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Racial uproar explodes among 2020 Democrats as rivals attack Biden for comments about segregationists

NBC News logo NBC News 6/19/2019 Allan Smith
a man wearing a suit and tie: Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Washington on June 17, 2019. © Tom Brenner Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Washington on June 17, 2019.

Joe Biden, recalling the "civility" of the Senate in the 1970s and ’80s, on Tuesday touted his experience working with two segregationist Southern senators to get "things done" — drawing an immediate rebuke from Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, who is married to an African American woman and has an interracial family.

Speaking at a fundraiser at New York City's Carlyle Hotel, Biden brought up the names of Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, both Democrats who were staunchly opposed to desegregation. Eastland chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee when Biden entered the Senate — a committee he would later chair.

"I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland," the former vice president said. "He never called me 'boy.' He always called me 'son.'"

Of Talmadge, Biden said he was "one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys."

"Well guess what?" Biden continued. "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."

De Blasio, also a presidential contender, struck back on Twitter on Wednesday.

Another Democratic candidate, Sen. Cory Booker, who is African American, called on Biden to apologize.

"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," Booker said in a statement.

"Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone," Booker added. "I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together."

On the campaign trail, Biden, who has previously mentioned both Eastland and Talmadge in appearances, cautions against those who believe it's not worth the time to even try and persuade those across the aisle or with lawmakers who have morally different views on divisive issues.

"You know I got (to the Senate) and all the old segregationists were there for Lord's sake," Biden said last month at a Nashua, New Hampshire, house party. "But after the fight was over, then you moved on and this is, like I don't consider the opposition my enemy, they're the opposition and no one has brought the vitriol to American politics who has won."

Biden's team has long advised him not to discuss his relationships with former senators, including the segregationists, according to advisers. Another senator he has name-checked far more often is Jesse Helms, a conservative who represented North Carolina and was charged with racism throughout his career.

Biden, who is leading the Democratic primary field in the polls, said Tuesday he believes "one of the things I'm pretty good at is bringing people together," before citing negotiations he took part in with Mitch McConnell, now the Senate majority leader.

"I know the new 'New Left' tells me that I'm — this is old-fashioned," Biden said. "Well guess what? If we can't reach a consensus in our system, what happens? It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president. That's what it does. You have to be able to reach consensus under our system — our constitutional system of separation of powers."

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