About Last Night

6 Takeaways from the Democratic Presidential Debate Last Night in Houston

Politicking at Texas Southern University

By Dianna Wray September 13, 2019

Last night, 10 of the Democratic presidential candidates hit the stage at Texas Southern University here in Houston. And, well, not much changed. Anyone hoping that this debate—the first that has culled the candidates to the point that they could all fit on one stage for a single night—would yield some sort of decisive moment, clearly indicating who is likely to actually secure the nomination next July, was in for a disappointment. Instead, most of the pack delivered fairly even performances. Still, there were a few stand-out moments:

The strangest/best protest moment? 

While the scene that some immigration protestors made in the TSU auditorium just as former Vice President Joe Biden was about to answer the final question of the night was intriguing—nobody could understand what the protestors were screaming, and Biden's face reflected how confused we all felt in that moment—the real standout statement necklace of a protest effort occurred across town hours before the candidates took the stage, when a flock of Greenpeace activists rappelled off the Fred Hartman Bridge spanning the Houston Ship Channel. They were hoping to get the attention of the candidates about climate change and to shut down the Houston Ship Channel, according to Greenpeace USA spokespeople. They most likely managed to accomplish both goals, although by Thursday night all of the protestors had been hauled up from the side of the bridge and arrested, according to Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. 

What about Beto O'Rourke? 

It was crystal-clear that ABC's warnings about profanity were directed squarely at the former El Paso congressman who nearly bested Sen. Ted Cruz last fall, and O'Rourke abided by that warning, only treading close to the line when the subject of gun control, specifically on assault weapons, came up. "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47, and we're not going to allow them to be used against other Americans anymore," he declared in what would prove to be his standout moment of the night.

O'Rourke has acquitted himself well on the campaign trail since the mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, and it was never more clear than last night that all the passion and talent that had made his senate run such a remarkable feat last year is still present within him, even if it seems unlikely that it will be enough to get him anywhere close to securing the Democratic nomination for himself. 

How did Julian Castro become the villain of the night? 

Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary for the Obama Administration, has a ton of talent and a compelling backstory, but his campaign has been struggling. Maybe that's why he decided to go for the jugular with Biden last night even though everyone else was opting to keep the jabs above the waist. Castro may have thought he was doing the right thing when he accused 76-year-old Biden of "forgetting" what he'd said four different times over the course of the evening, and he defended his contentions after the debate, but if you were paying attention Biden was actually correct about what he'd said. Castro came across badly, and most of the TSU crowd booed his efforts. 

How about Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders? Did they continue to play nice? 

Sanders and Warren, the two other top contenders for the nomination besides Biden, made a deal not to attack each other a while back, and last night they stuck to it. In fact, Warren came out of the debate having made a good showing with her points and plans without really having to go after anybody. Meanwhile, nobody attacked her either, as most of the contenders chose to take aim at Sanders and his Democratic Socialist views instead. 

The most H-town candidate of the night? 

Warren, hands down. Since Houston native Marianne Williamson didn't make the cut for this debate, Warren was the candidate on stage with the most Houston connections and cred. She moved to Houston back in the 1960s because her first husband was a NASA engineer, received her bachelor's degree from the University of Houston, and taught special-needs kids before eventually moving to New Jersey. She came back a few years later and became a law professor at UH, before heading off on the trajectory that led her to Harvard, the U.S. Senate, and now this presidential run, which is the kind of zigzagging storyline that is Houston to the core. And when The Daily Cougar asked her what she misses most about the Bayou City, she had the perfect Houston answer: The Original Ninfa's on Navigation, where she ate the night before the debate, of course. 

The night's biggest winner?

Everybody but Castro came off pretty well in this round. Sen. Amy Klobuchar saw an opening in the middle-of-the-road lane of ideologies, and she drove into it for all it was worth. If you weren't touched by her story of being kicked out of the hospital shortly after giving birth—even though her daughter was having serious medical issues at the time—and how she subsequently decided to do something about it, lobbying the Minnesota State Lege to require hospitals to give new mothers a minimum 48-hour stay, then you may not have a heart.

And Andrew Yang, well, he did what he does best, becoming a debate-attire trailblazer by simply not wearing a tie, and using his opening remarks to offer 10 families $1,000 a month for a year, which was, let's say, an intriguing proposition. And Sen. Kamala Harris came off as even-keeled, even when she was answering direct questions about her professional record and how she has changed her tune since deciding to run for president on issues like marijuana legalization and outside investigations in police shootings. 

An honorable mention goes to U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who was name-checked for her efforts on reparations during the debate, and then managed to be squarely on camera for a few minutes when Castro greeted her right after the debate had wrapped up. But the real honor belongs to TSU. Usually UH or Rice scores the distinction of hosting these events, but TSU snagged this one, and they handled it well. They had the TSU logo on the corner of the TV screen during a nationally televised debate for most of the night; Harris specifically name-checked the HBCU, praising its work; and the whole shindig came off without a hitch. 

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