama?

SEN. OBAMA: A number of the things that we’ve got to do have already been mentioned. Early childhood education. And John’s exactly right, it starts from birth. And where we can get parenting counselors to go in and work with at-risk parents, it makes an enormous difference.

We’ve got to make sure that teachers are going to the schools that need them the most. We’re going to lose a million teachers over the next decade because the baby-boom generation is retiring. And so it’s absolutely critical for us to give them the incentives and the tools and the training that they need not only to become excellent teachers but to become excellent teachers where they’re most needed.

We’re going to have to put more money into after-school programs and provide the resources that are necessary. When you’ve got a bill called No Child Left Behind, you can’t leave the money behind for No Child Left Behind. And unfortunately, that’s what’s been done. (Applause.)

But the most important thing is that we recognize these children as our children. The reason that we have consistently had underperformance among these children, our children, is because too many of us think it is acceptable for them not to achieve. And we have to have a mindset where we say to ourselves, every single child can learn if they’re given the resources and the opportunities. And right now that’s not happening. We need somebody in the White House who’s going to recognize these children as our own. (Applause.) REP. KUCINICH: Dr. King recognized that when there’s a war, people of two countries suffer, because what he was talking about was the link between war and fear and poverty, as opposed to peace and security and prosperity. And so when we shift the paradigm of this country away from war, then we start to have the resources which must be there for education, for universal pre-kindergarten, for fully-funded elementary and secondary education, for college for all. (Light applause.) But we have to remember that with a nation right now that will spend anywhere from 1 (trillion dollars) to $2 trillion on this war, that is money out of the educational lives of our children. We need to remember the connection. (Cheers, applause.) I’m ready to see at least a 15 percent reduction in that bloated Pentagon budget, stop funding war, start funding education. That’s where we get the money.

Thank you. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. GRAVEL: Dennis, you’re a little too modest on that. I think we can cut a little more than 15 percent, very much so. Stop and think what the opportunity costs — now, you have heard these nostrums before. I’ve been watching your heads. You’re nodding on all the programs. You’ve heard it 10 years ago, you’ve heard 20 years ago — why doesn’t it change? The Democratic Party hasn’t done appreciably better than the Republican Party in solving these problems. It has to be solved the people, not by your leaders. (Applause.)

Stop and think. When he’s talking about the money we’re squandering — 21 million Americans could have a four-year college scholarship for the money we’ve squandered in Iraq — (applause) — 7.6 million teachers could have been hired last year if we weren’t squandering this money. Now, how do you think we got into this problem? The people on this stage, like the rest of us, are all guilty and very guilty, and we should recognize that, because there is linkage! (Cheers, applause.)

MR. SMILEY: Senator Dodd? Yeah, time’s up. I’m sorry. Senator Dodd? SEN. DODD: Thank you, Tavis.

As I said at the outset on the first question, I don’t believe there’s any other issue as important as this one we’ll discuss this evening, as education. There’s a lot of good talk here, and I admire the fact that my colleagues here and candidates all care deeply about this issue. I stand before you as a candidate. We have to make a decision about, who is our best candidate to win the presidency in 2008?

For 26 years, through five terms in the United States Senate, I have dedicated myself to this issue. I’m very proud of the fact that Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund has come to me over and over again, and proud to have authored the legislation to deal with the whole child, that authored the first child care legislation in this country, to begin in the earliest days to make sure that parents have the assurance that there will be a quality place for their child to be, and an affordable place, an available place, and then to begin with early childhood education, to see to it that we’d have a good Head Start program.

I’m proud of the fact that I was called the Senator of the Decade by National Head Start Association. (Applause.) I have walked the walk on these issues; I am committed to these issues. There’s nothing that will be a higher priority to me as president of the United States than to see to it that America’s children, from the earliest days of their arrival, certainly through the upper education branches of our educational system, have the equal opportunity.

None of us here can guarantee success —

MR. SMILEY: Senator Dodd.

SEN. DODD: — but we have an obligation to guarantee an opportunity to that success. The key to that door is the education of the American child. (Applause.)

MR. SMILEY: Thank you, Senator.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, I really believe that it takes a village to raise a child — (applause) — and the American village has failed our children.

We have heard absolutely the right prescription. I have fought for more than 35 years for early childhood education, for more mentoring, for more parent education programs, to get our children off to a good start. I have fought to make sure that schools were fair to all children. That’s the work I did in Arkansas, to try to raise the standards particularly for the poorest of our children, and most especially for minority children. And certainly in the White House years, and now in the Senate, I’ve continued that effort because I don’t think there is a more important issue.

But I also believe we cannot separate the education part from the economic part. There is still discrimination in the workplace. There are still people who are turned down and turned away who have qualifications and skills that should make them employable. (Applause.) So this is a broader issue that we have to address.

