For Booker, who is one of only two black men running in the primary, this week was supposed to be devoted to advocating for a bill that would lead Congress to study reparations for the descendants of American slaves, connecting with voters in the states he needs to win to keep his campaign alive and preparing for the first Democratic debate.
But after former vice president Joe Biden grabbed headlines for touting his working relationship in the past with two segregationist senators, Booker found his attention redirected and ultimately became the first candidate to call out Biden for his insensitivity.
"Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone,” Booker said in a statement. “I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together,”
He added: “I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should.”
Other critiques of Biden came after Booker’s, including from Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the only black woman running in the primary, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is married to a black woman.
But it was Booker’s words that were the most forceful — so much so that Biden himself responded in a way that his critics say further demonstrated just how tone-deaf Biden is about the state of the Democratic Party on matters of race.
Booker told CNN’s Don Lemon Wednesday about the memories Biden’s words resurfaced:
“The indignity to watch another man call my father ‘boy,’ to have myself have older men when I was a man, to use those kinds of terms — these are the kind of things that do cause hurt and harm,” the senator said.
The moment comes after what some close to him feel has been a tough stretch for Booker, whose name had been floating around for a while as a 2020 presidential candidate before he eventually entered the race this past spring. An Ivy League-educated lawyer who was the mayor of Newark before he made his way to the Senate, some proponents saw him as a possible successor to President Barack Obama because of some of their similarities.
Interest in the back-and-forth between Booker and Biden was high on social media, and Booker’s next move only further highlighted differences between him and Biden.
While Biden has spent a bit of time being asked about his past support for legislation that sentenced drug offenders to long prison sentences, Booker released a plan Thursday that could benefit many of the black Americans hurt by the laws of the current criminal system. Booker promised to offer clemency to the more than 17,000 inmates incarcerated for nonviolent drug-related offenses on his first day in the White House.
Campaign staffers said the rollout was not intentionally meant to provide a contrast between Biden, a candidate who some have suggested is from another era and unprepared to lead America as it is now, and Booker, a lawmaker more concerned about working with the left’s base.
Whether this uptick in interest in Booker will translate to a bump in the polls will be a test — both of whether Booker’s candidacy can ever achieve liftoff and of whether Democratic voters really want to make their pick to challenge Trump based on who is most forward-thinking on handling issues of race.