Keep Reading. Subscribe Today.

Stay connected with our community and support nationally-acclaimed local news coverage. Sign up for a subscription today. Cancel anytime.

  • Already a subscriber?

Biden apologizes in Sumter for Democratic debate exchange

Former VP defends record to crowd at South Sumter community center

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 7/9/19

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's first apology after more than a week of headlines confronting remarks he made about working with segregationist senators in his early legislative days came from a community center in South Sumter on …

This item is available in full to subscribers

Biden apologizes in Sumter for Democratic debate exchange

Former VP defends record to crowd at South Sumter community center

Posted

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's first apology after more than a week of headlines confronting remarks he made about working with segregationist senators in his early legislative days came from a community center in South Sumter on Saturday.

Biden, who served as vice president under Barack Obama, America's first black president, for eight years before Donald Trump took office, has faced backlash since June 27, when he was criticized during the second night of the first round of Democratic debates by Kamala Harris, who is also seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination, for his views on mandated busing and his seemingly fond recalling of working with two Southern Democratic segregationists in the U.S. Senate.

"Was I wrong a few weeks ago to give the impression that somehow I was praising those men I successfully opposed time and time again?" he said to a largely black audience of about 325 at the M.H. Newton Family Enrichment Center on Manning Avenue. "Yes, I was. And I regret it and am sorry for any pain that misperception may have caused."

The apology received room-filling applause.

The stop in Sumter was the first of three in a two-day trip to South Carolina. It marked his third visit to the state that is the fourth in line to hold primaries behind Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. South Carolina is the first state in the South to vote for a nominee and has the largest black electorate in the early states.

Biden has long boasted his support with black voters and his decades-long career in fighting for civil rights and defended his record on racial issues.

He has polled as the Democratic frontrunner since entering the 20-plus candidate race but saw Harris, California's first black and first female attorney general who took office in the U.S. Senate in 2017, rise in the polls after the debate.

Biden never mentioned her name at the rally stop in Sumter, but he countered the backlash their exchange brought.

As Harris and other candidates are proposing leftward-shifting campaigns, Biden has remained a moderate Democrat, reiterating on Saturday he has chosen to work "within the system to make the system better."

He said elected officials cannot work with only those with whom they agree.

"To get things done for the people you were elected to serve requires that some of the people with whom you must engage may not see the world the same as you do. Some may be downright repugnant. And sometimes, things get rather messy," he said.

You adjust and find common ground without sacrificing your principles, he said. You compromise.

"You work with people who may offend every fiber of your being - to achieve a greater good," he said. " The world I was given eight members of the Senate on the day I entered that body were signatories to the Southern Manifesto."

His votes on busing in the '70s were also brought up by Harris, which Biden addressed in Sumter.

He said busing does not get at the root of the problem, that the country needs to address housing discrimination and other contributing factors.

"I don't believe a child should have to get on a bus to attend a good school. There should be first-rate quality schools in every neighborhood in this nation," he said to more applause.

Biden proposed naming "a Secretary of Education who is an educator" to strengthen public schools and promote higher pay for teachers and increased diversity among school staff. He proposed tripling Title 1 funding and closing the wealth gap by increasing the minimum wage and initiating "the largest infrastructure program in our nation's history" because "you will be hard-pressed to find a low-performing school in a high-income community."

Biden also touched on prison reform and criminal justice reform by improving the 1994 Crime Bill, confronting China on trade, improving Obamacare by adding a public option instead of repealing it, leading the world in climate change reform, refunding programs that support Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to combat reasons for immigration at their root and said he would move to codify Roe v. Wade if the Supreme Court strikes it down.

He said he knew his years of experience would come in a campaign with "a treasure trove for the armies of opposition researchers" but is reiterating his connection to voters that he served as the vice president under Obama.

"I was vetted by him and 10 lawyers," Biden said, "and selected by him. I will take his judgment of my record, my character and my ability to handle the job over anyone else's." More applause.

Among his supporters in Sumter is state Sen. Kevin Johnson, who introduced Biden to the stage Saturday.

Johnson, a Manning resident whose District 36 spans Clarendon County, covers half of Sumter County and reaches into Darlington and Florence counties, said he doesn't "do a lot of endorsements."

"But when I do, I take it very seriously," he said. "I'm big on experience."

He said "the problems we have today" are because of President Trump's lack of political experience.

"It's not about the past, what someone said 40 or 50 years ago," Johnson said. "It's about the future."

Sheryl Witherspoon and her husband, who is from Sumter, drove from their Columbia home for the event. Biden proceeded to Orangeburg on Saturday before Sunday appearances in Charleston.

Witherspoon, who is black, said she wasn't aware of Biden's busing issue and comments but that she has read up on it since the debate.

"I love his character," she said. "I didn't think a whole lot of it. I don't think it's very concerning."