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Barbershop: Democratic Congressional Candidates


We're going to begin the program today talking politics. It's a good weekend for this because here in Washington, D.C., the Congressional Black Caucus' Annual Legislative Conference is meeting. Now, this is an annual gathering, where officeholders, activists, operatives and people who just want to learn more about the issues get together to talk about issues important to African Americans. This is also just a few days after the most recent Democratic debate among the Top 10 polling contenders for the Democratic nomination. And on the debate stage, as on the campaign trail, differences are emerging. The question is - what are those differences? Are those differences really about policy, who has the best plans, or are those differences about something else, who seems best prepared to connect with voters and, above all, to beat Donald Trump?

So we thought this was a good conversation for the Barbershop because that's where we talk with interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And who better to talk about what voters have been saying than two candidates running for Congress? With me here in studio is Monika Johnson-Hostler. She's running for Congress in North Carolina's 2nd District. She currently serves on the Wake County School Board. Welcome. Thank you so much for coming in.

MONIKA JOHNSON-HOSTLER: Thank you so much for inviting me.

MARTIN: Joining us via Skype is Cori Bush. She's running for Congress in Missouri's 1st District. That's the area that includes St. Louis. She's a registered nurse, an ordained pastor. And if that name sounds familiar, you might remember her from the Netflix documentary "Knock Down The House." Cori Bush, welcome to the program.

CORI BUSH: Hi, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And last but certainly not least, A'shanti Gholar is the political director for Emerge America. She travels throughout the country, recruiting women to run for public office. She's also the former director of African American engagement at the DNC. And she's with us by phone from here in D.C., where she's presumably taking in conference activities, legislative caucus activities. A'shanti, welcome back to you as well.

A'SHANTI GHOLAR: Thank you so much for having me, again.

MARTIN: So, Monika, I'm going to start with you, you know? We've - we hear a lot about what the pundits say, the analysts say, the voters care about. But now you're out campaigning every day. What do the voters tell you they care about?

JOHNSON-HOSTLER: I'm campaigning in North Carolina in District 2, as you said. And I - what I hear most from voters, especially in my state, is they feel disenchanted. We're in a state where gerrymandering has been a huge issue in voter suppression. So people really are saying, we want what every American wants. We want health insurance. We want good lives. We want to have access to mobility and prosperity. And at the end of the day, we want to be in community with people who really are looking out for our best interests.

MARTIN: And your district, as I understand, is about 20% African American. Are you seeing any difference, any slight - any divergence, however large or small, between your African American Democratic or Independent-leaning or Democratic-leaning voters and the white Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters? Because some of the polls suggest that there's a bit of an enthusiasm gap there. Do you see that?

JOHNSON-HOSTLER: I definitely see the gap. What I would say - again, I think it's for very similar reasons. I am surrounded by Democrats who are like, let's take back everything that belongs to us, both state and in Congress. And so they're excited and energized about 2020. And when I launched my campaign just over a month ago and started talking to black voters, they were literally saying to me, why? Why engage? What's going to be different? What can you do, differently? And I think that's a fair assessment to ask of people who look just like me.

MARTIN: Cori, what about you? Your district, as I understand it - as I recall is about 50-50. Am I right, 50-50 white, 50-50 African American, you know? What about you? First of all, the same question that I was asking Monika, which is - what are the voters telling you they care most about? And do you see any differences between your African American constituents or potential constituents and your white constituents or potential constituents?

BUSH: Yeah. So some of the big things that I'm hearing what I'm knocking doors and in our town halls is, first of all, gun violence. I just left an event where we just acknowledged the 24 children murdered in the St. Louis area since January 1. These are 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 10-year-olds that have been murdered by gunshots. And so that is a big deal here in St. Louis, and it's been for quite a while. We are not doing a good enough job taking care of the gun violence on our streets and crime and poverty. So those are the things that are really affecting this district.

This district is also the district where Ferguson is. And so we're still dealing with a lot of criminal justice issues. We're dealing with - and then health care. People are - health care and poverty. And so I'm talking to the people about why I support "Medicare for All" because I feel that it addresses that. I'm talking about a $15 minimum wage to help pull us out of poverty because I feel like that's - all of those things are adding to our gun violence in our community.

So - and as far as the - we're still majority African American. It's - but we are - as far our - as far as the - our white community here in St. Louis. Basically, our issues are similar - are pretty much the same. We're still talking the same thing. We're talking about making sure that everybody had access to health care. We're talking about college. We're talking about environmental justice, which has been huge.

MARTIN: A'shanti, what are you hearing about this, especially on this whole question of is there an engagement gap? Because you see that there are some polls that show that African American voters - who as I think, you know, the world knows have been extremely engaged and consistent, you know, very participatory - that there's a bit of a fall-off. And are you hearing what Monika just said that she's hearing from some of her voters, a sense of what difference does it make?

