COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Oconee County Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Sperry was a freshman at Syracuse University in 1965 when he met his dorm floor’s resident adviser, a gregarious graduate law student named Joe Biden.
Back then, Biden was advocating civil rights for African Americans, bringing black athletes up to their dorm floor to mingle with white students like himself. So when a controversy erupted this week about Biden’s comments touting his relationships with segregationist senators, Sperry was bothered that other campaigns went on the attack.
“It's totally stupid,” said Sperry, who is white, during the state’s party convention this past weekend. “He cares about people. He didn't care who you are or what you are. He just cared about people.”
But times have changed. And Biden is now battling the perception that he hasn't changed with them.
Biden’s fond reminiscence last week of bygone days when he worked with senators with opposing views including a pair of virulent racists drew renewed scrutiny of his lengthy Senate record on racial issues, and furious responses from his primary opponents. That tension came to a head over the weekend, as the center of the political universe shifted to African American-heavy South Carolina and Rep. Jim Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) World Famous Fish Fry.
Gavin Vazquez, a freshman at Clemson University, said Biden was one of his top three candidate choices alongside Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). He’d been ready to forgive Biden for his past support of the 1994 crime bill, which triggered a spike in federal incarceration rates, but the former vice president’s comments and defensive reaction to criticism renewed his concerns.
“I don’t appreciate the fact that he’s kind of trying to shrug it off right now,” Vazquez said as he stood in line on Friday for fried whiting at the largest cattle call so far of the 2020 campaign. “He should come out and apologize for it or at least address it.”
Biden needs black voters to win the Democratic nomination. The question after a gaffe-filled week: Do they still need him?
“Nobody gets a pass”
Clyburn, the state’s most powerful Democrat, the top-ranked black congressman and an old Biden buddy, told VICE News that the saga was much ado about nothing. He pointed out during a Wednesday conversation in D.C. that he’d worked with racists as well. In a subsequent conversation at the party’s Saturday convention, he said he didn’t think most people were paying attention.
“I went to my barber shop yesterday. Nobody’s concerned about that.”
“I don’t know about it breaking through. I get a lot of my intel from barber shops. I went to my barber shop yesterday,” he told VICE News. “Nobody’s concerned about that.”
But Clyburn bristled when asked if he thought Biden might be a bit out of step with the times.
“I’m 78 years old. I’m older than Joe, and I think I’m fine,” he said.
Clyburn might be right that the Biden remarks are an inside-the-beltway story. Only about half of the two dozen black Democratic activists and voters VICE News talked to over two days of events had heard much about Biden’s comments, and not all of them cared.
But a generational split emerged in how voters took Biden’s remarks.
Johnnie Cordero, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Black Caucus, told VICE News that many older black voters love Biden for his association with President Obama and are loath to criticize him because they don’t want to weaken a candidacy they think is inevitable. The younger generation, on the other hand, expects more, he said during a meet-and-greet between candidates and millennial voters that his group organized.
“I think older people say, 'Joe, Joe, Joe, Joe, Joe,' and pretty much Joe can't do anything wrong,” he said. “Others, younger people, are saying, ‘No, nobody gets a pass.’”
Rival campaigns see an opening with Biden’s most recent misstep to rehash other problematic votes and comments from Biden’s past, from Biden’s key role in passing a 1984 law that increased drug penalties and allowed police to seize people’s property without proving their guilt to his spearheading 1986 and 1994 crime bills to his treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
“Weeks like this week remind us that his record prior to Obama ain’t that good. And the electability argument takes a hit,” said Bakari Sellers, a top 2008 South Carolina surrogate for Obama who backed Clinton in 2016 and now supports Harris. “It’s not a knockout punch with Joe Biden — it’s death by a thousand cuts.”
Biden’s front-runner status is rooted in his support with black voters, a key part of the Democratic coalition — especially in South Carolina.
Three in five Democratic primary voters in the state are black. Biden leads with 37% support, a 20-point lead over Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the next-closest candidate, according to a recent Charleston Post and Courier poll. That’s his biggest lead in any of the early primary states, and owes itself to support from black voters; he led Warren by 52% to 14% among African Americans in the poll. He’s been hovering in the mid-30s in most national polls, with roughly half of African Americans supporting him.
