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Biden, Booker and Harris expected to spar on criminal justice reform and race in Democratic debate

Key Points
  • Joe Biden is gearing up to square off with Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris regarding his record on civil rights and criminal justice during Wednesday night's debate in Detroit.
  • Each candidate is looking to defend their civil rights records in a bid to win over the crucial African-American vote.
  • Last Tuesday, after Biden's team unveiled a proposal to revamp the nation's criminal justice system, Booker issued a statement saying, "Joe Biden had more than 40 years to get this right. The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it."
Sen. Kamala Harris (R) (D-CA) and former Vice President Joe Biden (L) speak as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) looks on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

The 2020 Democratic primary is shaping up to be a referendum on race and criminal justice, at least as it pertains to former Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden, currently leading the Democratic field of 2020 hopefuls, will likely square off with Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris regarding his record on civil rights and criminal justice during Wednesday night's debate in Detroit.

Booker and Harris are looking to put a dent in Biden's support among African-Americans before the early primary contests beginning next February. Black voters make up a large swath of the Democratic electorate, and Biden has a commanding lead in the key demographic. In 2016, black voters made up 24% of the Democratic primary electorate, a record.

The three candidates have publicly sparred with each other over their civil rights records in recent weeks. None of the candidates were available to comment for this article.

'The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it'

It started with Biden's recollection of his work with two segregationist senators in the 1970s. The comments recalling "civility" in the Senate, which Biden has since apologized for, drew the ire of both Booker and Harris, the only African-American candidates in the race. They said Biden's remarks were insensitive.

Harris ramped up her criticism of Biden's record in the first debate, in June. She recounted her personal experience of being bused to school as a child, and called Biden's praise of the segregationist senators "hurtful."

Biden's authorship of the 1994 crime bill has also come under fire. The landmark legislation dramatically increased penalties for a range of crimes, and critics say it disproportionately affected minority communities.

Last Tuesday, after Biden's team unveiled a proposal to revamp the nation's criminal justice system, Booker issued a statement saying, "Joe Biden had more than 40 years to get this right. The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it."

Booker and Harris could face questions about their own records

Biden and his team responded to Booker's comments by going after his record as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Booker's tenure has been praised for the plummeting rates of violent crime in New Jersey's largest city, but it was marked by a litany of complaints about police abuse.

During Booker's term, complaints of excessive force and stop-and-frisk policies eventually led to the intervention of the Justice Department at the request of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Biden campaign has pointed to the Delaware Democrat's significant lead over both Booker and Harris among black voters. A recent poll from The Economist showed Biden with 46% of the black vote, while Harris and Booker polled at 9% and 5%, respectively.

Harris' tenure as San Francisco's district attorney is also likely to face scrutiny in Wednesday's debate. She has faced criticism over her efforts to combat truancy in San Francisco's schools from those who say her policies targeted poor black families.

During their last matchup, Biden went after Harris' decision to become a prosecutor.

"I was a public defender. I didn't become a prosecutor," Biden told Harris at the first Democratic debate. "I left a good firm to become a public defender."

Harris' anti-truancy plan threatened parents whose children were chronically absent from school with prosecution. The plan offered benefits and services to prod school districts to help underserved children, but critics say the policy criminalized poverty without considering the social factors that contribute to it.

In May, Harris told CNN that prosecuting parents was "never the intention," though fact-checkers have said that claim is misleading.

In some good news for the candidate, Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus on Monday endorsed Harris ahead of the debate.

"The Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus is proud to endorse Kamala Harris for President," Caucus Chair Keith Williams said in a statement. "She is a proven leader who has given a voice to the voiceless and championed our community as District Attorney, Attorney General, and United States Senator.

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Sen. Kamala Harris and Joe Biden spar over record on race