GHOLAR: So what I'm seeing as I'm traveling the country is people definitely want the candidates to show up and listen, first and foremost. They're tired of being ignored. In the black community, we just see so many politicians just coming when it's get-out-the-vote time because they know that we're reliable voters. And those types of things just don't play anymore. So they're wanting people to come up and talk about the issues.

I do want to point to a great poll that was just done by Essence and the Black Women's Roundtable. And they showed that, for black women, the most important issues are criminal justice and policing reform, affordable health care, the rise in hate crimes and racism, equal rights and equal pay, gun violence and gun safety, affordable housing and gentrification.


GHOLAR: So these are the issues that are important to black people. And they want the candidates to talk about it. So I think that shows that there isn't any type of enthusiasm gap, nationally. People are ready and waiting for these issues to be addressed.

MARTIN: A'shanti, just - how do you understand this whole question of electability versus policy excitement? You remember that some people say that, you know, Democrats want to fall in love and Republicans fall in line. And there is this whole argument about whether candidates care more about somebody who they - do the voters care more about somebody who they think is electable versus somebody whose policies they absolutely, you know, support. And, obviously, the polls say, among Democrats writ large, beating Donald Trump is priority one. But what are you seeing? How is this translating out where - in the spaces that you're in?

GHOLAR: From - what I'm seeing is - and, again, I talked about this before. When they talk about electability by default terms that we're talking about is a straight, white man. But as you're seeing these candidates come out and talk about their issues, they want someone who is going to do things and fight Trump. And they're particularly seeing with the Democratic candidates is that there are so many of those candidates that can do both of those things. So that's why you see so many people rising in the polls because electability is important. But they also know that they need someone who's going to be there and get things done because the country has been on the wrong track for so long since this man came into office.

MARTIN: Monika, what about you? When you're out on the campaign trail on this whole question of electability versus - of, you know, a person you absolutely agree with, what did voters say to you?

JOHNSON-HOSTLER: I think voters really - so I'm elected, currently, in a part of my district. And so what I hear voters saying loud and clear to me is, can you and will you do the same thing that you've done for - if elected to Congress? We want to know that you're going to remain connected to this community in sharing the voices that you hear here. My authenticity is - what led me to run this race is because voters said we've never really had somebody who's been true to their word and remained in our community and remain visible and viable. That's what people want to know. They want to know what you really are able to do and what you're willing to do.

MARTIN: But your prior elected office - you're finding it to be an asset not a liability.

JOHNSON-HOSTLER: I've found it to be an asset. I'm - very similar district breakout that I've won three times for my school board. And so I think while it expands to five other counties that I'm currently not elected in, very similar demographics and numbers. And so I really think people see that as an asset, that I have been elected before and can speak to what I've done as an elected official, which I think is what people want to know. What are you going to do? And I can talk to - talk about that. And they can also look at it.

MARTIN: And, Cori, what about you? Do I understand it right that you're - you have been at least a national surrogate for Bernie Sanders? Is that correct? Cori?

BUSH: Yes, I am now, currently.

MARTIN: And the - according to a Morning Consult poll and a number of polls, it emerges that Bernie Sanders is polling around 20% with all black voters. But that's compared to 41% with Vice President Biden. And African American voters seem to be kind of the - powering Biden's lead in the polls right now. How do you understand that?

BUSH: I understand it when I am speaking for Senator Sanders, when I'm knocking doors and people are finding out who he is. I'll tell you someone from Bernie Sanders' campaign came to St. Louis. And I took them into Ferguson, and we went to a park. And people were asking, who's this person? And I'm like, oh, they're with Bernie Sanders' campaign. And they went, oh, my gosh. We want to get to know. And so there was this excitement.

And so it's not about people just wanting to support Biden. People are supporting him because (unintelligible) President Barack Obama. But when people get a chance to meet Senator Sanders or hear about him right in their neighborhoods when they're - when - knocks on their doors, those irons are changing. I - and so, for me, it's not just about - to me, electability is having those policies. And I agree with the - with the two other people...

MARTIN: A'shanti.

BUSH: ...On the panel, with A'shanti and Monika...

MARTIN: Monika.

BUSH: I - oh, I'm sorry. Monika. I agree that we need people that show up. We need to - authenticity. I believe that's what people want to see, and that's who I've been in this community. And so that's what electability should look like. It should look like the people that are here, the people that have been doing the work, the people that are tried and true and those that show up and stay in the community and have the policy. That's what electability should be.

MARTIN: Well, we can't wait to continue talking with all of you as this election season unfolds. Thank you all so much for joining us and thank you, especially on a busy campaign weekend - taking time to talk with us.

That was Cori Bush, who's a Democratic candidate from Missouri's 1st Congressional District. A'shanti Gholar was also with us. She's political director for Emerge America. She was with us via Skype. And you can hear that she's at the conference in the background. And Monika Johnson-Hostler was kind enough to step away for a minute to talk to us. She's a Democratic candidate for North Carolina's 2nd Congressional District. Thank you all so much for talking to us.


BUSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.