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Booker, Castro Question Political Factors Cutting Down Democratic Field

Following Sen. Kamala Harris' exit from the race, other presidential contenders and Democratic activists are reviving broader concerns about the nomination process.

The prospect of an all-white Democratic presidential debate later this month is concerning for some candidates and party activists. Following California Sen. Kamala Harris’ exit from the race, still other critics have larger issues with the overall nomination process.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was in Des Moines Thursday, giving a speech on the state of his campaign, outlining the arcs of this cycle’s contenders and laying out his critique of a political environment he says favors billionaires over black people.

“It is a problem when an immensely qualified, widely supported, truly accomplished black woman running to lead the party, a party that is significantly empowered by black women voters, didn't have the resources that she needed to continue here to Iowa,” Booker said. “What message is that sending that we heralded the most diverse field in our history? And now we're seeing people like her, dropping out of this campaign.”

At the time of publishing, the candidates who have qualified for the Democratic debate in Los Angeles later this month are all white. (Harris had met the requirements before she dropped out).

"What message is that sending that we heralded the most diverse field in our history? And now we're seeing people like [Kamala Harris], dropping out of this campaign." - New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker

As a woman of Indian and Jamaican heritage, Harris’ candidacy was seen as historic, and her campaign resonated with many Iowa caucusgoers as well as little girls and young people of color. The prospect of Harris’ bid not generating the polling and fundraising to be successful is reviving broader concerns for some Democrats.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro is taking issue with not just the Democratic National Committee debate rules that set specific metrics for grassroots fundraising and polling number. Speaking with reporters Thursday, Castro also criticized the outsized role of the largely white and rural early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

“My concern is not the presence of any one candidate on the debate stage only. We need to change the whole game,” Castro said. “There’s no reason that Iowa and New Hampshire that hardly have any black people or people of color, should always go first. There’s no reason that a caucus system that makes it harder for working people and people with disabilities to participate should be what we begin with. We need to work to reform how we elect a president in the first place.”

"We need to change the whole game. There's no reason that Iowa and New Hampshire that hardly have any black people or people of color, should always go first." - Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro

Castro and Booker both decried the role of money in presidential politics in their statements Thursday, as other candidates in the field have throughout the cycle. With former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s official entrance, there are now two billionaires vying for the Democratic nomination.

Despite the criticism of Iowa’s caucuses and its role in kicking off the nomination process, the chairs of Iowa’s Democratic and Republican parties remain united in defending Iowa’s first in the nation caucuses.

Supporters of the system argue that the state’s caucuses encourage party building, democratic engagement and a kind of political good neighborliness unmatched outside of an old-school New England town meeting.

Former President Barack Obama, who surged to first place in the Iowa caucus in 2008, has repeatedly talked about his love for the state and its caucuses.

"Every age and different backgrounds; you had farmers in overalls and seed hats, and you had young African American kids and Latino moms…there was a guy who looked like Gandalf," Obama recalled, according to an oral history of his 2008 bid. "That night, that moment, I felt as if what I believed about this country and what I believed about politics had been made manifest."

Advocates also argue the sparsely-populated state pushes candidates to beef up on rural issues, and gives them an opportunity to seek out personal interactions with voters at small-scale events while competing in a state with comparatively cheap media markets.

Still, the debate about the presidential nominating process and Iowa’s role is likely to continue. Castro is slated to host a town hall event “on the role of Iowa and New Hampshire in the Democratic primary” next Tuesday at Drake University in Des Moines.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter