Updated at 6:05 p.m. ET
Eight Democratic presidential candidates faced the same basic question today in Houston: Why should women of color vote for them?
The first-ever She The People Presidential Forum — organized by and centered on questions from women of color — served as a repeated reminder of the key role that minority women play in Democratic politics.
"Women of color voters in this country are 20 million strong. Our votes matter," Democratic operative Leah Daughtry warned the candidates. "You put us last on your list; we put you last on our list."
"Remember: We're a powerful voting block," She The People founder Aimee Allison said at the beginning of the event.
"Our hope is to advance a national conversation to help voters distinguish which candidates stand with and stand for women of color in our communities. And let me tell you something: The candidate that does that best and most consistently will win the nomination and the White House in 2020."
The questions put forward to California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and others made it clear that many women of color may not be won over by campaigns tailoring their message toward moderate and independent white voters in swing states. Topics included abortion rights, gentrification, voter suppression, transgender rights, racial disparities in criminal sentencing and police shootings of unarmed black men, among others.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker repeated his pledge to choose a woman as a running mate, should he become the Democratic nominee.
"Women of color can trust me," he said. "My fights have been fights that have shown who I am and shown my loyalty."
Amid the policy deep dives, every candidate faced the same basic question: Why should women of color back them in a field about to top 20 declared Democrats?
The question created a couple of moments of awkwardness for some of the men in the field, including former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who paused for a moment before answering, "It's not something I'm owed, not something I expect. It's something I fully hope to earn."
Most candidates answered the question by asking the crowd of activists to look to their track records.
"I have dedicated my time in public service to making sure that people like my grandmother and mother can do better," said Castro, and have "delivered for communities that were vulnerable, that were struggling."
Repeating a promise first rolled out at a CNN town hall this week, Harris vowed to take "strong executive action" on gun control within the first 100 days of her administration, if Congress hasn't passed gun measures first.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, told the forum that when police are being investigated for shootings, "I think the investigation should not be done by the police department where the officer worked. You have to have a fair process when you investigate these cases."
The cheering Houston auditorium underscored just how hungry Democrats' progressive activists are for detailed policy plans that, up until recently, would have been viewed as far too liberal for a candidate to run for president on: single-payer health care; legalized marijuana; reparations for slavery.
As the increasingly large candidate field has, for the most part, shifted left en masse to appeal to these voters, the moderate wing of the party has worried whether Democrats will be able to appeal to the Midwestern swing voters who put President Trump in the White House. Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign, expected to launch Thursday, will be centered on the bet that most Democratic voters want a more centrist candidate.
But speaking to the forum, Klobuchar argued it is possible for candidates to satisfy progressives and win back independents. "I can't pretend to be in your shoes. I'm in one of your shoes, as the first woman in many of the jobs that I've had. And I know what it's like to be in the room when people aren't taking you seriously," she said. "What I can tell you is that my entire life I have fought for justice."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
As former Vice President Joe Biden prepares to enter the presidential race tomorrow, Democratic voters are deciding which candidate they would like to represent them. Today, a major forum took place in Houston focused on questions from women of color. Here's New Jersey Senator Cory Booker speaking earlier to activists with the group She the People.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CORY BOOKER: We in America owe a debt to the championship and the leadership and the activism of women of color.
SHAPIRO: Eight of the most well-known Democratic candidates attended, as did NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow, who joins us now. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Tell us about what some of the big priorities being addressed there are.
DETROW: Well, a whole wide range of progressive subjects came up, questions about voting rights, abortion rights, transgender rights, police shootings, environmental issues. This is a crowd that wants a progressive candidate, shouting things at times like abolish ICE as candidates gave answers on immigration. You know, we've talked a lot about how this Democratic field is tilting very progressive. One of the more moderate candidates in the race, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, was asked a question about how she can appeal to progressive voters and the moderates that she thinks the party needs to win in 2020. She said it comes down to talking about broad issues that a lot of people care about and also approaching it with empathy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AMY KLOBUCHAR: I can't imagine what it is like to make - oh, so African American woman to make 61 cents an hour compared to what a man makes - right? - a white man. That's wrong. But what I can tell you is that my entire life, I have fought for justice.
SHAPIRO: Scott, this is the most diverse field of presidential candidates ever. But so far, a lot of the male candidates have gotten the media attention, particularly the white male candidates. Did that come up at this forum for women of color?
DETROW: Not really directly, but it was clear hanging in the air. One organizers asked every single candidate was, why should women of color vote for you? And for some of the men on the stage, specifically Beto O'Rourke, it was a little bit of an awkward moment and a pause there. O'Rourke said that this is something he knows he has to earn. A lot of the candidates said something that boiled down to, look at my track record; trust my track record. Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro said something to that effect.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JULIAN CASTRO: I have dedicated my time in public service to making sure that people just like my mother and my grandmother could do better in this country. It's why I focus in my time as mayor and as HUD secretary so much on trying to deliver for communities that are vulnerable, that are struggling.
SHAPIRO: Scott, when you look at the demographics of voters in 2020, how important are minority women for Democratic candidates?
DETROW: Incredibly important. This is a solid, energized voting bloc for the party, and a lot of campaigns will concede that the candidate who wins minority women, particularly black women, is going to be the nominee. And that came up a lot today. You know, this has always been something assumed in Democratic politics to the point where a lot of minority women felt that their support was taken for granted. It's really been at the forefront of the political conversation during last year's midterms and so far in this presidential race.
Leah Daughtry, a Democratic operative, said on the stage, women of color voters are 20 million strong. And she said basically, if you neglect us, we will neglect you, and you won't have our support - pretty strong message.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Scott Detrow at the She the People presidential forum in Houston, Texas. Thank you, Scott.
DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.