Kerri Evelyn Harris, a prominent Delaware-based black Democrat, rebuked former Vice President Joe Biden for his comments about working with segregationist senators, breaking with black elected officials in Congress and other senior figures.
“That comment really took me back,” Harris said. “It shows how removed he is at this moment of rising racial tensions that are coming back not unlike during the times that he is referring to. People are fearful.”
“I would hope that he comes out and apologizes,” she added. “I would hope that he steps back and realizes that there is much more that we have to do to create changes in this country besides beating Trump.”
Harris, who is also gay, landed on the national radar in 2018 when she launched an uphill primary challenge against business-friendly Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). She lost, but got 35% of the vote with a fraction of Carper’s cash, pulling him to the left in the process.
Although she now represents Delaware on the Democratic National Committee and is national advocacy director for the liberal group Working Hero Action, Harris emphasized that she was speaking in a personal capacity.
“If we’re saying we want to defeat Trump, we can’t be like Trump and make excuses for not having learned lessons,” Harris said. “He’s been in the public eye for far too long to not understand that every word he says counts.”
Biden, who tops virtually every poll of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, sparked the first major fracas of the campaign with remarks at a fundraiser Tuesday night pointing to his cooperation with Democratic Sens. James Eastland (Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (Ga.) as evidence of greater “civility” in Congress in past decades. He also joked that Eastland called him “son,” not “boy.”
A number of Biden’s rivals in the 2020 field have condemned his remarks, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who are both black, as well as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
At the same time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, and a host of prominent African-American elected officials and community leaders have risen to his defense. Out of a dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus that Politico spoke to, just one, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), offered clear criticism of Biden.
Biden has responded to some of the criticism by taking greater pains to stress his deep disagreement with Eastland and Talmadge, and the need to “beat them” during legislative fights. But he has refused to apologize and in fact, called on Booker to apologize for criticizing him.
Harris said she feels compelled to speak up in part because of her multiracial heritage. Her mother, who is white, risked her life registering black people to vote in the South in the 1960s and subsequently married a black man at a time when interracial marriage was uncommon.
“The same way there were allies then, our allies are themselves concerned for standing up for people of color,” Harris said. “They are even more sensitive to the fact of these off-handed quips of ‘He didn’t call me boy, he called me son.’ They are more conscious of the people who were willing to stand on the front lines of the civil rights movement and truly take a stand.”
Harris has not endorsed anyone in the 2020 primary, but she appears to have ruled out backing Biden.
“We cannot take a chance with somebody who repeatedly, repeatedly keeps making mistakes and then comes back to apologize just to go back and make another mistake ― whether it’s with abortion or race or gender or whatever it is, crime bill,” she concluded. “All of these things have had lasting impacts. We need to be aware of it and not just make excuses for where we were in the past.”