PoliticsAhead of Jim Clyburn Fish Fry, Biden segregation comments spur debate
Jim McMullan, Actor in 'Dallas,' 'Downhill Racer' and 'Shenandoah,' Dies at 82
He also played Buffalo Bill on the big screen and the stage and was a regular guest star on Quinn Martin productions.
Former Vice President Biden’s about two former segregationist lawmakers is looming large as 22 White House hopefuls gather in South Carolina to make their case to voters in a state where African Americans make up the majority of the Democratic electorate.
Biden, who has led the Democratic field in all major polling, endured thehe’s seen from party rivals during his nearly two-month-old campaign after he boasted during a fundraiser about his ability to get things done in the Senate. He alluded to working with Democratic segregationist senators James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia early in his career while trying to make a point about lost civility in national politics.
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But bringing up Eastland, who had been called the "Voice of the White South," and Talmadge spurred recriminations from his fellow White House hopefuls, including Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, both who are African American. They questioned Biden for name-checking lawmakers who opposed racial integration of public schools.
Biden and campaign surrogates have pushed back against the criticism, saying his remarks were being misconstrued.
The controversy continues to simmer even as some party faithful try to downplay the intra-party sniping ahead of thisAll but one of the party’s major candidates are scheduled to stump at Rep. Jim Clyburn's “World Famous” Fish Fry, the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention, a state party dinner, and an event hosted by the political arm of Planned Parenthood.
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“You must judge politicians by votes, not by association,” said civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, a South Carolina native who traveled to the state to take part in the party gathering and launch a voter registration drive. “You can relate to all kinds of people, you just cannot swallow all of their venom.”
The importance of South Carolina
South Carolina holds the fourth-in-the-nation party nominating contest on Feb. 29 and has received an extraordinary amount of attention from candidates in the early going. By the end of this weekend, candidates will have held more than 175 campaign events in the state this year, according to a USA TODAY analysis of candidates' public schedules.
Black voters make up more than 60 percent of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina, and are key to a primary victory.
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Several African American South Carolina lawmakers and Democratic operatives told USA TODAY that the episode has spurred a debate about whether Biden is in touch with the black voters he’s trying to court.
State Rep. J.A. Moore, a lawmaker from North Charleston who has endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris, said that Biden’s remarks about Eastland and Talmadge adds another layer of skepticism about the impact that the former vice president’s long political career has had on African Americans.
Moore said Biden’s backing of the— tough-on-crime legislation that some critics say disproportionately impacted African Americans — and the an African American law professor who faced sometimes misogynistic questioning during Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing from an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee led by Biden, had previously caused him concern.
“I just think he’s out of step,” said Moore, whose sister and eight others were killed in the“That’s not his first time touting his ability to work with people who have been bad for my community. What I think it goes back to is that much of the African American community thinks he did a pretty good job while he was the vice president for Barack Obama. We have to remember that’s Barack Obama’s administration — not his.”
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Who should apologize?
In Biden's defense
Several senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus came to Biden’s defense as he received flak for his remarks. Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress and host of this weekend’s fish fry,that he worked with the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, an avowed segregationist. Biden adviser Anita Dunn also noted in an MSNBC interview that Biden did not praise Eastland and Talmadge.
“The point of the story is that you have to be able to work with people, even if they hold positions repugnant to you, in order to make some progress,”
South Carolina Rep. Bill Clyburn, who is the cousin of the powerful U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, said in a USA TODAY interview that Biden has demonstrated throughout his career that he’s guided by a sense of fairness and a desire to promote “good government.”
“You ought not to abuse too much the person who tries to find common ground,” said Bill Clyburn, who has endorsed Biden.
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Kamala Harris stood out from the 10-person crowd several times during the NBC debate. Her exchange with Joe Biden, who is leading in the polls, put him on the defensive.
But another state party operative, Berkeley County Chairwoman Melissa Watson, said Biden has too often been “given a pass” for hurtful remarks or appeared to act in a matter that could be construed as tone deaf.
At the start of his campaign, Biden addressed accusations from women that Biden violated their personal space or kissed, hugged or touched them without consent.
Watson, who has backed Harris, questioned whether Biden has become averse to admitting when he’s wrong. For example, Biden earlier this month reasserted and then backed off his support for the Hyde Amendment, a federal rule prohibiting the use of taxpayer money on most abortion procedures.
