The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden pressed again to name a Black woman as his running mate

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks about his plans to combat racial inequality at a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., on July 28.
Former vice president Joe Biden speaks about his plans to combat racial inequality at a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., on July 28. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Supporters favoring a Black woman as the running mate of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden made a final public push Monday, as he continued to consult with advisers in private with less than a week to go before the start of his nominating convention.

The continued suspense over one of the most consequential decisions for a major-party presidential nominee pointed to the high stakes for both parties, as Republicans pin their hopes of reversing a recent slide in polls on disqualifying Biden’s selection. Many Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have said they hope the pick breaks new ground by elevating a woman of color, while others have argued for a more ideologically liberal candidate like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or a swing-state politician like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D).

More than 100 prominent Black men released a strongly worded open letter Monday, warning Biden that not picking a Black woman would cost him the election. The signatories of the letter included rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs, radio show host Lenard McKelvey (a.k.a. Charlamagne tha God), actor Cedric Kyles (a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer), commentator Van Jones, Bishop William J. Barber and civil rights attorney Ben Crump, among others.

The Fix’s Amber Phillips analyzes how the vice presidential search has impacted Joe Biden’s campaign less than three months before the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

“For too long Black women have been asked to do everything from rally the troops to risk their lives for the Democratic Party with no acknowledgment, no respect, no visibility, and certainly not enough support,” the letter stated. “Failing to select a Black woman in 2020 means you will lose the election. We don’t want to choose between the lesser of two evils and we don’t want to vote the devil we know versus the devil we don’t because we are tired of voting for devils — period.”

The letter followed a similar public statement from more than 700 “Concerned Black Women Leaders” on Friday, who challenged the “relentless attacks on Black women and our leadership abilities” that have accompanied the running mate search.

“There is a feeling of urgency and history — and Black women are tired of being considered the help,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who signed that letter and led the writing of a third open letter to Biden earlier this year urging him to pick a Black woman. “In politics, we have carried so many on our backs across the finish line, and in this moment in our history, we believe that it is time for a Black woman.”

Biden, who began the day at his vacation house in Rehoboth Beach, Del., before traveling to his home in Wilmington, has blown past a self-set deadline of naming a running mate by the first week of August. Some aides around him have voiced concern that naming a pick long before the convention begins on Monday would just give Republicans extra time to define the candidate on their terms before she addresses the nation next week.

The only public event on Biden’s calendar Monday was an afternoon fundraiser, which had originally been scheduled for Thursday, opening up Biden’s schedule later in the week.

The inability to gather a crowd to publicly welcome a vice presidential contender, due to coronavirus restrictions, has forced Biden’s campaign to plan alternative approaches, including a significant video rollout introducing the candidate to the country.

In the meantime, Biden has been doing what he can to tease interested journalists. On Saturday, during an impromptu bike ride near his vacation home, Biden was asked by a Fox News reporter whether he had made a decision.

“Yes,” Biden responded, before adding that the Fox News reporter would be the vice presidential nominee. Biden’s advisers said he was joking around.

On Sunday, after attending a church service at St. Edmond parish, he was asked again by a reporter whether he had picked a running mate. He answered, no less cryptically, with a question of his own. “Are you ready?” he said, and declined to answer further questions.

The Black women Biden has considered include Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.); Reps. Val Demings (D-Fla.) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.); former U.N. ambassador Susan E. Rice; former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams; and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. All have faced sharp criticism and scrutiny in recent weeks that the letter writers pressuring Biden to select one of them say has been unfair.

“We are not your Aunt Jemimas. The use of the racist myth of a happy, Black servant portrayed as a happy domestic worker loyal to her White employer is not lost on us,” read the open letter signed by more than 700 prominent Black women that was released last week. “While some of the relentless attacks on Black women and our leadership abilities have been more suggestive than others, make no mistake — we are qualified and ambitious without remorse.”

The Trump campaign, and the Republican National Committee, have compiled significant opposition research on each of the presumed finalists and prepared video releases of their own. On Wednesday, Trump aides continued to blast out quotes from Bass that were sympathetic to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, from which she has since distanced herself, in an effort to hurt the Biden ticket in South Florida, regardless of whether she is picked.

The Biden campaign expressed confidence that the Republican attacks would not be consequential, with spokesman Andrew Bates calling Trump’s maneuvers “bald-faced lies and try-too-hard conspiracy theories.”

Biden spoke directly with Whitmer about the job in early August, when she traveled to Delaware. Other in-person interviews, if they have taken place, have been kept secret. The circle of Biden staffers knowledgeable about his deliberations has been kept tight to prevent leaks.

Whomever is picked will be asked to speak at next week’s convention, requiring some time to prepare remarks. The Biden campaign also announced on Monday that the convention, a total of 8 hours of largely prerecorded programming over four nights, will include daily testimonials from American voters who now support Biden, including a former Trump voter from Pennsylvania, an immigrant from Mexico City who is now working as a paramedic fighting the coronavirus pandemic in Florida, and an autoworker from Lake Orion, Mich.

The Monday letter from Black men alludes to some Biden allies describing Harris as too ambitious for the position and questioning her loyalty to Biden. While several contenders have been pushed to explain previous stances or comments, the letter questions why Biden hasn’t been pushed to do the same for his work on 1994 crime legislation that led to harsher sentencing and racial disparities.

“Let’s be clear about the kind of remorse and reckoning that matters in 2020 when the Black community is still suffering the consequences for these oppressive measures,” the letter stated. “So, Black women are the only ones required to stay in their place and to show remorse for even questioning their own oppression?”

Biden has pledged to pick a Black woman as his first Supreme Court nominee, should he be elected president. But advocates of a Black vice presidential selection say that promise alone may not be enough to motivate a crucial segment of voters to the polls.

“In the Black community, the women get everybody to vote,” said Finney, a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, about the possibility of a White vice presidential pick for Biden. “The concern that I have is that the backlash will be significant, and we won’t have a lot of time — it’s 80-some days now — to do what needs to happen to heal and mobilize people.”

Annie Linskey in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and Matt Viser contributed to this report.