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Minority issues need bipartisan debate

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Ben Carson, part of the most diverse Republican presidential field in history, isn't satisfied with the conversation on race and minority issues that has developed during the campaign.

"I think it needs to be intensified. Republicans need to be talking about their programs for empowering people and allowing them to move out of the state of dependency and become part of the fabric of American success," said Carson, a retired neurosurgeon. "And I don't hear enough Republicans talking about that, even though that's what they believe."

Carson, who is black, was one of two GOP candidates who met Wednesday with Des Moines Register reporters and editors. The other, US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, is Latino. In the last Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll, taken in December, Carson and Rubio were in third and fourth place, respectively, in support from likely Republican caucusgoers in Iowa.


Rubio was dismissive of a question about whether the GOP candidates' discussion of race relations and immigration would help the party attract minority voters. "I think the immigration issue is unrelated to the racial issue. The immigration issue has largely been discussed in the context of national security," he said. "I haven't sensed anything on the racial front that in the Republican primary has been counterproductive."

Not relevant? Not counterproductive? National Hispanic groups warned Republicans in October that incendiary rhetoric on immigration issues, mostly coming from Donald Trump, would drive Latino voters away from the GOP. Republican National Committee leaders warned after the 2012 election that the party could not afford to see its share of the minority vote continue to shrink. They may as well have advised candidates to floss more.

Next week, race relations will be at the forefront of the campaign for the Iowa caucuses, but only Democrats will participate.

The historic Brown & Black Forum will feature Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders talking about issues important to black and Hispanic voters. The event is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Drake University, and it is scheduled to be broadcast live on the Fusion TV channel. More information is at


Former state Rep. Wayne Ford organized Iowa's first presidential candidate forum on minority issues in 1976 and then co-founded the Iowa Brown & Black Forum with Mary Campos in 1984.

Ford said next week's forum will focus on many of the same issues: immigration, criminal justice reform, economic development, education and health. "Those five areas, I don't think, ever have changed," he said.

Ford and Campos are both Democrats, but they agree there must be a bipartisan conversation on race. "They have to learn to work together," Campos said.

"America is not going to be as true as it can be until we deal with the race issue and we still have those challenges right now," Ford said.

He said the Black Lives Matter movement is in some ways repeating history from the civil rights demonstrations of his college years in the 1970s. "The other generation doesn't know about what we as baby boomers did," Ford said.

A similar forum for Republican candidates, originally scheduled for Dec. 3, was canceled because of organizational issues, among them a schedule conflict with an out-of-state event. Ford said he is still working with the Republican Party of Iowa to try to find other avenues to discuss race and minority issues, but so far, nothing has been scheduled.


That's a shame, because despite the polarization on issues like immigration, there is room for bipartisan progress on criminal justice reform and other topics. State Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, organized an excellent bipartisan summit on criminal justice reform last fall in Cedar Falls.

People around the country often look down their noses at Iowa's status in the presidential campaign. A population with more than 90 percent white people can hardly be representative of a more diverse nation, they say.

And yet, Iowa was the third state in the country to dump its ban on interracial marriage in the 1850s. The University of Iowa was the first public university to grant a law degree to an African-American. The Iowa Supreme Court effectively ordered school integration nearly a century before the U.S. Supreme Court. Iowans take a back seat to no one when it comes to caring about racial justice and civil rights.

It's important for Iowa to facilitate and encourage a robust discussion of race and minority issues during the presidential campaign. That discussion must involve both parties, and in Carson's words, "it needs to be intensified."

Kathie Obradovich is The Des Moines Register's political columnist. A version of this column was first published in The Des Moines Register and is part of an exchange with The Boston Globe intended to give readers an expanded view of the early presidential nomination process. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @KObradovich.