CHICAGO — Joe Biden strongly defended his civil rights record on Friday, pledging to be a "president who stands against racism" and defiantly dismissing any suggestions otherwise.
Speaking to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the white former vice president was working to repair the damage from a blistering attack from California Sen. Kamala Harris, the lone black woman in the 2020 presidential race. During Thursday's presidential debate, Harris criticized Biden for recently highlighting his decades-old work with segregationist senators and his opposition to public school busing during the 1970s — creating a dramatic and deeply personal breakout moment.
"I heard, and I listened to, and I respect Sen. Harris," Biden said. "But we all know that 30 seconds to 60 seconds on a campaign debate exchange can't do justice to a lifetime commitment to civil rights."
Biden has surged to the top of the Democratic pack arguing that he's best positioned to defeat President Donald Trump because he can build a broad coalition of support. Appearances such as the one with Jackson — his onetime rival in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary — will signal whether Harris' attack will chip into his support among African Americans. He acknowledged the critical role of black voters and labor unions on Friday, saying, "Y'all are the ones that brung me to the dance."
Biden pushed back against some of Harris' specific criticisms, including her argument that he once opposed busing. He said he was more opposed to federal intervention in busing than the practice itself.
"I never, never, never, ever opposed voluntary busing," Biden said, adding that he supported federal legislation to "address root causes of segregation in our schools" and that he was always "in favor of using federal authority to overcome state-initiated segregation" — even in bygone days when it wasn't popular.
MIAMI, FLORIDA - JUNE 27: 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. A fie
But even while defending his own record, Biden still tempted controversy. He said he envisioned a society in which everyone realizes the "kid in the hoodie might be the next poet laureate and not a gangbanger."
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a 2020 Democratic presidential rival, challenged Biden on his word choice, saying in a tweet that the issue was about more than just a hoodie.
"It's about a culture that sees a problem with a kid wearing a hoodie in the first place. Our nominee needs to have the language to talk about race in a far more constructive way," said Booker, who had pushed back against comments made by Biden a week earlier in which he nostalgically referenced the "civility" he maintained during his time in the Senate with two segregationist Democrats in the 1970s despite their vast distance in ideology.
California attorney Tom McInerney signed up to be on Biden's national finance team but said he notified the campaign this month that he was withdrawing his support. He pointed to what he called repeated missteps, including Biden's comments on segregationists and the former vice president's recent reversal on the Hyde Amendment, a long-standing congressional ban on using federal health care money to pay for abortions. His reversal — he now says he opposes the amendment — came after rivals and women's rights group blasted him for affirming through campaign aides that he still supported the decades-old budget provision.
"I have tremendous respect for the vice president. However, I just became increasingly troubled by his comments," McInerney said Friday. "It just seems like he wasn't thinking this through."
Biden's campaign offered no immediate comment on McInerney's withdrawal.
Also during Friday's event, Biden leaned heavily on being Barack Obama's vice president, something he didn't do as much during the debate, when Harris' relentless criticism often left him flustered and seemingly unsure of what to say.
"My president gets much too little credit for all that he did. He was one of the great presidents of the United States of America, and I'm tired of hearing about what he didn't do," Biden said of Obama.
Sylvia Chapman, 60, of Chicago, attended Biden's speech and said Thursday's confrontation between Harris and Biden was "just a few minutes of talk."
"You have to look at the whole picture, not just one chapter out of a book," said Chapman, who is black and is the president of a union local in Chicago. She said she's undecided about who to support in 2020, but Biden is among the top of her choices, along with Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Harris.
Patricia Ousley, 69, a black retired state employee from the Chicago suburb of South Holland, cheered loudly when Biden told the crowd Obama doesn't get the credit he deserves. She says Biden's experience working alongside Obama is a big reason she may support him in 2020: "I love that."