Joe Biden waited less than a minute before he alluded to the controversy that threatens to undermine his still-undeclared presidential campaign.
“I just want you to know, I had permission to hug Lonnie,” Biden said at the start of his speech in Washington on Friday, referring to the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Lonnie Stephenson who had introduced him.
The remark drew laughs from a few thousand of the gathered union members, coming just two days after the former vice president — in response to a series of high-profile accusations that he made women feel uncomfortable with how he touched them — vowed to change his behavior. But to many in the Democratic Party, the issue, which highlights the 76-year-old Biden’s larger generational challenge in a young and diverse party, is serious enough to imperil Biden’s candidacy before it even begins.
More than 200 miles away, much of the Democratic field descended on a hotel near Times Square, pitching their candidacies before a gathering of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
They didn’t go out of their way to draw contrasts with Biden, but his deliberations — and his controversies — were unmistakably part of the backdrop against which the multi-day conference unfolded this week.
“Vice President Biden’s got to make some serious decisions about his candidacy,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who at one point was considering of 2020 bid of his own, told reporters Friday. Those remarks came in response to a McClatchy question about whether Biden had sufficiently answered to the women who expressed discomfort with him. “Let him and voters decide. It’s not for me to say whether those remarks are sufficient or not.”
Over the last week, a number of women have said that Biden’s tactile approach to engaging and campaigning—sometimes through an unsolicited kiss on the head or an unwanted shoulder grip—made them uncomfortable. And many of the officials and lawmakers who addressed reporters over the course of the conference this week were peppered with questions about Biden.
“We need to listen to those who are raising their stories, who have the courage to come forward to share their experience,” Beto O’Rourke, Biden’s would-be rival, said earlier this week on the sidelines of the convention. He went on, “Ultimately that’s going to be a decision for him to make, but I’m glad that people are willing to and have the courage to step up. They must be heard and listened to.”
Back in Washington, Biden denied after his speech that he meant to make light of the accusations against him, saying he understood that he needed consent before touching anybody.
But asked by reporters if he was sorry about the incidents, he offered only a qualified apology.
“I’m sorry I didn’t understand more,” Biden said. ‘I’m not sorry for any of my intentions.”
The comments were similar to ones he released on Wednesday via video, in which he said he would conduct himself differently, but did not offer an apology to any of the women who have accused him of making them feel uncomfortable.
The controversy threatens to distract Biden, who reiterated Friday that he was close to making an official announcement about a White House bid, from the core message of his would-be candidacy. In his speech to the IBEW, Biden offered a potential preview of his stump speech, recalling his own blue-collar roots while bemoaning that the country had forgotten how working men and women were the true heart of the country.
“This country was not built by Wall Street bankers and CEOs and hedge-fund managers,” Biden said, though he was quick to add that many of them are still good people. “It was built by the great American middle class.”
The New York conference, meanwhile, kicked off Wednesday, the same day Biden released the video promising to improve his behavior. It drew presidential hopefuls including O’Rourke, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar; former Housing Secretary Julián Castro and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, among others.
Many signaled support for a bill calling for the study of reparations. They urged criminal justice reform and higher pay for teachers and more affordable housing. Candidates from Warren to Gillibrand nodded to Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate whose narrow loss, some of her supporters argue, was affected by voter suppression.
“Massive voter suppression prevented Stacey Abrams from becoming the rightful governor of Georgia,” Warren said to thunderous applause. Abrams also appeared at the conference earlier in the week and earned a celebrity’s welcome as she teased a future run at higher office.
But in the hallways and in scrums with reporters, Biden’s controversy was a leading topic of conversation. And certainly, he had plenty of defenders at the heavily African-American National Action Network.
“We’re in a time when social norms are changing and adjusting, and I think for someone like Joe Biden, who has a long history, and a long public record, the voters will take the good with the bad,” said Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League. “They’ll evaluate those allegations in the context of his candidacy should he become a candidate.”
Pastor John A. Heath of Phoenix sat in a hallway a floor below the speeches earlier this week, engaged in a heated discussion with Glenda Jones of New York over the accusations facing Biden.
Heath, 49, and Jones, 72, were in vehement agreement that the criticisms Biden faces come from a different generation—but that they don’t share those concerns.
“He can apologize if [they] felt encroached upon,” Heath said. “I don’t think we need to throw him out because he loves people.”
Agreed Jones: “It’s very clear it wasn’t sexual in orientation. It’s a difference in generations how we were raised.”
Alex Roarty reported from Washington, while Katie Glueck reported from New York.