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Black Democrats: ‘Choose a sister’

Political activists weigh in on VP choice

Brian Wright O’Connor
Black Democrats: ‘Choose a sister’
(left to right) Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms COURTESY PHOTO, Vice Pres. Joe Biden PHOTO: GAGE SKIDMORE, Sen. Kamala Harris COURTESY PHOTO

Loyal black Democrats largely give gaffe-prone Joe Biden a pass on his frequent outbreaks of foot-in-mouth disease. Even his cringe-worthy statement to prominent radio host Charlamagne Tha God last week that if you vote for Trump “then you ain’t black” left many shaking their heads but still in his column.  

But there is one blunder many African Americans are unlikely to forgive: passing over a black woman as his running mate.

“Joe Biden owes black people, and black women in particular, a debt of gratitude for reviving a campaign that was dead,” said Colette Phillips, founder of the Get Konnected social network and a supporter of the former vice president in the primary. “Not choosing a black woman would be a slap in the face of black voters. This is the moment, this is the time, to do what has never been done before.”

After faltering performances in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Biden’s third bid for the presidential nomination seemed headed for oblivion. But the overwhelming backing of African American voters in South Carolina, spurred by the endorsement of widely popular Palmetto State Congressman Jim Clyburn, led to the 77-year-old candidate’s political resurrection.

Black women in particular supported the former Delaware senator, leading to big wins in primaries across the South as rival candidates dropped out and coalesced around Biden. After Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran strong in the early contests, suspended his campaign, Biden said he intended to choose a woman as his running mate.

To many African Americans, Biden’s vice presidential choice should reflect the Democratic Party’s most loyal base, a black woman who can inspire a strong turnout by voters of color in November and help replicate the coalition that twice elected Barack Obama to the White House.

“If Joe Biden thinks he can not choose a black woman and win, my name is Alexander Hamilton,” said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, pastor of the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church and a primary supporter of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In spite of the fact that his home-state senator is openly seeking the nod from Biden, the Roxbury lawyer-minister sees little electoral room for the nominee-in-waiting to do anything but choose a woman of color to stand by him in the next five months ahead and serve beside him in the White House.

“If he fails to choose an African American woman, black voters are going to stay home and Trump will win again,” said Culpepper. “It’s that simple. The Democratic Party cannot win if African American voters don’t come out in large numbers.”

Among the African American women under consideration, columnist and political consultant Joyce Ferriabough thinks U.S. Kamala Harris merits the nod. “I believe Kamala is by far the best pick for VP, black or white,” said Ferriabough. “Black women have worked for everything we’ve gotten and carried the party on our backs along the way.”

The California senator’s own nomination bid gained strength after Harris sharply took on Biden in the early debates, but she staged a rapid exit from the field following poor finishes in the early primaries.

Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader who lost a close race for governor in 2018, is a passionate defender of voting rights and has openly courted Biden for the nod.

U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Florida, a former police chief, won accolades for her questioning of witnesses in the House impeachment proceedings. Choosing Demings could put Florida into play in November — a state Trump must win in order to stay in power.

Susan Rice, Obama’s former national security advisor and United Nations ambassador, comes with deep foreign policy credentials and a long working relationship with Biden.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who climbed the ranks of Georgia politics on a track parallel to Stacey Abrams’ rise in the Peach State, is a popular Biden surrogate often listed as in the running.    

Massachusetts state Rep. Nika Elugardo of Jamaica Plain, who co-chaired the Sanders campaign in the Bay State, said Biden should find a woman of color from the heartland with strong ties to the labor movement and the experience of immigrants — drawing from the demographic foundation of the Democratic Party.

“I don’t know who that ideal candidate is, but she should also understand the experience of white poverty,” said Elugardo, “someone who can go to Kentucky as well as Boston. Someone who is eloquent, relatable, and wants the job.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, a frequent surrogate for Warren during the primary, favors a Biden-Warren ticket, “but I understand how so many people want a woman of color. And the woman who most resonates with me is Val Demings.”

Melvin Poindexter of Newton, a member of the Democratic National Committee from Massachusetts, said much of the party’s national leadership wants a ticket that can appeal to the Midwest and Rust Belt voters who backed Obama but supported Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who fell short of Biden in the primary, could fit that profile. But Biden, said Poindexter, “needs to show a commitment to our support to him and the Democratic Party over the years.”

However, he added, “At the end of the day, we’re a pragmatic community and if he goes in another direction, there will be disappointment, but we’ll stay the course.”

The key question under that scenario is not whether blacks support Biden over Trump, but whether disappointment cuts African American voter turnout.

“We must have a big turnout to win,” said Culpepper. “Biden knows what he has to do.” 

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