“He must do better,” Watson said of Biden. “It’s not good. He doesn’t want to seem like a flip-flopper. He just recently had to walk back his support the Hyde Amendment, and he doesn’t want his campaign to be stuck with a title of ‘retractor or flip-flopper in chief.’ What he doesn’t seem to understand is that he was in the Senate for nearly 40 years and America evolved.”
Booker, Biden go back and forth
Biden said the piling on by 2020 rivals was unfair and stood by his remarks. Meanwhile, his campaign surrogates argued that the comment was similar to anecdotes he's told before to underscore the need to find common ground to make Washington work.
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Booker, who offered the sharpest critique among 2020 candidates, took offense when Biden told reporters that he "should know better."
"I know the damage that segregationists caused and how that still affects black and brown communities like the one I go home to," Booker wrote in a fundraising email. "I know the people that Vice President Biden worked with would not have wanted me in the Senate. And I know that anyone running to be president of the United States and the leader of our party shouldn’t need this lesson."
In his remarks at the New York City fundraiser, Biden recalled, while speaking in a southern drawl, that Eastland “never called me boy, he always called me son,” according to a pool report of the event.
Booker rebuked Biden for using language that he said was insensitive.
“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’ Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity,” Booker said.
South Carolina Rep. John King, who has endorsed Booker, said he agreed with the New Jersey Democrat. But King was circumspect on what impact he thought Biden’s comment might have on his standing with black voters in the state.
“Vice President Biden will be judged on his record as an elected official prior to being elected vice president and I think that people have started looking at that,” King said. “We’ll just have to see come election day, that what he says to the African American community, if it actually sells and whether it means something or not. Or maybe they vote for him because of his connection to the Obama administration.”
Biden later Wednesday called Booker to talk about the day's comments. A Booker campaign spokeswoman said the senator reiterated what he had said publicly to the vice president directly.
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'Naked' politics or true offense?
State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman and Biden backer, slammed Booker Thursday morning for carrying out a "pure naked political tactic" by going after Biden over the anecdote.
"I know as chairman of the party I had (Biden) speak at least twice, maybe as many as three times (including) once as vice president and some variation of that story has been told ... when he's talking about reaching across the aisle and working with people who you have huge differences with and may find reprehensible," Harpootlian said. "That's all he's talking about there. In no way has he ever indicated that he approved or any way adopted their positions. Cory Booker is looking for a fight because he is so far down in the polls."
It remains to be seen how much of an impact Biden’s comments will have on rank-and-file African American voters, a key constituency that will play an important role in deciding who is the party’s nominee and that candidate's chance against President Trump in the general election.
Biden has said that if he wins the nomination, he can beat Trump in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas — all states that Trump won in 2016. But in order to be competitive in those southern states, the former vice president will almost certainly need a strong turnout from African American voters.
For the South Carolina Democratic primary, black voters make up, making them a potent voting bloc.
But Democrats in South Carolina are decidedly more conservative than party faithful in nearly any other part of the country, said Sam Johnson, a former chief of staff to Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin.
"You have to be nimble in how you talk about certain issues in South Carolina politics," Johnson said.
Passing inconvenience or lasting damage?
Biden held a 20-percentage point lead over his nearest rival in the Palmetto State, according to aThe commanding lead, however, shrunk from a 31-point lead for Biden over his closest rival — Sen. Bernie Sanders — in the Post and Courier’s
Some South Carolina Democrats who are backing rivals of Biden for the nomination say Biden has benefited from a coattails effect from serving as President Obama’s vice president.
Rep. Terry Alexander, who has endorsed Sanders, predicted that Biden’s support will slip among black voters as they are exposed to the former vice president on the stump and learn about his record.
“It’s early, and Biden’s support is soft,” Alexander said. “The more he talks, the more he puts himself in trouble. It’s almost like he’s acting like Trump. He thinks, ‘I can say whatever I want to say and the people will support me no matter what.’ But you put him out there two days in a row and he’ll say something like (what he said about Eastland and Talmadge).
But this weekend offers Biden a chance to turn the episode into a footnote or exacerbate the problem, South Carolina political analysts say.
"This is a good chance for Biden to get his feet back under him, (but) it is going to be hard for his staff to keep him protected from the media," said Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY:
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