Politics

7 Tough Questions Progressives Want Answered At The Democratic Presidential Debate

CREDIT: AP Photos/ Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

From left: Lincoln Chafee, Martin O'Malley, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb

The last two presidential debates have basically been exercises in outrage for progressives. Save for the moment Carly Fiorina smacked down Donald Trump’s sexism, the Republican events were the stuff of liberal nightmares — defenses of the Iraq War, expressions of admiration for Kim Davis, a botched discussion of climate change, and silence on racial injustice.

So there’s likely some relief among progressives that Tuesday’s presidential debate will be between Democratic candidates whose worldviews might align closer to theirs. But that doesn’t mean the candidates will have it easy. There are key distinctions the Democratic candidates will need to make between themselves and their opponents — both on the Republican and Democratic side of the aisle — before voters make their choices.

In order to make those distinctions, ThinkProgress reached out to groups with progressive values on a slew of issues, ranging from gun violence to climate change, to find out what questions they hope the Democratic candidates will answer and why. Here are some of the responses we got.

1) “What do you think are the top three things the next president needs to do in order to make sure fewer families have to go through the pain that mine has?” – Erica Lafferty Smegielski, daughter of deceased Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung.

Frank Kulick, adjusts a display of wooden crosses, and a Jewish Star of David, representing the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, on his front lawn, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, in Newtown, Conn.

Frank Kulick, adjusts a display of wooden crosses, and a Jewish Star of David, representing the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, on his front lawn, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, in Newtown, Conn.

CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

This question was actually pointed out to ThinkProgress by Everytown For Gun Safety, a group advocating gun control. Erica asked it on CNN’s Facebook page when the network asked the public to provide questions to ask the Democratic candidates during the debate. Andy Parker, the father of on-air reporter Alison Parker who was killed by a gunman earlier this year, separately asked if candidates would work to require background checks for all gun sales.

“We want all the candidates, from all parties, to tell us what they will do to prevent the gun violence that kills 88 Americans every day and injures hundreds more,” Everytown spokesperson Stacey Radnor said.

2) “Will you engage in aggressive litigation against the fossil fuel industry’s conspiracy of climate denial, as the Clinton administration did against the tobacco industry?” – R.L. Miller, president of Climate Hawks Vote

In 1999, President Bill Clinton’s administration filed a Department of Justice lawsuit against major American tobacco companies, alleging they conspired to deliberately mislead the public about the health impacts of smoking. In 2006, the court found the tobacco companies guilty of fraud, conspiracy, and racketeering.

Now, similar allegations have been made against the fossil fuel industry — that they deliberately conspired to mislead the public about the impacts of human-caused climate change. The companies pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaigns of politicians who deny the science of human-caused warming and work actively to prevent climate action. At the same time, at least one company — Exxon — likely knew that climate change was a problem for 27 years.

“Evidence is overwhelming that Exxon in particular … knew about climate change in the ’70s and ’80s, but then engaged in a deliberate effort to cover up, confuse, and obfuscate the science because of the impact on its business model,” Miller said. “Climate change has already harmed Americans in ways too numerous to list; the companies that caused climate change, and caused the cover-up, should be held responsible.”

3) “What would you do to prevent the racially charged attacks on the right to vote?” – Sean McElwee, research associate at Demos

Desiree Griffiths, 31, of Miami, holds up a sign saying "Black Lives Matter."

Desiree Griffiths, 31, of Miami, holds up a sign saying “Black Lives Matter”, with the names of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two black men recently killed by police, during a protest Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Miami. People are protesting nationwide against recent decisions not to prosecute white police officers involved in the killing of black men.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

In recent years, a number of states have passed measures that ostensibly make it harder to vote, either by self-interested gerrymandering, eliminating early voting, or requiring specific forms of identification at the polls. Though some courts have ruled these laws unlawful, the ones that do still exist tend to disproportionately discourage voting in minority communities.

“From the recent Alabama DMV closures to the wave of the voting restrictions after the court gutted the Voting Rights Act, the sanctity of the ballot remains uncertain,” McElwee said. “There is strong evidence that these attacks on the ballot are motivated not just by partisanship, but racial animus.”

McElwee also asked what candidates would do to bolster turnout among low-income people, people of color, and young people, noting that a mere 41.9 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2014 midterm election.

4) “When you step into office, will you commit … [to use] your authority to immediately end leasing of public fossil fuels in the U.S.?” – Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth Action

According to the International Energy Agency, two thirds of all proven fossil fuel reserves will have to be left in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change. At the same time, the U.S. government still contracts with fossil fuel companies to allow them to extract coal, oil, and gas from public lands.

“[Countries] are going to need to make the choice to keep this carbon locked in the ground,” Pica said. ” A recent report by Friends of the Earth and the Center for Biological Diversity found that the U.S. could have more than 450 gigatons of CO2 under its public lands and waters. … A litmus test for climate leadership is the willingness to take on corporate polluters to keep fossil fuels in the ground in order to protect our climate.”

5) “What will you do to ensure that young people maintain access to critical healthcare services despite growing conservative attacks on birth control, abortion, and other services?” – MS Keifer, policy analyst at Advocates for Youth

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) speaks at rally on Capitol Hill sponsored by Planned Parenthood

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) speaks at rally on Capitol Hill sponsored by Planned Parenthood

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Most if not all of the Democratic candidates have expressed support for Planned Parenthood in the wake of the Republican Congress’ attempt to defund it. But tougher than merely expressing support for the women’s health organization would be a question about how, specifically, the candidates plan to push back on those attempts and be successful.

“We wonder in what ways could a president be more demonstrative of their support for sexual health services in terms of money and legislation,” Keifer said.

6) “Will they work to eliminate all mandatory minimum drug sentences? And how would they allocate federal funds and specifically design programs to prevent recidivism?” – Zellie Imani, Black Lives Matter activist and New Jersey teacher

A key tenet of the Black Lives Matter movement is reforming the criminal justice system, which disproportionately punishes black Americans in a number of ways.

One of the ways this racial inequality manifests itself is via a disproportionately high rate of recidivism — or return to criminal activity — among African-American male youth. In addition, mandatory minimums — which require judges to impose severe penalties against those convicted of low-level drug crimes — has resulted in a disproportionate amount of jail time for black Americans.

“We would like to see a more restorative justice approach so that individuals who are charged don’t have to do mandatory sentences,” Imani said. “There are other solutions to correcting their behavior so they won’t get into this whole revolving door of the prison system.”

7) “What would your administration do to make sure young LGBT youth are getting education, not incarceration?” – Ian Palmquist, director of leadership programs for Equality Federation

Though the debate over LGBT equality has long focused on same-sex marriage, many advocates are hoping this next election season will tackle some other issues in the community — particularly what’s known as school pushout. Advocacy group reports over the years have found that LGBT youth and youth of color “not only face bullying and harassment from peers, but also harsh and disparate discipline from school staff, relatively higher levels of policing and surveillance, and blame for their own victimization.”

As a result of this, the drop-out rate for LGBT students is higher — and according to the Center for American Progress, making up a disproportionate percentage of the population in the juvenile justice system. New research has revealed some anti-bullying legislation can be effective.

“School push out is a crisis for LGBT youth and youth of color that has gotten far too little attention,” Palmquist said. “Candidates need to show an understanding of LGBT issues beyond marriage and nondiscrimination, including issues affecting marginalized populations like LGBT youth of color.”