Harris Takes On Biden's Record On Race At Democratic Debate

Jun 28, 2019
Originally published on June 28, 2019 6:39 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Oh, what a difference a presidential race can make. We sat down with Senator Kamala Harris late last year, not long before she declared her candidacy for president. And back then, I asked her if she thought Joe Biden would make a good president. This is what she said.

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KAMALA HARRIS: I'm very fond of Joe Biden, so you're not going to hear me criticize Joe Biden. I think he's a great guy.

MARTIN: Things have clearly changed. Last night at the second Democratic primary debate in Miami, Harris went directly at the former vice president, attacking him on a civil rights record. Let's listen.

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HARRIS: It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools. And she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.

MARTIN: We should say former Vice President Joe Biden called that a mischaracterization of his positions across the board. We've got NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow with us from Miami.

Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we've talked about Biden's recent comments about how he worked with these segregationist senators early in his career. He touts it as an example of, you know, working with difficult people. But can you explain this busing issue that Senator Harris brought up last night?

DETROW: Yeah. This was a big and controversial education issue in the 1970s. When Biden was beginning his Senate career, there were a series of federal court real rulings and federal policies pushing the busing of students between districts as a way to integrate schools and even that geographic playing field between districts. And it made a lot of suburban white parents angry. They just didn't want their children bused to black school districts.

So Biden, as a young senator, backed a lot of legislation that got rid of or defunded these federal mandates. This is not an issue of one vote that's taken out of context. This is something that he had a very firm policy on. And he said that it was a matter of local versus federal control, and that's how he defended it again last night. But Harris pressed him.

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HARRIS: Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?

JOE BIDEN: I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That's what I opposed. I did not oppose...

HARRIS: Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, Calif., public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.

BIDEN: Because your city council made that decision.

MARTIN: So Biden said he is going to put up his record on civil rights against anyone else's. But still, this was a huge moment, right, Scott? I mean, all that experienced that Biden likes to talk about, it turned out to be a vulnerability for him.

DETROW: Oh, absolutely. It was a huge moment. And honestly, a lot of other campaigns, a lot of people watching the race were waiting for a moment just like this where that long track record and the way that politics have changed would really come back and hurt him.

You could tell the Biden campaign took this seriously. Mara Liasson and I were watching in that spin room where all the campaign surrogates come in, and it really earned its keep last night. A lot of Biden surrogates in in the room saying, you know, we need to put this in context.

One of them, Cedric Richmond, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and he said something that a lot of others repeated. This is the vice president to the first African American president. Barack Obama and Joe Biden had each other's backs.

MARTIN: What does this mean for Kamala Harris? Briefly.

DETROW: I think it puts her in a high-profile role. It shows that she can take on tough opponents like those moments in Senate hearings that really earned her reputation. She did that on a bigger stage against a higher-profile opponent in this moment.

MARTIN: And Democrats will be trying to decide if she can take on President Trump. All right.

NPR's Scott Detrow, thanks.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.