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Joe Biden remains publicly mum about upset over his remarks about segregationist senators

Former vice president Joe Biden, walks with Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) at a fish fry hosted by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) in Columbia, S.C., on Friday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Former vice president Joe Biden for the second day on Friday publicly ignored a controversy over comments he made this week bragging about his working relationship with two segregationist senators.

As he took the stage Friday night at a renowned fish fry sponsored by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the crowd roared and broke into chants of “Joe, Joe, Joe.”

Biden praised Clyburn, the House’s majority whip, with a nod to former president Barack Obama, saying the congressman was the highest-ranking African American “in the history of the United States of America — besides the guy I served for eight years.”

As he wrapped up his remarks — part of a series of greetings from presidential candidates who were limited to a minute’s speaking time — Biden made a call for unity.

A lineup of 21 Democratic presidential hopefuls descended on Columbia, S.C. to attend Rep. Jim Clyburn's "World Famous Fish Fry." (Video: The Washington Post)

“I hope I’m your nominee,” Biden said. “But here’s the deal. Whoever the Democratic nominee is, we have to stay together and elect a Democrat.”

Biden’s appearance in South Carolina, where 60 percent of the Democratic electorate is African American, came a day after he met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a long-scheduled sit-down that also served as a minimal private reckoning of the controversy over his comments .

The Thursday meeting was largely focused on a criminal justice plan Biden’s campaign is preparing to release and included only a brief reference to Biden’s comments, according to Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), who organized and attended the meeting.

“We got on the subject because I was talking about how, with criminal justice reform, we had to work with Trump, who we don’t like,” said Richmond, who is also a Biden campaign co-chairman.

Richmond said Biden then “reiterated what he said in the public, which is that he had to work with people that he didn’t agree with or necessarily like.”

“It was ironic that we were working on criminal justice reform, and we had to work with Trump last year on criminal justice reform,” Richmond added, referring to a separate legislative effort.

Richmond organized Thursday’s gathering, which was at the caucus’s townhouse near the U.S. Capitol. Attendees included Reps. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), along with several advocates who work on criminal justice issues, according to a Democratic Hill staffer who, like some others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not sanctioned to speak publicly.

Richmond said he wasn’t likening the segregationist senators to President Trump, other than to point out that all are political leaders with views he finds odious.

“It wasn’t a comparison,” Richmond said.

He said nobody in the room dwelled on Biden’s comments. “We spent 30 seconds on that,” Richmond said.

Biden’s campaign has been beset by controversy since Tuesday night, when at a New York City fundraiser, he invoked his relationship with Sen. James O. Eastland (Miss.), a segregationist Democrat, saying he “never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’ ” Biden also talked about another segregationist, Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), whom he called “one of the meanest guys I ever knew,” before adding that “at least there was some civility. We got things done.”

The remarks prompted immediate outcry from activists who felt Biden was praising the civility of senators who held deeply demeaning views about blacks.

Other 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), demanded an apology. Biden shot back in public that Booker was the one who should apologize but also called him privately to try to smooth over tensions.

Booker also spoke at the Clyburn fish fry and, like Biden, did not mention their conflict or the Biden remarks that spawned it.

The gentle reception on Thursday from key black lawmakers is, in part, due to Biden’s long relationship with many Black Caucus members, who have said they feel that they know him and won’t be swayed by what they considered a stray comment. Their continuing support also reflects the view that Biden is the candidate most likely to defeat Trump in the presidential election, said one Democratic Hill staffer familiar with the dynamic.

Biden won more public support Friday when Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, defended the vice president.

“I don’t think the remarks are offensive,” Lewis told reporters, recounting the range of unsavory people with whom he has worked shoulder to shoulder. “During the height of the civil rights movement, we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan — people who opposed us, even people who beat us and arrested us and jailed us,” he said.

“We never gave up on our fellow human beings, and I will not give up on any human being.”

Richmond said Friday in an interview with The Washington Post that the former vice president understands his remarks have become a distraction.

“When something like this comes out, you wind up talking about this instead of the note he put out on Iran this week or any of his other issues,” he said, referring to Biden’s recent statement that the rising tension between the United States and Iran is a “self-inflicted disaster.”

“In any campaign, you don’t want any one thing that’s going to absolutely just dominate all the news cycle,” Richmond said. “He realizes it’s caused an uproar.”

Richmond said he does not believe Biden’s remarks will erode his support among black voters.

“African Americans are worried about the safety of their families. They’re worried about jobs. They’re worried about health care, diabetes, cancer, and they’re worried about how to pay for kids’ college,” Richmond said. “And I think that what they’re listening for is someone to address how they’re going to tackle those issues.”

He added that Biden’s campaign is planning to release policy plans that will eclipse any campaign missteps with minorities.

“As he rolls out more and more of his policy plans, people will see that he’s doing it with everybody in mind, but with a particular emphasis on black and brown people who have always been disproportionately impacted,” Richmond said.

Linskey reported from Washington. Colby Itkowitz and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report in Washington.