At the New Hampshire Democratic debate on Friday, billionaire coal investor-turned-green-activist Tom Steyer took direct aim at former Vice President Joe Biden’s strong support among black voters. He confronted Biden to his face about South Carolina state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Biden surrogate who allegedly made racist remarks. Steyer confronted the former VP three times on the issue, and Biden did not give an answer.
The billionaire had mentioned racism in America today, and right after supporting reparations he pivoted to the issue of Harpootlian.
“In fact, three days ago, one of the leaders of Joe Biden’s South Carolina campaign made racist remarks about someone associated with our campaign, and the Legislative Black Caucus went out en masse to stand up for that man and for our campaign,” Steyer said.
“Joe, I’m asking you to come with me and the Legislative Black Caucus and disavow Dick Harpootlian and what he had to say. It was wrong, and I’m asking you to join us. Be on the right side,” he urged.
Tom Steyer: "I am the person on this stage who will say openly, 'I'm for reparations.' Something wrong happened…and anyone who thinks racism is a thing of the past and not an ongoing problem is not dealing with reality." https://t.co/Rhy9aOaDTU #DemDebate pic.twitter.com/7PR2NoQoHa
— ABC News (@ABC) February 8, 2020
Biden demurred, noting that he enjoys far more support from black voters than other presidential candidates. Steyer pressed him on the issue twice more, and Biden eventually said, “I think… I believe he is sorry for what he said.”
Harpootlian had attacked S.C. state Rep. Jerry Govan, claiming Steyer bought his support.
“Mr. Money Bags a.k.a [Tom Steyer] has paid S.C. State Rep. Jerry Govan almost $50,000 for a month worth of work? Is he pocketing the dough or redistributing the wealth? cc: Steyer FEC report,” Harpootlian tweeted.
Mr. Money Bags a.k.a @TomSteyer has paid S.C. State Rep. Jerry Govan almost $50,000 for a month worth of work? Is he pocketing the dough or redistributing the wealth? cc: Steyer FEC report
— Dick Harpootlian (@Harpootlian4SC) February 5, 2020
About half of the 45-member Legislative Black Caucus called for Biden to disavow Harpootlian, NBC News reported.
“We ask that he do it publicly, and that he do it now,” House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said. “His refusal to do so will not go over well in the black community, and it certainly will not go over well with members of the Black Caucus that are standing behind me.”
As for Harpootlian, he has not expressed any contrition. Instead, he denied that his comments were racially motivated. Biden spokeswoman Paige Hill said that Harpootlian “does not speak for the Biden campaign.”
It seems unlikely this attack will seriously weaken Biden’s support among the black community, but it may do some damage. If Biden’s campaign continues to falter, Steyer is preparing himself to court those black voters.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.