Biden’s team is hoping he can rely on his ties to the black community as a bulwark against an insurgency in other early-voting states, much as Hillary Clinton did four years ago. After barely winning Iowa and getting crushed in New Hampshire, Clinton destroyed Sanders in South Carolina before romping across the South on Super Tuesday, giving her an insurmountable delegate lead and effectively locking in her nomination.
But Biden’s critics see a different Clinton parallel.
“He’s more Clinton ‘08 than Clinton ‘16,” said Sellers.
Actor and activist Danny Glover, a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign, says black voters will realize Biden is too old for this shit once they know his fraught legislative history.
“We can’t forget about what Joe Biden’s past has been.”
“Obviously it’s his association with President Obama which has given him this posture, this position [with black voters],” Glover told VICE News between stumping for Sanders at the convention. “But we can’t forget about what Joe Biden’s past has been. And there’s many things that we should be concerned about.”
Biden’s Tuesday trip down memory lane reinforced those concerns, as he mentioned a pair of segregationists he was able to work with — Sens. James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.).
“He never called me boy, he always called me son,” he said of Eastland.
Most of Biden’s 2020 primary competitors pounced, with Booker and Harris, the two black candidates in the race, expressing the most outrage.
“It is misinformed. If the people he was speaking of had their way I would not be a United States senator. I find that very upsetting,” Harris told VICE News as she exited an event at the Hickory Tavern Friday evening.
Booker was even more outspoken.
“The words reflected a lack of understanding about certain power dynamics, a lack of understanding about how his words could be hurtful. I know his heart, he’s not a racist,” Booker told VICE News Saturday evening as he exited the state party convention. “But if he’s seeking to be the leader of our party and the leader of our nation this is a lesson he should not have to have.”
Biden fired back when Booker made a similar remark earlier in the week, saying it was Booker who needed to apologize. The two had a tense phone conversation afterwards. Booker declined to say whether he thought Biden now understood why he’d found the vice president’s comments so problematic.
“You should ask him,” he responded.
After five days of outrage, Biden finally came close to an apology on Saturday when he told Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC that the way the comments were broadly understood were “not what I intended.”
“I do understand the consequence of the word ‘boy,’” he continued. “But it wasn’t said in any of that context at all.”
History of gaffes
This isn’t exactly the first time Biden has raised eyebrows on racial issues. In 2007, he famously described his future running mate as “ the first sort of mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Just one day before his gaffe triggered a week of questions, Biden aggressively pushed back against black MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid during a forum at the Poor People’s Campaign, approaching and looming over the sitting Reid as he cajoled her.
Biden may have rolled his eyes at the flap over his remarks on segregationists. But it’s clear he and his team are much more concerned about his legislative record.
The former vice president, who has apologized for his role in passing draconian crime bills three decades ago, rolled out a series of proposals to undo some of the damage he’d done during his Saturday evening speech at the South Carolina Democratic Party’s convention.
“No more mandatory minimums, period. End private prisons,” Biden declared to loud cheers from the convention audience. “No one should be going to jail because they’re addicted … No juveniles in adult prisons.”
Biden has long had a resistance to apologizing for perceived gaffes. That was on display earlier in the campaign, when he dragged his feet for days on responding when multiple women accused him of inappropriate (but nonsexual) physical contact before joking about the controversy onstage.
On policy, he’s been a little more willing to give. He recently reversed his long held position supporting the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits public funds for abortions.
That played well with the crowd at a Planned Parenthood convention held during the Democratic festivities that was one of Biden’s pit-stops on the weekend tour around town.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund Executive Director Kelley Robinson, who is black, commended Biden for that change of heart — and suggested that voters should continue to press him if they’d been hurt by his other comments.
“He’s got to continue to listen to voters. His quick clarification on his position on the Hyde Amendment is an example of listening to voters and evolving on matters when it counts and when it matters,” she told VICE News. “The opportunity now for anyone that’s agitated is to make it clear what the impact of that comment is on real people.”
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the crowd during the 2019 South Carolina Democratic Party State Convention on June 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)