Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders took the stage Thursday night at the KMA Event Center in Las Vegas for a town hall event. The two-hour, question-and-answer forum was hosted by MSNBC/Telemundo and came just days before Nevada’s Democratic caucus.
NBC News' Jose Diaz-Balart and MSNBC anchor Chuck Todd grilled the dueling Democrats with wide-ranging questions, and emphasized issues that are important to Latino voters, like immigration.
Sanders took the stage first, and quickly reminded voters in Nevada that he was not the Democrat who had run against Barack Obama. One of the first questions asked by the moderators was about his position on the battle between Apple and the FBI over access to the San Bernardino, California, shooter's phone; Sanders said that while he is "very fearful" of Big Brother, he argued that there should be a way to fight terrorism while protecting constitutional rights.
"I think there is a middle ground that can be reached," Sanders said.
Re veterans and drug-related deportations, Sanders says it should not occur. #DemTownHall
— Joy Reid (@JoyAnnReid) February 19, 2016
Sanders faced questions from audience members about immigration and emphasized that immigration reform is a top priority for him, but when pressed for a timeline as to when that would happen, replied, "I'm not a dictator here."
"My immigration policy is to unite families, not divide families ... " Sanders said. "We will use our executive office and power. Hopefully we'll have the cooperation of the U.S. Congress."
These questions are excellent. Mass incarceration, feminism, intersectionality. #DemTownHall
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) February 19, 2016
When asked about the issue, the Democratic candidate said he is a feminist, and said that he would continue to strive for pay equality for women, citing that the pay disparity deepens even further for minority women.
"I consider myself a strong feminist. In fact, Gloria Steinem made me a honorary woman many, many years ago. I accepted it ... " Sanders said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "We will try desperately to pass pay equity for women. … I will continue that fight.”
"I consider myself a strong feminist," Sanders says at MSNBC town hall, citing Gloria Steinem making him "an honorary woman"in '96
— Carrie Dann (@CarrieNBCNews) February 19, 2016
Sanders answered questions regarding major themes of his campaign, including raising the minimum wage to $15, demilitarizing local police departments and making them look like the communities they serve and his plan for free college tuition, which he said he would pay for by taxing Wall Street. He also defended the work he has done on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, saying that he would "apologize to nobody."
When questioned about anti-Islam sentiment in the United States, Sanders spoke passionately, and said it was "absolutely unacceptable" for people to scapegoat religious or ethnic groups, whether Muslims or Latinos. Sanders said he was "appalled" that people would call Obama an illegitimate president because his father was born in Kenya.
"No one asked me if I was a citizen or not and my dad came from Poland," Sanders said. "Gee, what's the difference? Maybe the color of my skin."
Hillary gets some boos for trying to slag Sanders for just now deciding he's a Democrat. #DemTownHall
— Joy Reid (@JoyAnnReid) February 19, 2016
Kicking off her portion of the event, former Secretary of State Clinton defended her previous decision to support a filibuster of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito when he was a nominee and she was a U.S. senator from New York. In the wake of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death, Republicans have proposed not holding a vote on a potential nominee. Clinton claimed the two situations were different.
As they did with Sanders, the moderators asked Clinton to weigh in on the ongoing debate between Apple and the government.
“This is one of the most difficult dilemmas we are faced with … ” Clinton said. "I see both sides," Clinton said. "I think most citizens see both sides. This is why you need people in office who can try to bring folks together to find common ground."
Tackling questions from audience members about her position on immigration issues and immigration reform, she vowed to end the three- and 10-year bar provision, drawing cheers from the audience, and said she would use Obama's executive actions to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.
"I will go further if it's at all legally possible. I will make this a big political issue," Clinton said.
Clinton was asked by an audience member to release the transcripts of speeches she had made to private groups, and she said she would do so when the other presidential candidates do the same.
The most emotional moment came when an audience member cited a past comment of Clinton's about same-sex marriage. "It actually broke my heart when you said a marriage is between a man and a woman," he said.
Clinton responded by saying like many Americans, she has evolved and that she is adamant in protecting marriage equality, noting her endorsement from the Human Rights Campaign.
Clinton: Like many Amers, I have evolved in my views. I will protect marriage equality and pass the Equality Act. #DemTownHall
— The Advocate (@TheAdvocateMag) February 19, 2016
When asked whether she would propose legislation for workers to have the right to unionize in the workplace, Clinton said that yes, she would.
"That's why all the unions have endorsed me," she added. "I've always been a champion. I've always been there for them. They know I'm on their side — I'm not just showing up for election time," Clinton said.
She also stated that she supports a minimum wage increase to $12, and that she would use the bully pulpit to influence states to go further than that. The Democratic candidate was also asked what Cuba has done to deserve a presidential visit — Obama is slated to visit the country next month —and Clinton said Obama on Cuban soil would send a powerful message.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released earlier Thursday found that Clinton’s previous national lead significantly narrowed over the last month. Clinton drew support from 53 percent of people who were expected to vote in Democratic primaries; Sanders received 42 percent. A CNN poll Wednesday showed Clinton and Sanders in a virtual tie, 48 percent to 47.