DETROIT — Toward the latter end of the summer of 2008, after the party sojourn to Denver to nominate Barack Obama for president at the Democratic National Convention, giddy activists hosted a luncheon titled “We Still Have a Dream.”
On the speaking program that afternoon was a thirtysomething fireball of ambition named Cory Booker, who was then the first-term mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and Kamala Harris, the charismatic, newly elected district attorney of San Francisco. Their inclusion together in the day’s activities was clear: Obama may have been “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” — as Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden, had clumsily said in 2007, rankling many of the activists — but he would not be the last.
It only took one cycle after the election of Donald Trump for those two well-qualified black candidates to vie for the Democratic presidential nomination. But Harris and Booker aren’t targeting each other.
The target is Biden.
The fight within the primary to stake ground as the heir to Obama’s legacy is making party insiders, especially those close to the Obama administration, rather uncomfortable. The contest could create a potentially bitter rift between voters who think an inspirational figure like Harris or Booker will energize the party’s base and those who think Biden gives Democrats the best chance to win back states Trump won in 2016.
Mo Elleithee, a former Democratic Party official and executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, told BuzzFeed News that Booker and Harris symbolize, in their own ways, what Obama had represented: a politician who personifies generations of black Americans' hopes and dreams. But Elleithee said that Biden continues to benefit from the goodwill of people who long for that Obama-era nostalgia.
“In many ways, he tries to embrace it by reminding people that the journey that they helped start together is not over,” said Elleithee, who believes that the decision before black voters is to whom they want to pass the baton.
“People feel good about all three of them, and they all have very compelling cases to make. The question is, Who do they believe is the most effective baton carrier?” he said.
The trio stood on the debate stage together for the first time Wednesday. In interviews, their surrogates clung to the theories of their respective campaigns.
“Joe Biden is not the future of the Democratic Party, and he won’t be the nominee,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who is supporting Harris. “His support in South Carolina is wide, but it’s not deep. Well, that’s because they’re still listening to Kamala.
“But if Biden is the nominee and it rains, we lose.”
Quentin James, the cofounder of the Collective, a political action committee focused on electing black candidates to office, said that Biden’s momentum is fragile because he is already a well-known entity. He thinks what is holding people back at this stage of the race is a sense of fear that a black candidate won’t be successful in states Trump swept.
“A lot of our history as black Americans is picking between the lesser of two evils, whether that be in the Democratic Party for decades or candidates who may have not had our best interests in mind but were better than the racist. I think we’re facing a similar choice in 2020, but we can’t let fear define our path forward.”
James said he remembers that dynamic playing out in 2007, with black support not really solidifying behind Obama until he proved he could win Iowa. Obama had been well-liked and had only grown in popularity when black voters got to know Michelle Obama. But many still harbored fears over his prospects and doubted whether he could win a plurality of Democratic votes in the 2008 primary against Hillary Clinton. James said black voters shouldn’t have those same fears now about Harris or Booker.
“To be afraid that white voters won’t vote for them again, I think, is a mistake,” James said.
Biden campaign officials scolded the rest of the field after the debate for what they felt were gross mischaracterizations of Biden’s record on issues important to black Americans. (During a press briefing Wednesday, a senior Biden campaign official told reporters that as it related to Booker’s and Harris’s candidacies, “the unfortunate part is we have 51% of the African American vote and they want it.”) In Detroit, senior Biden campaign officials Symone Sanders and Kate Bedingfield were flanked by Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars, as a show of force against what many in Biden world see as an act of desperation from other candidates.
In an interview, Bottoms bristled at the suggestion that she was supporting Biden because she feared that a black candidate couldn’t win.
“Clearly, an African American candidate can be strong and win an election in this country. I just don’t know that we have that candidate in this race,” Bottoms said. “I believe that Joe Biden is the strongest candidate. And that has nothing to do with his race or his gender. What it has to do with is who he is and how well he appeals to voters in these states. It has to do with him.”
In a recent interview, the Democratic activist and Booker ally Steve Phillips characterized Biden’s lead in the race as a mirage.
“Of course there is affection for Biden because he was Obama’s vice president, but the idea black people think that Biden runs well with white people, and that is what is lifting him up in the polls, is comical and perverse, and it’s a very odd and ironic situation that’ll be tested severely the closer we get to Iowa. And it’s just not clear that Biden’s going to be able to withstand that test.”
Booker and Harris are characterizing Biden as problematic on matters of race, criminal justice, and civil rights and, stunningly, as a political anvil that could weigh down gains in turnout that the Democratic Party made in 2018. Booker’s campaign issued a memo saying Booker showed “how the pathway to beating Donald Trump includes motivating and energizing Democratic voters who stayed home because of lack of motivation, Republican suppression, or Russian interference efforts in 2020.” The campaign said black women would be “central” to building coalitions to win in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, three states Trump won.
Booker made that very contention during the debate. In a recent interview with BuzzFeed News, Booker said that a campaign like Biden’s — cast as an effort to remove one person from one office — is more likely to lose the general election in 2020.
“I think we as a party have shortchanged this country by not telling the truth about what’s really needed, which is not just getting rid of Donald Trump but getting us back focused towards the larger cause of our country, which has not yet been made real. I’m trying to challenge people to go to a higher — I know what they yearn for, we’re yearning for: not a Trump-defined campaign but a campaign that’s defined by the best of who we are. ... If people want a candidate that is going to define their purpose [as] punching Donald Trump in the face — and I’ve heard that rhetoric — if that’s what people want, then that’s who’s going to win. But that’s not why I’m running. That’s not what I’m going to be giving folks.”
Booker and Harris each poked at the former vice president during Wednesday’s debate; Harris repeatedly called him “Senator Biden,” skipping over his time under Obama, and Booker, in a moment of dramatic candor, sharply admonished Biden over hugging Obama in one moment of the debates and distancing himself in others.
“First of all, Mr. Vice President, you can't have it both ways,” Booker said. “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can't do it when it's convenient and then dodge it when it's not.”
Booker, who has committed himself to working across the aisle to get criminal justice fixes written into federal law, called Biden, who wrote the 1994 crime bill as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, an “architect” of mass incarceration.
“We have a system right now that's broken,” he said. “And if you want to compare records — and frankly I'm shocked that you do — I am happy to do that. Because all the problems that [Biden] is talking about that he created, I actually led the bill that got passed into law that reverses the damage that your bills, that you were, frankly, to correct you, Mr. Vice President, you were bragging, calling it the Biden crime bill up until 2015.”
But where will black voters come down? And how will they decide? Black voters who spoke with BuzzFeed News in interviews said they would watch for how the candidates interact, including Detroiter Joe Carswell, who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary, before ultimately voting for Hillary Clinton in the general election. Others expressed an affinity for Harris.
Most are undecided and waiting for the field to whittle itself down before taking a closer look at the candidates’ positions.
But both senators have a determination to see Biden’s candidacy stumble. During a guest appearance on the comic Larry Wilmore’s Black on the Air podcast last month, Booker was asked if he was jealous that Harris had landed a shot with her personal story in the first debate about being bused to school as a child, in spite of Biden’s opposition to the practice as a means of desegregating public schools.
“Kamala is like my sister,” said Booker. “I was happy for her.”