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Democratic presidential candidates denounce Biden's comments about segregationist senators in personal terms

Key Points
  • Democratic presidential candidates attack presidential front-runner Joe Biden a day after the former vice president said that his ability to work with a white supremacist senator in the 1970s was an example of the type of "civility" in Congress that has since disappeared.
  • New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., both denounce Biden by name in a break with the practice most Democrats have followed on the trail thus far. De Blasio, whose wife is black, and Booker, who is black, frame their criticism in personal terms.
  • "Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to 'the pursuit of dead n------,' de Blasio writes.
  • Booker writes in a statement that "frankly, I'm disappointed that he hasn't issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should."
Former vice president and current presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop at the IBEW Local 490 in Concord, NH on June 4, 2019.
Matthew J. Lee | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidates on Wednesday attacked presidential front-runner Joe Biden a day after the former vice president cited his working relationships with two late segregationist senators as examples of the type of "civility" in Congress that has since disappeared.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., both denounced Biden by name in a break with the practice most Democrats have followed on the trail thus far. De Blasio, whose wife is black, and Booker, who is black, framed their criticism in personal terms.

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Biden has come under scrutiny for the remarks about the late lawmakers James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia delivered at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City on Tuesday evening. Biden said that Eastland "never called me boy" and said he was able to work with Talmadge despite disagreements.

De Blasio wrote that "Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to 'the pursuit of dead n------'." The mayor included a photo of him with his wife, Chirlane McCray, and their multiracial children.

Booker wrote in a statement that "frankly, I'm disappointed that he hasn't issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should."

Biden did not respond to a request for comment.

In a second tweet, de Blasio wrote that "It's past time for apologies or evolution from Joe Biden. He repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party."

Later Wednesday, Symone Sanders, a Biden adviser, tweeted that Biden "did not praise a segregationist. That is a disingenuous take."

"He basically said sometimes in Congress, one has to work with terrible or down right racist folks to get things done. And then went on to say when you can't work with them, work around them," she wrote.

Biden cited segregationist senators in praising Senate's former 'civility'

"I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland," Biden said at Tuesday's event, adopting a drawl, according to a pool report. "He never called me boy, he always called me son."

Eastland, a longtime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was a plantation owner and fierce opponent of civil rights legislation who was "best known nationally as a symbol of Southern resistance to racial desegregation," according to his obituary in The New York Times. He described black people as belonging to an "inferior race."

Biden served on the judiciary committee while Eastland was chair and later rose to the chairmanship himself. While serving in the Senate, Biden was an opponent of using busing to desegregate schools.

In a 1977 letter published by CNN, Biden thanked Eastland for "attempting to bring my anti-busing legislation to a vote." In a later letter, he wrote to Eastland to "thank you again for your efforts in support of my bill to limit court ordered busing."

Biden, at the event, also said that Talmadge, an opponent of desegregation, was "one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys."

"Well guess what? At least there was some civility. 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," Biden said.

In his statement, Booker wrote that "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."

In a follow-up tweet, Booker posted a photo of civil rights protesters holding signs that said, "I am a man."

The criticism from de Blasio and Booker could presage the type of criticism Biden will face next week at the first Democratic debates.

It is at least the second time this month, after Biden's reversal on federal funding for abortion, which he had opposed since the 1970s, that the Delaware Democrat has found himself facing scrutiny from the Democratic field related to his long record in the Senate.

Any direct criticism at the debate, though, will not come from de Blasio or Booker directly: The two are scheduled to appear on June 26, while Biden will debate on June 27.

Biden is currently the favorite among black Democrats, a poll released earlier this month found, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sanders will debate on stage with Biden.