COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Black lawmakers in South Carolina are calling on former Vice President Joe Biden to disavow statements from a longtime friend and campaign surrogate that they say are racist.
About half of the 45-member Legislative Black Caucus held a news conference on Wednesday blasting Democratic state Sen. Dick Harpootlian for remarks they contend insinuated that their group's chairman had been bought by Biden rival Tom Steyer because he was paid for his work for Steyer's campaign. They said Biden, who is running for president and is a top contender in the upcoming South Carolina primary, should distance himself from Harpootlian following the comments.
"We ask that he do it publicly, and that he do it now," House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said. “His refusal to do so will not go over well in the black community, and it certainly will not go over well with members of the Black Caucus that are standing behind me.”
Harpootlian denies that his comments were racially motivated. Biden spokeswoman Paige Hill said Wednesday that Harpootlian "does not speak for the Biden campaign.”
The fight broke out just over three weeks before South Carolina's presidential primary, the first voting contest in the South. The majority of South Carolina's Democratic voting electorate is black, a demographic that overwhelmingly supports Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential race. Biden is working to find his footing after a struggling showing in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses on Monday.
Harpootlian tweeted earlier Wednesday about Federal Election Commission filings showing Black Caucus Chairman Jerry Govan receiving "almost $50,000" from Steyer's campaign in just more than a month's time and called the billionaire Steyer "Mr. Money Bags."
"Is he pocketing the dough or redistributing the wealth?" Harpootlian asked, referring to Govan.
Harpootlian also told the Post and Courier newspaper of South Carolina: “He told me he was with Joe Biden until Mr. Moneybags showed up." He continued: “This is what happens when billionaires get involved, whether it's Donald Trump or Tom Steyer. They just buy things. They don’t have to persuade anybody, they just buy them.”
After the news conference, Harpootlian told reporters that he was not a Biden campaign spokesman and hadn't consulted the campaign before making any comments.
"I am not racially motivated in any of this," Harpootlian said. “I will not be silenced by those who use race as a shield from criticism. ... This is an effort to shield themselves by saying this is racist.”
Late Wednesday, Steyer accused Harpootlian of having “a horrid track record of disrespecting and disparaging African Americans." In a statement provided to The Associated Press, he went on to call Harpootlian's comments “Trump-like dirty campaign tactics that the Biden campaign should not tolerate."
The Steyer campaign said earlier that Govan was being compensated $10,000 per month, an amount it called “consistent with the salaries of other members of the team in South Carolina.”
The FEC filings show Steyer's campaign paid Govan $43,000 for work from Oct. 31 to Dec. 4. Steyer's team contends that Govan came on board in September so the amount would essentially account for back pay.
Govan was announced as a “senior adviser” to Steyer's South Carolina campaign in October, raising some eyebrows among those who found it curious a campaign would be paying a state lawmaker while receiving his endorsement.
Democrats seeking their party's nomination have been lobbying caucus members for support for over a year now, their endorsements possibly avenues into support with black voters.
Steyer has since been endorsed by other South Carolina lawmakers, including state Sen. John Scott, another member of the Black Caucus. Govan previously supported Biden, serving as an adviser and co-chairman of his 2008 presidential campaign in South Carolina.
Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report from Columbia.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”