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“Wine Cave Full of Crystals”: Warren & Buttigieg Spar over Donors, But Poverty Is Left Out of Debate

StoryDecember 20, 2019
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Image Credit: PBS

During Thursday’s Democratic debate, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg sparred over money’s role in politics and who funds their campaigns. The main difference between their approaches to taking funding is that Warren’s policies have been consistently clear on issues of inequality, while Buttigieg is “more of a cipher,” says Heather McGhee, distinguished senior fellow and former president of Demos. Meanwhile, moderators did not ask candidates about their platforms to tackle poverty in the U.S. “The word 'poverty' has yet to be mentioned by a moderator, and this is not a matter just of semantics,” adds guest Alan Minsky with the Progressive Democrats of America. “It’s a complete erasure of the reality of the lives of tens of millions of Americans.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we spend the hour on the Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles Thursday night, the last one of the year. One of the most heated exchanges of the evening came when Senator Elizabeth Warren criticized South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for holding a closed-door fundraiser in what she called a “wine cave.”

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: The mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine. Think about who comes to that.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: According to Forbes magazine, I am the — literally, the only person on this stage who’s not a millionaire or a billionaire. So, if — this is important — this is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I do not sell access to my time.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Heather McGhee into this discussion, distinguished senior fellow and former president of Demos, now at Demos Action. Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Heather. It’s great to have you with us. So, this is going to become the meme of the night, right? Wine cave.

HEATHER McGHEE: Wine Cave Pete, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And the crystal that was dangling above. Can you talk about the significance of what Elizabeth Warren raised and also what Pete Buttigieg raised, that “I’m the only nonmillionaire/billionaire on this stage tonight”?

HEATHER McGHEE: Yeah, that was probably his strongest way to deflect from what is a major issue. And it’s a major issue, this question about how these candidates are running their campaign, who they’re giving access to, who’s got their ear, and therefore, you know, what shape it’s going to have on the policymaking. You know, Mayor Pete tried to make the point that Elizabeth Warren started out her career in politics by doing the same kind of fundraising that everybody else does.

The only difference here that I think — you know, Senator Warren didn’t actually say this, but if you think about who these two people are — is that Senator Warren came into politics, and it was very clear what her values were. Right? She came into politics on the heels of the financial crisis, of standing up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, of holding people like Jamie Dimon and Tim Geithner accountable, of not being afraid to make enemies even with Democrats on issues of inequality. Pete Buttigieg is more of a cipher, right? He is someone whom a lot of different people, including a lot of billionaires, think, “This is the kind of moderate we can get behind. This is the kind of moderate maybe we can influence.” So that’s really the question, right?

AMY GOODMAN: He also raised that although she’s saying she’s not having these, you know, closed-door big fundraiser dinners or donor calls, that she only recently made that decision —


AMY GOODMAN: — and that she was able to take her Senate finances, the money she raised —


AMY GOODMAN: — doing just that, and move it into her presidential campaign.

HEATHER McGHEE: Right. And I think, you know, you saw later on she had to sitdown with — after, with the CNN panel, and Van Jones and David Axelrod really tried to pin her on this. And she said, basically, this is a question of not a purity test, but people in America want to see that you’re trying. And, you know, I think what she was trying to say there is that she’s trying to influence the way Democrats are running their campaigns now, on the biggest scaled of a campaign she’s ever done.

And then the question is policy, right? It’s very different for Elizabeth Warren to come out there and say, “I want a wealth tax. You know, I want to fundamentally break up big companies,” versus Pete, who’s saying, “I think Medicare for All goes too far. I think free college goes too far.” That’s the issue. That didn’t land in the debate, but it’s very different for someone who’s still having closed-door fundraisers, still raising from billionaires, who’s also being softer on economic inequality.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Alan Minsky into this discussion, because after Senator Warren and, as well, Pete Buttigieg sparred over this issue of donors — we’re going to go to a clip right now — after they sparred over big-dollar donors, Sanders weighed in, too.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I am rather proud, maybe — I don’t know — the only candidate up here that doesn’t have any billionaire contributions. But you know what I do have? We have received more contributions from more individuals than any candidate in the history of the United States of America at this point in an election, averaging $18 apiece. Now, there’s a real competition going on up here. My good friend Joe — and he is a good friend — he’s received contributions from 44 billionaires. Pete, on the other hand, is trailing. Pete, you only got 39 billionaires contributing. So, Pete, we look forward to you — I know you’re an energetic guy and a competitive guy — to see if you could take on Joe on that issue.

