Fact-checking the Democratic debate in Detroit, night two

Democrats trying to unseat former Vice President Joe Biden from the top of early 2020 polls tore into his past votes and political history during the second night of the Detroit Democratic presidential debates, attacking Biden’s opposition to federal school busing in the 1970s, his opposition to a 1980s child care tax credit bill, and his support in the 1990s for get-tough crime legislation.

Here are the facts from the July 31 debate. (You can see our fact-checks from night one here.)

Joe Biden, attacking Sen. Cory Booker’s time as Newark mayor: "The Justice Department came after you for saying you were engaging in behavior that was inappropriate, and then in fact nothing happened, the entire time you were mayor." 

This attack doesn’t tell the full story. When Booker became mayor in 2006, he inherited decades of a city with violent crime and a troubled police department.

In 2010, the ACLU of New Jersey asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the police department, citing 400 allegations of police misconduct. Booker initially resisted the idea of a federal investigation, but later welcomed the probe

In July 2014, the Justice Department released a long list of constitutional violations by the department and cited stop and arrest practices, use of force and theft by officers, among other serious problems. (By that time, Booker was a U.S. senator.)

"The City of Newark is diminished, and the NPD rendered less effective, by these patterns and practices of unconstitutional conduct," the Justice Department wrote.

Udi Ofer, an ACLU official, tweeted in March that Booker helped usher in reforms before the Justice Department came out with its findings. Those reforms included stop-and-frisk tracking and reporting policies, a policy to restrict the police department’s cooperation with immigration authorities, and the addition of a civilian review board.

— Amy Sherman

Kamala Harris, U.S. senator from California: "I'm going to go back to Vice President Biden because your plan does not cover everyone in America by your staff’s and your own definition. Ten million people, as many as 10 million people, will not have access to health care."

Her estimate needs further scrutiny. When Biden unveiled his health care plan a couple weeks ago, his campaign noted — under the bold heading, "Give Every American Access to Affordable Health Insurance" — that his plan would insure "more than an estimated 97 percent of Americans."

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign initially seized on that figure, arguing that that would leave about 10 million people uninsured.

A Harris campaign spokeswoman pointed to the fact that there are an estimated 329.3 million people in the United States, and 3 percent of the total population would be about 9.88 million people.

Imprecise math aside, there are other factors that could play into the number of uninsured individuals under a Biden health care system. That includes the fact that some Americans just don’t want insurance — the problem the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate was intended to fix.

— Emmarie Huetteman, Kaiser Health News

Kirsten Gillibrand, U. S. senator from New York, about Biden: "When the Senate was debating middle class affordability for child care he wrote an op-ed. He voted against it, the only vote, but what he wrote (in) an op-ed was that he believed that women working outside the home would, ‘Create the deterioration of family’. He also said that women who were working outside the home were ‘avoiding responsibility’."

Gillibrand appeared to be referring to a statement by Biden in 1981 when he was the lone senator to vote against expanding a child care tax credit. That vote gained new life recently, after the Huffington Post published comments by Biden that were reported in the Indianapolis News on July 29, 1981. It included the following quote (bold type is ours):

"I think it is a sad commentary on this society when we say, as a matter of social policy, that we should make it easier for people who have neither the financial necessity nor the personal need to forget their responsibility to take care of a child all day from the time the child is an infant until the time he or she gets in school. I do not care whether in a modern marriage you want the man or the woman to take that responsibility. That has to be resolved by each couple individually."

Biden’s full op-ed had the headline "Congress is subsidizing deterioration of family." (We don’t know if he wrote that.) Within the op-ed, Biden wrote that "a recent act of Congress puts the federal government in the position, through the tax codes, of subsidizing the deterioration of the family. That is tragic." 

The op-ed does not single out women working outside the home. Biden’s general point was that lower income families should not have to subsidize higher income families’ day care expenses. 

Biden also made it clear he didn’t have a problem with women working outside the home when he said he was proud of his wife’s teaching career in a floor speech July 28, 1981. Biden said he was "proud of the fact that she has such a career."

Biden didn’t oppose the concept of a child care tax credit, but opposed giving it to families making above $30,000. (In today’s dollars that would equal about $84,500.) 

In 1976, Biden voted along with the vast majority of senators for legislation which enacted a tax credit of 20 percent of the employment-related expenses arising for household and dependent care services.

— Amy Sherman

Mike Bennet, U.S. senator from Colorado: "I believe we should finish the job we started with the Affordable Care Act with a public option that gives everybody in this audience the chance to pick for their family whether they want private insurance or public insurance and requires drug companies to be negotiated with by Medicare and it provides competition. That is totally different from the plan that Sen. (Elizabeth) Warren and Sen. (Bernie) Sanders and Sen. Harris have proposed, which would make illegal employer-based health insurance in this country."

Both Bennet and Biden claimed Harris’ plan would lead to the elimination of employer-based insurance. That could be the case, particularly for plans that would not meet the expansive requirements for coverage of "medically necessary" services Harris outlined.

There is more to learn about Harris’ plan, released just two days ago — and at least a couple problems with Bennet’s claim.

To start, while Warren, Sanders and Harris all use the term "Medicare for All" to refer to their preferred health care plan, they do not share a single plan.

