Sen. Kamala Harris took aim at frontrunner Joe Biden over his opposition to school busing in the 1970s and his favorable statements about segregationist senators during Thursday night’s Democratic debate.
In a heated exchange, Harris said it was hurtful to hear the former vice president talk fondly about his relationships with Sens. James Eastland and Herman Talmadge at a recent fundraiser.
“I do not praise racists,” Biden responded. “If we want to have this litigated on who supports civil rights, I’m happy to do that.”
Biden’s record, which extends back nearly 50 years, was one of the main topics of the debate. Biden defended his legislative accomplishments, his work on gun control and his support for gay marriage. But his record also provided ample targets for his opponents, both young and old.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, 38, repeatedly urged him to “pass the torch” to a younger generation. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running second in most national polls, challenged Biden over his support for the Iraq war.
“Joe voted for that war,” Sanders said. “I helped lead the opposition to that war, which is a disaster.”
The back-and-forth with Harris was the debate’s most striking moment. In returning fire, Biden noted that as a young lawyer he chose to be a public defender — not a prosecutor. Harris has faced criticism on the left over her prosecutorial record as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general.
Harris then challenged Biden to disavow his opposition to busing, to which Biden responded that he did not oppose busing — only mandates from the federal government. Harris said she was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley public schools in the 1970s, decades after the Supreme Court ordered desegregation.
“Because your city government made that decision,” Biden replied. “It was a local decision.”
“So that’s where the federal government must step in,” Harris responded.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, also found himself on the defensive, responding to a recent police shooting in his community which has led to widespread protests. He was asked why the city has not increased the percentage of black officers.
“Because I couldn’t get it done,” he answered. In the wake of the shooting, he said, “It’s a mess, and we’re hurting.”
Biden made a case for himself as a continuation of President Obama’s legacy, repeatedly invoking Obama’s name. He also recounted his own tragic family history in support of his pledge to seek universal healthcare.
“The quickest, fastest way to do it is build on Obamacare, to build on what we did,” Biden said. “I am against any Democrat who opposes Obamacare, and any Republican who opposes Obamacare.”
The candidates were asked if their health care plans would cover illegal immigration. Each candidate raised his or her hand.
The debate follows Wednesday’s debate among 10 other candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Cory Booker, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.