AMY GOODMAN: So, joining us now from Los Angeles, with Heather McGhee, is Alan Minsky, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America. His latest piece in The Nation is headlined “The Democratic Presidential Debate Must Address Poverty.” So, what’s your grade for them last night, Alan?

ALAN MINSKY: Obviously, a straight F. And they’ve received a straight F now through six rounds of debates and eight total debates. The word “poverty” has yet to be mentioned by a moderator. And this is not a matter just of semantics. I went through all of the previous debate transcripts and looked for the words “poor,” looked for the words “poverty,” looked for the word “homeless,” and only “poor” has been mentioned by any of the moderators. Once, it was mentioned in the context of poverty in a question to Bill de Blasio in the first round of debates, where it was sort of a gotcha question about the wealth inequality levels in New York City. And the only other time that “poor” was mentioned is when Anderson Cooper asked Joe Biden if his son had “poor judgment.”

So it’s a complete erasure of the reality of the lives of tens of millions of Americans, because there are 38 million people below the poverty level, which is set at such a ridiculously low level that you really have to consider people who are at the poverty level or near the poverty level. And in the United States right now, according to the latest 2018 census statistics that have been released, that’s 40% of the population. And yet there’s no consideration about poverty issues, the lives of the poor. And in Los Angeles, California, I really thought that this would be broken last night, because in a poll in the Los Angeles Times on November 14, 2019, just 35 days ago, Los Angelenos ranked homelessness as far and away the top issue facing them. And there’s just an epidemic of homelessness here. And to come to Los Angeles and make no reference to it, I think, was an incredible failing by the moderators, but again, not unexpected.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite not qualifying for the debate, 2020 presidential candidate Julián Castro was in Los Angeles this week. On Wednesday, he toured L.A.’s Skid Row to speak to unhoused people about the housing crisis. He tweeted last night, quote, “How in the world do we just have a presidential debate in Los Angeles—the epicenter of a national housing and homelessness crisis—without a single question about housing opportunity?” Your response, Alan?

ALAN MINSKY: Absolutely. And I think it’s worth saying —

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly — interestingly, Julián Castro —

ALAN MINSKY: — that, of course, the candidates, a few of them, have brought up poverty and the poor and homelessness across the debates. And going back to the earlier conversation with the first guest on today’s show, Cory Booker and Julián Castro were two of the candidates who had brought up poverty and homelessness in previous debates. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have. And last night, actually, Pete Buttigieg, it was almost — I was actually left wondering if he had read my article. He actually spoke specifically about how — he made reference to the fact that, basically, political advisers will tell candidates not to mention the word “poverty.” You’re supposed to talk about the middle class.

And again, this puts the lives of basically half the population in the United States under erasure. And these are, you know, complex issues around how we’ve gotten to this situation where there are so many homeless people, so many people living in dire poverty in the United States. And to not have the Democratic candidates answer questions about what their programs would be, what their policies, is a tremendous failure. And it really goes towards the hosts of these debate and, I think, also the Democratic National Committee, because they sort of set the framing for the debates. And this is a long-standing thing that’s gone on in Democratic Party politics, from the age of Reagan forward, where it’s viewed as a losing issue to talk about poverty. And I think that it’s time, especially in an era in which candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have really painted a picture of the American economy not working for the average household. Well, what are those households experiencing? They’re experiencing poverty or fear of poverty and all the way to fear of homelessness as a real consideration in their lives, that puts incredible stress on people.

