Black lawmakers get Biden's back amid 'segregationist' uproar

By Laura Barrón-López and Heather Caygle

Senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus leaped to former Vice President Joe Biden’s defense Wednesday after he touted his bipartisan work with known segregationists as a time of “civility.”

Progressives pounced on the remarks, and two other White House hopefuls criticized the 76-year-old Democratic presidential poll leader over his comments at a fundraiser Tuesday night. But more than a half-dozen CBC members argued that Biden’s remarks were taken out of context and that the former senator’s call for decency is needed now more than ever.

“I worked with Strom Thurmond all my life,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African American in Congress, said of the infamous segregationist senator. “You don’t have to agree with people to work with them.”

Clyburn is preparing to host his annual fish fry event in South Carolina this weekend, a must-stop on the Democratic presidential circuit. Nearly all of the two-dozen Democratic hopefuls, including Biden, are set to attend.

At the fundraiser in New York, Biden pushed back at liberal critics who say he’s out of touch for thinking he can work with Republicans after the hyper-partisanship of Donald Trump's presidency. Biden recalled his days in the Senate working to find consensus with hard-line segregationists like James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia.

“At least there was some civility,” Biden said of that era. “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done.”

Clyburn wasn’t alone in his support of Biden, a longtime friend. In interviews with roughly a dozen CBC members, most defended Biden, who has long relationships with the caucus’ most senior members after a 36-year tenure in the Senate.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said he had yet to see Biden’s full remarks from the fundraiser but agreed with his overall sentiment.

“I disagree with the overwhelming items that have come out of the mouth of Donald J. Trump. But we managed to work together with his administration to enact historic criminal justice reform,” Jeffries said.

“I think we here in the House Democratic Caucus have ourselves taken the position that sometimes you have to work with the opposition to the extent they’re in power without compromising your values if you can get things done.”

“If he was able to work with Eastland, he’s a great person,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, who represents a district in Eastland’s home state of Mississippi, said of Biden.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, co-chairman of Biden’s campaign, declined to weigh in.

“I’ve heard the hoopla around [the comments]. But I haven’t had a chance to look at what he said,” Richmond told POLITICO. “I’m going to reserve comment until I’ve actually seen what he said.”

Biden’s remarks come as the House holds a historic hearing on a commission to study reparations for the descendants of slaves, and as Americans celebrate the anniversary of Juneteenth, the emancipation day of enslaved African Americans.

Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) said she didn’t want to “reinterpret” what Biden said, adding that she thinks “he’s well equipped because of his experience” to work in a time of polarized government.

He’s tested with it, he’s been there, he’s lived it and he’s done well with it,” she said.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) was one of the only CBC members interviewed by POLITICO who took issue with Biden’s comments. Rush said the former vice president should be “more understanding” and “deliberate” as he attempts to be inclusive.

“I would not want to give segregationists the currency to be at the table,” Rush said. “Segregationists at their core are those who believe in white superiority and black inferiority. There can be no compromise with someone in this day and time as someone who would define themselves as a segregationist.”

Rush paused as he walked away and turned back to say: “Did he really say that? Oh lord.”

Fellow CBC member and presidential candidate Cory Booker called on Biden to apologize, taking issue with Biden making light of being called "son" and not "boy" by Eastland.

"You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’" Booker said in a statement. "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."

This is just the latest example of Biden triggering the ire of the left after saying something that appears out of step with the party. Earlier this month, Biden quickly reversed himself after igniting a firestorm over his support for the Hyde amendment, which bars federal funding for abortions.

But Biden has a deep well of support within the CBC, in part due to his service in the Senate but also his time as vice president under Barack Obama.

“I think that sentiment is more important than ever because there’s lots of folks on the other side of the aisle that we don’t get along with, that we don’t agree with their views, yet we need to accomplish certain things that advance the interest of the American people,” said Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), who has endorsed Biden. “So I think the comment was very appropriate.”