MR. SMILEY: The next question, from Michel Martin of NPR, will be answered first by Governor Richardson.

MS. MARTIN: Thank you, Tavis.

Good evening, Governor. Good evening, candidates. I’m sure you’ll agree there are a lot of beautiful young people out here in the audience today, and we’re very pleased to be here at Howard University. So you can imagine how disturbed we were to find out from the Centers for Disease Control that African-Americans, though 17 percent of all American teenagers, they are 69 percent of the population of teenagers diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

Governor and candidates, what is the plan to stop and to protect these young people from this scourge?

GOV. RICHARDSON: It is a moral imperative that America have a policy to fight this dreaded disease both nationally and internationally. You got to make some tough choices. First, we’ve got to have — we have to use needles. We have to be sure that we have efforts in the African-American community, in minority communities, to have comprehensive education. In addition, we have to deal with Africa. Close to 20 percent of the African people have some kind of HIV virus. It’s important that the president of the United States make a major funding effort, a major commitment to deal with this issue. And here I’m going to say something positive about President Bush. His funding for Millennium accountability and Millennium appropriations has been relatively impressive.

And I believe it’s important that not only we deal with this issue in this country, bring — bringing condoms, finding ways to increase needles, penetrating minority outreach in communities —

MR. SMILEY: Governor, you have —

GOV. RICHARDSON: — that’s how to deal with it.

MR. SMILEY: Thank you very much.

Senator Edwards.

MR. EDWARDS: Thank you very much for the question.

African-American women are 25 times as likely to be infected with AIDS today in America than white women. Over half of the new diagnoses of AIDS in America are African-Americans. So this is obviously having a disproportionate effect on people of color and on the African-American community.

I was in a medical center in Los Angeles just a few days ago, where they’re providing treatment and help to those who — first to determine whether they have AIDS; second, to provide them the treatment and the drugs that they need.

But we shouldn’t be dependent on private funding to do what needs to be done about a scourge that exists in America, and particularly exists among African-Americans in America. Here are the three things I think we need to do.

First, we need to fully fund finding a cure for AIDS, so we can end this scourge once and for all. (Applause.)

Second, we need to fully fund the legislation, the law known as Ryan White, to make sure that the treatment is available for anybody who’s diagnosed with AIDS. (Applause.)

And then finally we need to ensure that Medicaid covers AIDS drugs and AIDS treatment — (applause) — to make sure that people get the treatment they need, particularly low-income families who get the — who are diagnosed with AIDS — low-income individuals.

MR. SMILEY: Senator Obama.

SEN. OBAMA: I think John’s prescriptions are right. I would add the issue of prevention — involves education. And one of the things that we’ve got to overcome — (applause) — one of the things we’ve got to overcome is a stigma that still exists in our communities. We don’t talk about this. We don’t talk about it in the schools. Sometimes we don’t talk about it in the churches. It has been an aspect of sometimes homophobia that we don’t address this issue as clearly as it needs to be.

And I also think there’s a broader issue, though, here, and this is going to be true on all the issues we talk about — the problems of poverty, lack of health care, these are — lack of educational opportunity — are all interconnected. And to some degree, the African-American community is weakened. It has a disease to its immune system. When we are impoverished, when people don’t have jobs, they are more likely to be afflicted not just with AIDS but with substance abuse problems, with guns in the streets. And so it is important for us to look at the whole body here and make absolutely certain that we are providing the kinds of economic development opportunities and jobs that will create healthier communities, that we’ve got universal health care that ensures that people can get regular treatments. Those are the kinds of strategies that over the long term are going to make a difference in our communities.

MR. SMILEY: Thank you, sir.

Congressman? (Applause.)

REP. KUCINICH: When you think about the statistics that have been cited here, you realize that it’s time to get real about health care and education in America. We need to understand that the ability of our public schools to be able to communicate sex education as a priority at the early age helps children to understand the consequences of their action.

But there’s another dimension here, too, and that is we have a nation of such wealth, yet we have 46 million Americans without any health insurance, another 50 million underinsured. It’s time for us to make every American know that they should have access. It is a basic right in a Democratic society. We should be able to fund all those diseases where people are suffering and they need care, but we have to end that for-profit medicine. It is time to take the for- profit insurance companies out of the business — (applause) — Michael Moore is right about this, by the way — and have a not-for- profit health care where everyone’s covered.

MR. SMILEY: Senator Gravel?

MR. GRAVEL: I touched on it earlier. The scourge of our present society, particularly in the African-American community, is the war on drugs. I’ll repeat again as a challenge to my colleagues on this stage, that if they really want to do something about the inner cities, if they really want to do something about what’s happening to the health of the African-American community, it’s time to end this war.

There’s no reason to continue it in the slightest. All it does is create criminals out of people who are not criminals.

Education? Y