And I do want to say this, too. When people talk about emotional issues in American society and in the world, people just now talk about homelessness as a fact of American life. Just how traumatic this experience is for the people who go through homelessness, in Southern California and across the country, is so profound. And there is just no consideration of this by the political class. And there’s so much dimension to how this needs to be addressed, how poverty needs to be addressed, we need to hear from the people who want to be the presidents of the United States, particularly from the Democratic Party, about these issues. And again, it’s just crickets. We hear nothing from the moderators, no asking for details on these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Heather McGhee, you have long written about and have been an activist around the issue of inequality. What about the stance of the Democratic and Republican establishment on this? And also, last night, climate change was addressed, but climate justice, this whole idea of who is affected the most, both by climate, pollution, environmental injustice, where plants gets sited, etc.?

HEATHER McGHEE: This issue is the defining issue of our time, the issue of inequality, inequality which is created by inequality in our democracy. And that inequality of voice is the major thing stopping our country from acting in our own best interest to save the planet and to create an economic transformation that could be huge for our children’s generation and could be huge right now. These inequalities that compound on one another, some people talk about it in terms of corruption, the idea that just a handful of fossil fuel companies could have a vice grip on an entire political party, which is basically changing the planetary course of history; the idea that the inequality of voice is making it so that you’ve got half of American families who are living paycheck to paycheck, who are under threat of homelessness, who are seeing jobs have to be sort of added together and are absolutely vulnerable to pretty much every major cost — child care, healthcare, housing, transportation. Right? A carburetor could put you into homelessness if it breaks on your car. This is the kind of precarity that we’ve been waiting for a long time, activists have been pushing for a long time, to see a Democratic standard-bearer make this the focal point of their campaign. I mean —

AMY GOODMAN: Now, of course, one did, right?


AMY GOODMAN: Washington Governor Inslee, and called for a debate specifically on the climate crisis.


AMY GOODMAN: And so the Democratic Party, at least the DNC, cast themselves specifically against that and simply said no.

HEATHER McGHEE: It was really unbelievable. I mean, what could be more important than talking about the way that our current politics and our current economy are unsustainable for the planet? You know, this idea of a Green New Deal has shot heart and light into the climate debate in this country. You’ve got young people getting tattoos that say “I’m Generation GND,” right? This is something that has managed to capture the imagination of millions of people all over the world. But it’s an old idea. It’s an idea rooted in economic justice, the idea that the people who have been first in line for pollution should be the first in line for the economic transformation that is to come.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a first-time issue raised in terms of the moderators — that is, the violence against transgender women of color brought up for the first time by a moderator last night. PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor asked candidates how they, as president, would protect trans lives. And this was Senator Warren’s response.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: The transgender community has been marginalized in every way possible. And one thing that the president of the United States can do is lift up attention, lift up their voices, lift up their lives. Here’s a promise I make: I will go to the Rose Garden once every year to read the names of transgender women, of people of color who have been killed in the past year. I will make sure that we read their names so that as a nation we are forced to address the particular vulnerability on homelessness. I will change the rules now that put people in prison based on their birth sex identification rather than their current identification. I will do everything I can to make sure that we are an America that leaves no one behind.

AMY GOODMAN: We have less than 30 seconds, but Heather McGhee?

HEATHER McGHEE: This is a clear contrast between the Republicans and the Democrats. Republicans ran on trying to make sure that trans children in schools, you know, were misidentified and had to go to the wrong bathroom. You know, it’s great to see the Democratic Party lifting up some of the most marginalized people in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, back to where we began, with Kristen Clarke of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. As impeachment happened this week, as the debate happened, you still have Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushing through 11 federal district court judge nominations. The significance of the changing of the federal court?

KRISTEN CLARKE: [inaudible] biggest issues, I think, of the Trump era and one that we will be wrestling with for decades. President Trump, with the complicity of Senator McConnell, has managed to transform the judiciary by appointing judges, one, who don’t reflect the diversity of our country; two, whose views and ideological positions are extreme and outside the legal mainstream; and, three, judges that are destroying public confidence in the courts’ ability to be fair and independent forums to resolve some of the gravest crises that we face in the country. I think that this is going to be one of the top issues for a next president.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Kristen Clarke, Erika Andiola, Azmat Khan, Heather McGhee and Alan Minsky, thanks you so much. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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