Bi­den walks back dis­mis­sive re­mark about black po­ten­tial Trump vot­ers

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY AN­NIE LINSKEY AND COLBY ITKOWITZ

It was a chance for Joe Bi­den to con­nect with a key group of vot­ers who helped him clinch the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion and are cru­cial to his chances in Novem­ber: an ap­pear­ance on “The Break­fast Club,” a ra­dio show pop­u­lar with black au­di­ences.

In­stead, Bi­den’s sug­ges­tion that African Amer­i­cans who are con­sid­er­ing vot­ing for Pres­i­dent Trump “ain’t black” quickly over­shad­owed the rest of his in­ter­view, ric­o­chet­ing across so­cial me­dia, drawing fire from black Democrats and cul­mi­nat­ing with the can­di­date rush­ing to express re­gret for his com­ments.

“I was much too cav­a­lier. I know that the com­ments have come off like I was tak­ing the African Amer­i­can vote for granted. But noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth,” Bi­den said later in the day, dur­ing a vir­tual ap­pear­ance with the U.S. Black Cham­bers, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates for black en­trepreneur­s. “I shouldn’t have been such

a wise guy.”

But the episode of­fered an un­com­fort­able re­minder that while the pre­sump­tive Demo­cratic nom­i­nee leads Trump in the polls and has long per­formed es­pe­cially well among African Amer­i­cans, his re­la­tion­ship with this core con­stituency still faces tests.

Many African Amer­i­can ac­tivists ar­gued that while black vot­ers pow­ered Bi­den to vic­tory in a com­pet­i­tive pri­mary race, he needs to en­sure that the com­mu­nity stays en­er­gized for Novem­ber. And even some Bi­den back­ers said they wor­ried that this episode would dam­age the for­mer vice pres­i­dent’s stand­ing.

“It al­most came across as if black peo­ple need Joe Bi­den more than Joe Bi­den needs black peo­ple,” said An­gela Rye, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus and a lead­ing Demo­cratic ac­tivist. “This is a party that we’ve ded­i­cated our votes and our lives to, and we are tired of be­ing taken for granted, treated as in­vis­i­ble or be­ing si­lenced.”

The Trump cam­paign im­me­di­ately seized on the com­ments to try to drive a wedge be­tween Bi­den and his vot­ing base. By Fri­day af­ter­noon, the cam­paign was sell­ing T-shirts that read “#Youaint­black - Joe Bi­den.”

Trump has a his­tory of racist com­ments and has long strug­gled with black vot­ers. But he is hop­ing to im­prove his mar­gins in 2020, par­tic­u­larly in swing states like Penn­syl­va­nia and Michi­gan.

His cam­paign plans to open field of­fices in ma­jor­ity-black cities and has en­cour­aged African Amer­i­cans to sign up for Trump updates by tex­ting the word “woke” to a cam­paign num­ber.

Fri­day’s ex­change oc­curred dur­ing a con­tentious in­ter­view with ra­dio host Char­la­m­agne Tha God, who pushed Bi­den on his record. When a Bi­den aide sig­naled it was time for the can­di­date to wrap up, Char­la­m­agne said, “You can’t do that to black me­dia.” He then told Bi­den he needed to come back on the show be­fore Novem­ber be­cause there were more ques­tions for him.

“You got more ques­tions, but I’ll tell you, if you have a prob­lem fig­ur­ing out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black,” Bi­den said.

“It don’t have noth­ing to do with Trump, it has to do with the fact — I want some­thing for my com­mu­nity,” Char­la­m­agne said.

In an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Post on Fri­day af­ter­noon, Char­la­m­agne said Bi­den needs to work to win over black vot­ers.

“The older black vot­ers know the Joe in the Se­nate that has as­sisted black peo­ple and has been there for black peo­ple,” he said. “But we know ’94 crime bill Joe. We know ’86 crack laws Joe. We know ’ 84 manda­tory-min­i­mum sen­tences Joe. That’s what I’ve come to learn. So he has to win us over.”

Within hours, Bi­den said he re­gret­ted the com­ments. “No one, no one should have to vote for any party based on their race or re­li­gion or back­ground,” he said on the call with the U.S. Black Cham­bers. “There are African Amer­i­cans who think Trump is worth vot­ing for. . . . I’m pre­pared to put my record against his, that was the bot­tom line.”

Bi­den had not planned on per­son­ally call­ing in to the U.S. Black Cham­bers event — a staff mem­ber was go­ing to be on the call, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the event. But amid the back­lash to his com­ments, the can­di­date de­cided to join so he could ex­plain what he meant.

Bi­den’s team is count­ing on bring­ing black vot­ers — par­tic­u­larly men — who sup­ported Trump back to the Demo­cratic Party. Last week dur­ing a strat­egy brief­ing, the cam­paign showed a slide out­lin­ing how “the Bi­den coali­tion will draw from key vot­ing blocs,” such as African Amer­i­can men, which were re­ferred to as “dis­af­fected vot­ers.”

Then came Fri­day’s com­ment. “Here’s the prob­lem with the state­ment and how it’s catch­ing fire on so­cial me­dia: Those dis­af­fected vot­ers that I have been talk­ing about and they are now pay­ing at­ten­tion to, a state­ment like this re­in­forced for them that in fact Democrats do take them for granted,” said Cor­nell Belcher, a Demo­cratic poll­ster who worked on the Obama cam­paign.

