Debate's Top Moments Fueled By Race: Busing in 1960s, Police Shooting in 2019

Ten candidates again faced the challenge of standing out among the crowd

On the final night of the Democratic presidential primary debates, there were sharp exchanges over busing and segregation, a frank admission of failure on racial tensions and an attempt to open a generational divide between the front-runners and the others.

Ten candidates again faced the challenge of standing out among the crowd.

Here are some of the top moments of Thursday's debate in Miami, sponsored by NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo.

One of the sharpest exchanges of the night came as Kamala Harris attacked former Vice President Joe Biden on his record opposing federal busing. When she asked him to agree that he had been wrong, he refused.

"I did not oppose busing in America,” Biden insisted. “I opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., took former Vice President Joe Biden to task over his past opposition to busing to integrate public schools, telling him she faced discrimination and “that little girl was me,” during Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate.

Harris, who described being the target of racial discrimination, said she had been part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.

It was a local decision, Biden said.

“But that’s where the federal government must step in,” Harris said. “That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. That’s why we need to pass the Equality Act. That’s why we need to pass the ERA. Because here are moments in history when states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”

Biden said he had supported the Equal Rights Amendment from the beginning, had extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years and ended with “anyway my time is up.”

The moment was the most viral of the debate, and Biden's refusal to acknowledge that he might have been wrong stood in stark contrast to the debate's second-biggest moment involving Pete Buttigieg. 

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was confronted with the racial unrest in his city after a black man, Eric Logan, was killed by a white police officer who said he was attacked with a knife but whose body camera was not on.

Buttigieg suspended his campaign temporarily last week to return to South Bend, where he was heckled and shouted down at a town hall. The shooting put racism and tensions between police departments and black communities into the spotlight.

Asked why after his two terms in office, the city’s police force is still only 6% percent African-American when the city is 26%, he answered bluntly.

“Because I couldn't get it done,” he said. “My community is in anguish right now, because of an officer-involved shooting.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg explains the lack of diversity in South Bend, Indiana’s police force and outlines his vision for reform after a black man was fatally shot by a white police officer.

Buttigieg said he could not take sides until the investigation was complete, but added, “It’s a mess and we’re hurting. And I could walk you through all of the things that we have done as a community. All the steps we took from bias training to deescalation, but it didn't save the life of Eric Logan.

“And until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism, whatever this particular incident teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem of the fact that there is a wall of mistrust put up one racist act at a time.”

Two of his competitors, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and California Rep. Eric Swalwell, challenged him on why it was taking so long to diversify the police department, with Swalwell insisting Buttigieg should fire the police chief.

The debate’s first question established the ideological differences between the field’s early front-runners, Biden, 76, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 77. Biden, asked to explain his statement that the country should not demonize the rich, started with a folksy story about his father telling him that a job was more than a paycheck, that it was about dignity and respect. The country has to return dignity to the middle class, he said. Meanwhile the Trump tax cut benefiting the wealthy had put the country in a horrible position, he said.

Biden, whose answers seemed not as clear as those of some of the others, wants to position himself as an electable moderate who can beat President Donald Trump by winning over disillusioned Trump supporters.

Moderators ask each candidate what issue they would pursue — if they could choose only one — if elected president.

Sanders has taken on the progressive label, a democratic socialist who says he is fighting for economic equality and working people and against Trump and other oligarchs.

Pressed, he acknowledged that his plans for new government benefits, free public colleges and universities, eliminating student debt and Medicare for all would raise taxes for the middle class. But they would pay less in health care costs, he said.

Among their disagreements: whether to build on Obamacare or replace it with Medicaid for all.

Biden talked about his son’s death from cancer and those of his first wife and a daughter in an automobile accident, noting he couldn't "fathom" where he'd be without health care during those times. "I’m against any Democrat who opposes, takes down Obamacare, and then a Republican who wants to get rid of it," he said.

Sanders defended Medicare for all although as for how it would be implemented, he said only, "We will have Medicare for all when tens of millions of people are prepared to stand up and tell the insurance companies and the drug companies that their day is gone."

Another difference? The Iraq War, which Sanders singled out. He led the fight against the war while Biden voted for it, he said. Biden said he later led the effort to bring American troops home from Iraq.

Swalwell made a direct pitch for a candidate younger than the field’s front-runner in polls, Biden.

Swalwell, 38, pivoted from a statement about wiping out debt for teachers to recalling what he said was a comment that Biden made 32 years ago: “It’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell recalled seeing former Vice President Joe Biden speaking to his school when he was 6 years old and encouraged people to “pass the torch,” so Swalwell suggested Biden do the same during Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate.

It is still time to pass the torch if the country is going to confront gun violence, climate change and other crises facing the country, Swalwell said.

Biden was asked if he would like "to sing a torch song" — and though he addressed the original issue, improving education, he did avoid the question of age.

But other candidates were happy to take it on. Buttigieg, 37, tried to interject as “the youngest guy on the stage,” while Sanders called out that he was “a part of Joe’s generation” who had the guts to take on Wall Street, fossil fuel companies and others.

Harris, 54, broke up the argument by saying that the country did not want to witness a food fight. “They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table,” she said.

Later, during a discussion about climate change, Swalwell returned to his theme, pass the torch, prompting the 66-year-old Marianne Williamson to counter that a younger body did not mean new ideas.

The debate's first night featured Spanish, as first former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, then New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker offered a few lines in Español. The only Latino candidate in the field, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, added that he would say, "Adiós to Donald Trump."

The question for night two: What language would Buttigieg speak? The South Bend mayor famously learned to speak Norwegian to read more books by a Norwegian author, Erlend Loe, and chatted with Norwegian media crew. His other languages: French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Dari and Maltese, the language of his father’s home country.

Meanwhile, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand studied Mandarin in China and Taiwan and greeted a Voice of America News reporter in Mandarin in April.

In the end, Buttigieg's brief language exchange was in ... Spanish.

Andrew Yang, a former tech executive and political newcomer, is best known for his proposal for a universal basic income of $12,000 a year. He is calling the payments the “Freedom Dividend.”

Yang, whose internet followers are called the Yang Gang, distinguished himself before a word was uttered.

He appeared without a tie.

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He was less successful standing out among the 10 candidates on stage. He got the least amount to speak at 2 minutes, 53 seconds -- although he did use some of that time to drop the only curse of the debate, saying that Russia is "laughing their asses off" for successfully hacking America's democracy. 

Biden took on Trump directly the most often, with nine mentions of the president. When asked what his top priority would be in office — the one issue he would pursue above everything else — he answered, "Defeat Donald Trump."

Biden tackled Trump on the very first question he was asked, about the economy: "Look, Donald Trump thinks Wall Street built America. Ordinary middle class Americans built America."

Gillibrand and Williamson both mentioned Trump seven times, followed by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Harris, Sanders and Yang with six references, Buttigieg and Hickelooper at two and Swalwell at one.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, calls out President Donald Trump for lying to the American people during his campaign.

When asked why he could beat Donald Trump, Sanders didn't hold back: "The polls have us 10 points ahead of Donald Trump because the American people understand that Trump is a phony, Trump is a pathological liar and a racist and that he lied to the the American people during his campaign."

Allie Weintraub contributed to this story.

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