JACKSON, MISS. — Senator Elizabeth Warren tailored her populist agenda to a diverse audience Monday night in a CNN town hall in the Deep South, arguing that she would lift up African-Americans economically and aggressively combat discrimination if she is elected president.
During the town hall, Warren urged Congress to create a commission to study reparations for slavery, called on Mississippi to discard its Confederacy-themed state flag, and vowed to crack down on white supremacy if she were to become president. At one point, she called the disproportionate student loan burdens borne by black students “a national disgrace.”
“America was founded on principles of liberty and freedom and on the backs of slave labor,” Warren said. “This is a stain on America and we’re not going to fix that, we’re not going to change that until we address it head on, directly.”
The senator from Massachusetts said a discussion of reparations is necessary if the country is to begin to “heal” from the harms of slavery and discrimination.
Warren served up her usual fiery populist policy agenda for the town hall but elaborated on themes of racial justice more extensively than she has in campaign appearances. Though she has made race an important theme of her presidential run, especially when speaking about wealth disparities between white and black families, she spoke more broadly Monday, in part due to receiving multiple questions on the issue.
The town hall comes on the second day of Warren’s three-day road trip through the South, where she’s held a rally in Memphis and took walking tours of two poverty-stricken towns in the Mississippi Delta. In the Delta and during the town hall, Warren touted her plan to build three million housing units over 10 years as part of a affordable housing bill she says will relieve the housing crunch affecting everyone from the poor to the upper middle class and try to reverse decades of housing discrimination against black people.
Warren’s campaign chose to hold its town hall in Mississippi in part to emphasize a willingness to visit overlooked states — by Tuesday, she will have campaigned in 12 and Puerto Rico since January — and to roll out a call to abolish the Electoral College.
“My view is, every vote matters, and the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting and that means get rid of the Electoral College,” Warren said during the event. She also called for a rollback of restrictive voting laws and a constitutional amendment to protect every citizen’s right to vote.
Warren raced through her raft of policy proposals, trying to squeeze as much as she could into an hour. She talked up her plan for universal child care, her sweeping anticorruption bill, and her plan to break up big tech companies. She attempted to make her wonky plans understandable and even funny, as she did when she explained her plan to tax the wealth of the richest Americans, which she compared to property taxes.
“I just want to include the Rembrandt and the diamonds in the property taxes,” Warren said.
As much as Warren delighted in the technical details of her proposals, she turned emotional when she talked about her own life. The audience fell to a hush as she told the familiar story of her mother putting on her nicest dress and getting a minimum wage job when her father fell ill; and the crowd’s murmurs of assent swelled to cheers when, as she closed her remarks in a deeply religious state, she made a rare mention of her Methodist upbringing in response to a question from CNN moderator Jake Tapper and quoted a verse from the Gospel of Matthew.
“And as much as ye hath done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye hath done it unto me,” Warren said, her voice rising as she explained its meaning.
“It says, you saw something wrong, you saw somebody who was thirsty, you saw somebody who was in prison, you saw their face, you saw somebody who was hungry and it moved you to act.”
Warren’s appearance on CNN comes nearly four months into a presidential campaign in which she has drawn attention for her policy stances and her refusal to hold high-dollar fund-raisers, but has failed in early polling to break out of the pack and dislodge Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, and former Vice President Joe Biden, who is not yet a declared candidate, from the top of the field.
The town hall is a chance for Warren to see whether her policy ideas that have captured widespread media attention will catch on with the public, boosting her standing in polls and small-dollar fund-raising. “This is going to be one of the biggest nights of our campaign so far,” Warren said in an e-mail to her supporters right before the event began. “I hope I’ll make you proud.”
The televised town halls have provided boosts for her rivals in recent weeks, including Senator Kamala Harris of California, who drew an average of nearly 2 million viewers at her January appearance, breaking the network’s viewership record for a single-candidate town hall. Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is exploring a long-shot campaign for the Democratic nomination, raised $600,000 in the 24 hours after his appearance at a town hall on the network earlier this month, according to CNN.
Warren delivered red meat to her fans in the appearance, hitting home her campaign’s core message that the government is working for rich and powerful people while everyone else falls behind. “What’s wrong right now in Washington is the big folks, they don’t want rules,” she said. “These giant corporations they just want to be able to run over whoever they want to run over.”
Warren also faced a question about whether she lacked “tact” in how she handled questions over her past claims to native ancestry from one voter. She stressed that her claims never helped her get a job but suggested that voters didn’t seem to care much about the controversy, given how rarely she is asked about it on the campaign trail. “That’s just kind of who I am,” she said. “And I do the best I can with it.”Liz Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin