DAVENPORT — A democratic socialist, a Republican and an ex-CEO walked into an Iowa auditorium Sunday.

That's not the setup to a joke, but the premise of a presidential forum held in Davenport three weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

At the three-hour People’s Caucus forum, activists from a coalition of social justice groups asked questions of three presidential candidates — Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who's running as a Democrat; former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland; and Republican former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois — whose campaigns are as different from one another as any in the 2020 race.

The first and most highly anticipated speaker was Sanders, a New England democratic socialist and longest-serving Independent in Congressional history. Considered a front-runner in Iowa, Sanders said his “campaign is not only about defeating Trump” but about “creating a movement of millions of people who are prepared to stand up to an incredibly powerful corporate elite.”

The forum was sponsored by Quad Cities Interfaith; Gamaliel of Illinois-Iowa, a group committed to uniting people of diverse faiths and races; and the Lane Evans Legacy Project. It was held at Davenport North High School and drew a crowd of more than 500 from across Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.

Candidates delivered brief introductions then took questions from advocates, who were mostly not Iowans or Quad-Citians but from Chicagoland and metro St. Louis.

An exception was Brian Munoz, a Navy veteran from Silvis who asked Sanders about how he would end the country’s protracted involvement in foreign wars.

Sanders, former chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, discussed how in 2002, he led congressional efforts to oppose the Iraq War, a conflict he called “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this democracy.”

“Throughout my life, I have done everything I can to try to see international conflict resolved diplomatically and not through military efforts,” Sanders said. “The young men and women who go off to war are almost always from the working class of this country, not the billionaire class.”

In an interview after Sanders spoke, Munoz, who considers himself a political independent, said he’d grade Sander’s response an A. “I felt like he jumped right on top of it. I saw his passion. The inflection in his voice went up a little bit. He realized I was talking about the topic of today.”

Walsh was the second speaker. A one-term congressman from Chicago’s suburbs elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, Walsh railed against the Republican Party, which he called “a cult.” When asked about environmental racism and climate change, he decried Republican denialism.

“Let’s be real, my party — the Republican Party — has tended to be blind on this issue and ignore the facts on this issue,” Walsh said. “If Republicans call climate change a hoax, then we don’t have a seat at the table to work on solutions.”

“We need to begin to move away from fossil fuels toward clean energy,” Walsh added. “As a Republican, this is one of those issues where because the Republican Party is so lost, I would love to take some outspoken leadership on this and talk about how we transition to cleaner forms of energy.”

Between Walsh and Delaney, activists took the stage and spoke about criminal justice reform and personal experiences enduring racism. A short documentary was shown discussing alleged environmental poisoning in southern Illinois. Buckets were passed around to collect donations.

Delaney, the last candidate to speak, served three terms as a U.S. representative from Maryland. Before a still-full crowd nearing the end of the forum, Delaney reflected on how his Catholic faith informed his decision to enter public service from the private sector, where he was a successful entrepreneur.

“I’ve always believed that the best time to ever talk about stuff that matters to the common good is when people are in religious service,” Delaney said. “We shouldn’t feel like we can't talk about our faith and what it means to us, and also talk about the minimum wage, the earned income tax credit, affordable housing, universal health care, better public schools and an immigration system that is humane. Those things can work beautifully together.”

Delaney’s plans include eliminating private prisons and the cash bail system. He also dwellt on the separation of parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border, which he panned as “one of the most immoral things we’ve done as a country.”

The last questions asked of each candidate were whether or not they would commit to attending a political forum in East St. Louis, a community “that has been heavily disinvested and has high poverty rates,” said forum moderator Rev. Dr. John Welch, national Gamaliel chairman of the board.

Walsh and Delaney accepted, but Sanders said he could not commit to the date without knowing his schedule.

“We have had for many years governments that are more concerned for the needs of the wealthy, the powerful, the millionaire campaign contributors than the needs of the working class,” Sanders said in closing. “The only way we bring about change is when we all stand up together and fight for justice.”

Graham Ambrose is the Iowa politics reporter for the Quad-City Times. 

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