Former Vice President Joe Biden became the target of Democratic criticism on Wednesday after he invoked two Southern segregationist senators by name as he fondly recalled the “civility” of the Senate in the 1970s and 1980s.
Speaking at a fundraiser in New York City on Tuesday, Biden recalled his working relationships with the late Sens. James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), both Dixiecrats who fiercely opposed desegregation.
Biden, who joined the Senate in 1973, told the crowd how Eastland used to call him “son” rather than “boy,” and labeled Talmadge “one of the meanest guys I ever knew.”
“Well guess what? At least there was some civility,” Biden continued. “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was the first of Biden’s 2020 challengers for the Democratic presidential nomination to weigh in, calling the former vice president “out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party.” The mayor also included a photo of his family:
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another 2020 candidate, issued a statement shortly afterward calling on Biden to apologize for his comments.
“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’s statement said. “I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together.”
“Frankly,” Booker added, “I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should.”
Booker, the first African American senator from New Jersey, last month also called on Biden to apologize for his role in getting the 1994 crime bill passed in the Senate. Experts say the law contributed to both a decline in crime and an increase in mass incarceration that disproportionately affects African Americans.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is running to become the first black female president, said Biden’s comments concerned her “deeply.”
“If those men had their way, I wouldn’t be in the United States Senate and on this elevator right now,” Harris told reporters about Eastland and Talmadge.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who briefly flirted with a 2020 run himself, also suggested he disagreed with Biden when asked about his comments on Wednesday.
“Politicians should never speak positively of segregationists. Period,” Brown told HuffPost on Capitol Hill.
But according to Politico, some Democratic lawmakers in the House rushed to Biden’s defense on Wednesday, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking black leader in Congress.
“You don’t have to agree with people to work with them,” Clyburn told the outlet.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) also seemed to dismiss the controversy over Biden’s comments. Scott, the only black Republican senator, said Biden committed an “obvious gaffe” and “likely should have used a different group” of senators when he made his case about working with people he disagreed with.
But Scott also criticized “how incredibly sensitive everything has gotten” in Democratic presidential politics over comments that he said are off by even “a little bit.”
This story has been updated with comments from Sens. Kamala Harris and Tim Scott.