DETROIT (Reuters) – Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden defended his civil rights record on Wednesday, reminding a crowd of black leaders of his close relationship with Barack Obama while backing away from his work on the 1994 crime bill.
Biden has been under fire in recent weeks from black rivals Kamala Harris and Cory Booker on racial issues. He said Obama, the first black U.S. president, would not have chosen him to be his vice president if he was bad on civil rights.
“They did a significant background check on me for months with 10 people. I doubt whether they would have picked me if these accusations about me being wrong on civil rights were correct,” Biden told the annual convention of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.
He rejected the idea he was using Obama as a “crutch,” however, saying his administration would not just be a continuation of Obama’s.
Biden’s early lead in the nominating contest has been fueled in part by strong support from black voters, who remember his service for eight years as vice president for Obama.
But Biden has slipped in the polls after a confrontation at the first debate last month with Harris, who criticized his opposition to federally mandated busing to integrate schools in the 1970s and his willingness to work with segregationist senators.
Booker also has criticized Biden, taking particular aim at his work on the 1994 crime bill, which Biden helped write while serving in the U.S. Senate. Critics say the law boosted incarceration rates and unfairly hit minority populations.
Biden unveiled a criminal justice plan on Tuesday that reverses several elements of the 1994 crime bill he helped write.
“Every major initiative needs to be reformed,” Biden told the convention in Detroit, calling the 1994 crime bill a response to “a giant epidemic in America of violence,” particularly in African-American communities.
“We have now a systemic issue and too many African Americans in jail right now, so I think we should shift the whole focus from what we were doing in terms of incarceration to rehabilitation,” he said.
Biden, Harris and Booker were among 10 candidates who addressed the NAACP on Wednesday, the day after delegates to the convention endorsed the impeachment of Republican President Donald Trump.
Several of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for the right to challenge Trump in November 2020 praised the NAACP’s move.
“Some things are above politics,” said U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a strong impeachment supporter. “We have to make clear, no one is above the law, not even the president of the United States.”
Trump declined an invitation to appear at the convention, telling reporters last week the group changed the date and format of his appearance. He wanted to give a speech, he said, but the NAACP declared he had to participate in the same question-and-answer format as the other candidates.
Democrats have intensified their efforts to win over black voters, one of the party’s most loyal constituencies, after the first decline in African-American turnout in 20 years during the 2016 election. That helped sink Hillary Clinton and contribute to Trump’s stunning upset win.
Democratic candidates in the 2020 race have backed an array of policies to close the racial gap in economic equality, improve access to healthcare and institute criminal justice reforms including eliminating cash bail, outlawing the death penalty, legalizing marijuana and wiping clean the records of nonviolent drug offenders.
Biden’s criminal justice plan includes a series of measures to end racial disparities in the criminal justice system, such as providing greater access to quality public defenders, ending mandatory-minimum sentences and scrapping the cash bail system.
It also calls for an end to the 1994 bill’s disparity on sentencing terms involving crack versus powder cocaine and an end to the federal death penalty, which was applied to a broader number of crimes under the bill.
Democratic contender Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told the NAACP crowd he had tried to institute more police accountability and better community relations in South Bend.
“We are still on that journey and it is not done,” he said.
Buttigieg has struggled to attract black support amid persistent questions about racial relations in South Bend, particularly after a recent police shooting where a white officer with his body camera turned off fatally shot a black man.
“As president, I am determined to have a Department of Justice that supports cities doing the right thing and compels police departments to do the right thing,” Buttigieg said.