The Bi­den cam­paign “can­not just de­pend on Trump sim­ply be­ing a racist to en­er­gize and move these dis­af­fected vot­ers,” Belcher said. “They are go­ing to have to en­gage them with an is­sue agenda that speaks to their is­sues and res­onates with their val­ues.”

A Fox News poll re­leased Thurs­day found Bi­den lead­ing Trump, 76 per­cent to 12 per­cent, among black vot­ers. Hil­lary Clin­ton won about 90 per­cent in 2016.

In Jan­uary, be­fore Bi­den largely sewed up the nom­i­na­tion, a Wash­ing­ton Post-ip­sos poll of black reg­is­tered vot­ers found that 69 per­cent had a fa­vor­able view of Bi­den, while 13 per­cent held an un­fa­vor­able opin­ion. In a matchup with Trump, 82 per­cent of black vot­ers sup­ported Bi­den, while 4 per­cent backed the pres­i­dent.

Dur­ing the Demo­cratic pri­mary con­test, Bi­den stum­bled with black vot­ers sev­eral times. He strug­gled to de­fend his op­po­si­tion to bus­ing and his close re­la­tions with seg­re­ga­tion­ist se­na­tors like Strom Thur­mond (R-S.C.), whom he eu­lo­gized in 2003.

He also drew fire over the 1994 crime bill, which crit­ics say led to the mass in­car­cer­a­tion of blacks. Bi­den de­fended the leg­is­la­tion on the cam­paign trail but said he never sup­ported the “three strikes” pro­vi­sion that sent many to prison.

But Bi­den seemed to move past those chal­lenges thanks to sup­port from key black law­mak­ers like Rep. James E. Cly­burn (D-S.C.), whose en­dorse­ment days be­fore the South Carolina pri­mary helped de­liver the state to him — a de­ci­sive vic­tory that prompted other ri­vals to leave the race and line up be­hind him.

Bi­den has said that his Cab­i­net would be di­verse, that he would ap­point a black woman the Supreme Court and that he’s con­sid­er­ing sev­eral black women as po­ten­tial run­ning mates.

But his com­ments Fri­day high­lighted an un­der­ly­ing dis­con­nect be­tween him and black vot­ers, adding more pres­sure to se­lect an

African Amer­i­can vice pres­i­dent.

“African Amer­i­can vot­ers picked Joe Bi­den to be the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee for many of these same rea­sons that Barack Obama picked Bi­den to be vice pres­i­dent — be­cause he was the per­son who they thought would res­onate with a part of the elec­torate that most black can­di­dates don’t,” said Ja­mal Sim­mons, a black Demo­cratic strate­gist. “African Amer­i­cans know the dark side of Amer­i­can cul­ture bet­ter than most white Amer­i­cans do.”

Sim­mons added that Bi­den “can be a lit­tle tone deaf ” on race.

Even his re­la­tion­ship with Obama was not without tur­bu­lence. Dur­ing the 2008 pri­mary con­test, Bi­den called Obama “the first main­stream African Amer­i­can who is ar­tic­u­late and bright and clean and a nice-look­ing guy.”

Bi­den’s cam­paign quickly got to­gether a con­fer­ence call for him to walk it back. “I re­ally re­gret some have taken to­tally out of con­text my use of the word ‘clean,’ ” he said.

But many Bi­den sup­port­ers de­fended their can­di­date Fri­day, say­ing his inart­ful com­ment pales in com­par­i­son with Trump’s record.

“I would have said it dif­fer­ently,” said An­tjuan Seawright, a Demo­cratic strate­gist based in

South Carolina who has worked closely with Cly­burn. “I think the point he was try­ing to make is that at the end of the day, the agenda of Don­ald Trump and the Repub­li­can Party ver­sus the agenda for the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity that Joe Bi­den has put forth is night and day.”

Other Bi­den sup­port­ers pointed to Trump’s long his­tory of in­cen­di­ary com­ments di­rected at mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties. Dur­ing his pres­i­dency, he’s re­ferred to some African na­tions as “shit­hole coun­tries,” sug­gested that four con­gress­women of color “go back” to where they came from and at­tacked the district of late con­gress­man Eli­jah E. Cum­mings (D-MD.) in Bal­ti­more as a “rat and ro­dent in­fested mess.”

“Trump is su­per racist. His cam­paign & his ap­peal is built on the per­pet­u­a­tion of white supremacy & white priv­i­lege. He stokes white fragility. When a Black per­son sup­ports him I ques­tion their re­la­tion­ship to their Black­ness and the com­mu­nity. This is what Bi­den was al­lud­ing to,” tweeted Touré, a black writer and com­men­ta­tor.

LUKE SHARRETT FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

For­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den ad­dresses an event in South Carolina on Feb. 26 af­ter ac­cept­ing the en­dorse­ment of Rep. James E. Cly­burn (D-S.C.). The sup­port of the prom­i­nent black law­maker helped Bi­den win the state’s Demo­cratic pri­mary. But af­ter his com­ments Fri­day, some ac­tivists said Bi­den was tak­ing the black vote for granted.

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