The Sanders plan (endorsed by Warren) would eliminate private insurance in favor of a government plan. Harris’ plan, though, keeps a role for private insurers willing to offer Medicare coverage that meet certain benefit and cost requirements.

During her plan’s decade-long phase-in, Harris wrote in a Medium post — and Bennet’s campaign cited as evidence — that it would "provide a commonsense path for employers, employees, the underinsured, and others on federally-designated programs, such as Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act exchanges, to transition."

Would those employer plans transition out of existence? Harris’ campaign did not immediately respond to inquiries about the future of employer-based insurance under her proposal.

— Emmarie Huetteman, Kaiser Health News

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii on Sen. Kamala Harris’ time as a prosecutor: Harris "put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana." 

This claim about Harris putting "over 1,500 people in jail" for pot violations is cited in a February article by the Free Beacon, a conservative online news website. The article says "at least 1,560 people were sent to state prisons for marijuana-related offenses between 2011 and 2016," when Harris was California attorney general. It says the data comes from reports from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

PolitiFact could not immediately access that data during the debate. But we do know that as attorney general, Harris would not have personally prosecuted marijuana cases. Those cases would have been handled by lower-level state attorneys. 

The portion about Harris laughing about marijuana is supported. 

Running for re-election in 2014 as state attorney general, Harris laughed at a TV reporter’s question about her GOP opponent’s support for legalizing marijuana, adding "he’s entitled to his opinion" but not offering her own. 

In a February interview on New York-based radio show "The Breakfast Club," Harris said she had smoked marijuana in the past, "I have. And I inhaled ⁠— I did inhale. It was a long time ago. But, yes." The senator then laughed, according to a CNN article, and said she tried pot in college and noted that it was in the form of a joint. "I just broke news," she said.

 As California attorney general in 2016, Harris declined to weigh in on a state ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana. Now as a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, Harris supports marijuana legalization.

 — Chris Nichols, PolitiFact California

Andrew Yang, entrepreneur: "Amazon is closing 30% of America's stores and malls and paying zero in taxes while doing it."

There’s no question that online retailing ⁠— of which Amazon is the biggest U.S. player ⁠— has taken a bite out of brick-and-mortar store sales. But Yang’s specific assertion needs more context.

According to the consulting firm CoStar, retail stores shuttered a record number of square feet for one year by August 2018, even before the full 12-month period was complete. Meanwhile, e-commerce sales as a percentage of all sales has been growing for years. And the number of malls is predicted to fall by 25% or 30% within the next few years, a metric that Yang’s campaign cited when we asked for evidence. 

That said, overall brick-and-mortar retail sales haven’t plummeted ⁠— they’re actually holding their own:

Indeed, some sectors (including automotive, appliances and hardware) remain relatively impervious to online sales, even as others (such as toys, entertainment and books) have deteriorated.

As for Amazon’s tax burden, Yang oversimplified. The $11.2 billion company didn’t pay any federal income taxes last year, according to the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, a liberal think tank. In fact, it received a $129 million rebate. 

But while Amazon takes advantage of tax breaks and loopholes, it does pay other taxes, including sales taxes, property taxes, payroll taxes and unemployment insurance. 

— Louis Jacobson

Michael Bennet: "88% of the people in our prisons dropped out of high school."

That’s an overstatement — at least when compared to the results of the 2014 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies Survey of Incarcerated Adults.

The survey involved a representative sample of 1,300 prisoners who answered questions about their educational attainment, demographics, and other matters. According to that survey, 30% of incarcerated adults had less than a high school diploma; 64% had a high school credential.

We found other, older data that’s a bit closer to Bennet’s claim. The National Dropout Prevention Center on its website says that 75% of America’s state prison inmates are high school dropouts and that 59% of America’s federal prison inmates did not complete high school. The center references a 2003 study, which appears to be one from the Justice Department, and based on survey estimates from the 1990s.

Bennet’s campaign sent PolitiFact a link to a 2014 post on the Huffington Post, contributed by Matthew Lynch, identified as the editor of The Edvocate & The Tech Edvocate. That post is about the causes and costs of the high school dropout rate. It has a line that says "over 80 percent of the incarcerated population is high school dropouts." But it does not name or link to its source of information. 

A 2014 post by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond also cites an 80% estimate, but also omits its source — "nearly 80% of all prisoners are high school dropouts or recipients of the General Educational Development (GED) credential," the post said, adding that more than half of inmates who have a GED got it while incarcerated; and that about 41% of all inmates have no high school credential at all.

— Miriam Valverde

Kamala Harris: "I went to a place in Florida called Homestead, and there is a private detention facility being paid for by your taxpayer dollars — a private detention facility — that currently houses 2,700 children."

Harris overstated the number of migrant children who are at the Homestead, Fla., facility. As of July 22, there were approximately 990 children at Homestead, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The capacity of the site is 2,700.

The Miami Herald reported Homestead is no longer taking additional children. The Homestead temporary shelter for unaccompanied children reopened in 2018 amid the first new wave of unaccompanied children who arrived that March. It is operated by Caliburn International, a private, for-profit company and a contractor of the government.

Harris said that when she visited the Homestead site in Miami in late June she saw children in single-file lines being walked into barracks. Other Democrats have criticized conditions at the shelter, including that the children get less time to make phone calls than do federal prisoners.

— Amy Sherman