Former Vice President Joe Biden after speaking at a DNC event in Atlanta earlier this month. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Jolt: A generational, geographic test for Joe Biden

Geography and a generational divide – never mind a Democratic presidential primary contest on the verge of a first series of televised debates – appear to be driving the backlash against former Vice President Joe Biden’s citation of his work with Southern segregationists as proof of lost civility in Washington.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio were Biden’s harshest critics on Wednesday. The Twitter reaction from de Blasio, married to an African-American woman, was stark:

It’s 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of “civility” typified by James Eastland. Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to “the pursuit of dead [n-word]."

Booker said Biden's "relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place." He and others demanded an apology from Biden.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris said she was “deeply” concerned by Biden’s remarks. “If those men had their way, I wouldn’t be in the United States Senate and on this elevator right now,” she told reporters in Washington.

On Wednesday night, the frontrunning Biden refused to back away from his comments, made a day earlier at a New York fund-raiser. From the Associated Press:

Biden says he was talking about the Senate's ability to pass the Voting Rights Act. He says, "You don't have to like the people in terms of their views."

Asked if he would be apologizing as Booker had called for, Biden said, "Apologize for what?" He then said, "Cory should apologize. He should know better. There's not a racist bone in my body."

The Washington Post summarizes the larger strategic importance of the current flap:

While he has cited President Trump’s racially divisive rhetoric as an inspiration for his candidacy and drawn strong early support from African Americans, Biden, 76, has also struggled to explain his past views on issues of importance in the black community, such as criminal justice and school integration. Now, his history of collegiality with racists is being seen by many in his party as a reason to question his judgment — not, as Biden says, a sign of his civility.

Biden, 76, joined the U.S. Senate in 1973, when many of the Southern Democrats who had waged the fight against desegregation were still in control of the chamber – though they had adapted, somewhat, to the changing political landscape wrought by the civil rights movement.

In his controversial remarks, Biden cited his relationships with U.S. Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia as colleagues he worked with despite their differences.

On Wednesday, we pointed to the Southern historical context that was missing from some criticism of Biden. This morning, the generational and geographic divide over the issue is best illustrated by a video attached to the Post article cited above. In it, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., cites his own relationship with the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, a Democratic opponent of integration who switched to the Republican party.

“Where would I be today, if back when I first got elected to Congress back in 1992, I refused to work with J. Strom Thurmond , an avowed segregationist, trying to get things done in my community?” asked Clyburn, 78.

Thurmond, Clyburn pointed out, was crucial to passage of legislation making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. “So am I supposed to reject the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday because an avowed segregationist signed the legislation?” he asked. Watch here:

How Biden’s remarks are digested in South Carolina will be crucial. It’s the first Southern state to participate in next year’s presidential contest. Nevada reaction is not to be neglected, either.

This morning, Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and expert on African-American voting patterns, has a timely piece on the pivotal role black voters will play next year. From his analysis at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball:

…The schedule of Democratic primaries will figure largely into the choices available to black primary voters. The first two are in Iowa and New Hampshire with black populations of 3.8% and 1.6%, respectively. In a change from previous election cycles, Nevada will be the third contest, and its population is just about 10% black. In 2016, black voters comprised 13% of the caucus, indicating that Nevada will provide the first look at who black voters may support in 2020.

The outcomes of these three contests will have a substantial effect on the South Carolina primary, where black voters were 61% of the primary electorate in 2016. If history is any guide, black candidates that emerge from the preceding primaries in a strong position win South Carolina. Both Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama entered South Carolina as real contenders for the nomination, and black voters in South Carolina blazed a trail for their long-haul competitive campaigns.

Thus, the 2020 South Carolina primary will determine the viability of a black candidate’s campaign and foreshadow the black electorate’s preferred candidate. Here is where the black voters’ pragmatism is on full display. They want to know that the presidential candidate who receives their support has a realistic shot at winning the nomination. Casting symbolic or ideological votes for black candidates in the name of racial solidarity has little place in the voting booth.

***

Another must read for today: Our AJC colleagues Joshua Sharpe and James Salzer have tracked down the friends allegedly betrayed by state Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck.  According to a 38-count federal indictment, Beck stole some $2 million from his former employer, the Georgia Underwriters Association:

 When Jim Beck ran to become Georgia’s insurance commissioner, he had help and support from Steve and Sonya McKaig.

The McKaigs have deep roots in the insurance industry and were friends with Beck and his wife Lucy. The couples were close enough that the Becks accompanied the McKaigs to Italy in fall 2015 to celebrate Sonya McKaig’s victory over breast cancer, according to a statement Steve McKaig provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Steve McKaig, who declined an interview request but gave a lengthy statement, said it was on the trip that Beck first tricked them into taking part in what prosecutors describe as an elaborate fraud scheme. He had them create companies and start doing contract work for his employer because they trusted him.

***

Conservatives have pointed us toward a story in the Free Beacon that -- feel free to gasph here -- accuses Hollywood of hypocrisy.

It notes that after Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards trekked to Los Angeles last year on a taxpayer-funded trip to boost the state’s film industry, a string of movie studios showered him with campaign cash. 

In May, months after that visit, the Democrat signed an anti-abortion measure into law. And though he’s faced criticism from abortion rights groups, most of the ire from Hollywood has been trained on Georgia, which has a far larger film industry. 

***

Over in the Seventh District congressional race, Democrat Nabilah Islam unveiled her inaugural campaign video this morning. The 90-second spot includes footage from the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. and discusses her background as a first-generation American. (Islam’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh. She was the first in her family to graduate from college). 

"You see, most wouldn't believe that a woman with a name like Nabilah Islam, whose mother grew up in a tin hut with a mud floor 8,000 miles from where I stand today, could run for Congress and win. But I know this country's filled with people who every single day do what others say can't be done, and that's why I'm running for Congress,” Islam says in the video. 

The Lawrenceville native is aiming to run to the left of her four primary opponents, endorsing policies like “Medicare for all” and a $15-an-hour minimum wage. 

***

We picked up an interesting tidbit at a Cobb GOP meeting last night: Local organizers are pushing an initiative called Project 10K to identify 10,000 Republican households in the 6th District that skipped last year’s midterm and are likely to support conservatives in next year’s vote.

Republican activists hope they could account for as many as 15,000 additional votes for whomever emerges from the GOP primary in that contest – which Democrat Lucy McBath won by less than 4,000 votes in 2018.

***

On Wednesday, Lucy McBath celebrated House passage of a government spending package that included $50 million for a gun violence study, one of her top priorities on Capitol Hill. "This critical funding will save lives," the Marietta Democrat said. 

The cash was contained in a nearly $1 trillion Democrat-authored measure that passed on a largely party-line vote, with all nine of the state’s Republicans voting against it. U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, rejected the bill because it failed “to address our nation's most pressing issues like the security and humanitarian crisis at the border,” bolstered Obamacare and proposed cutting procurement work at the Pentagon. 

It is likely to change substantially before it becomes law, Should negotiations with the Senate fail, an Oct. 1 government shutdown is possible.

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