Former Vice President Joe Biden’s top surrogate in South Carolina is being accused of racial insensitivity, as Tom Steyer surges among the state’s black voters.
South Carolina state Sen. Dick Harpootilan, a longtime Biden confidant and lieutenant, stirred controversy on Wednesday when he attacked a fellow legislative colleague, state Rep. Jerry Govan, for backing Steyer. In his broadside, Harpootlian seemed to imply Govan, the chairman of the powerful South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus, was only supporting Steyer for monetary reasons.
“Mr. Money Bags a.k.a Tom Steyer has paid S.C. State Rep. Jerry Govan almost $50,000 for a month worth of work,” Harpootlian wrote on social media, citing Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings indicating Steyer was paying Govan’s consulting firm for its services. “Is he pocketing the dough or redistributing the wealth?”
Harpootlian’s insinuation comes after Steyer’s campaign finance disclosures for the final three months of 2019 were released. The filings show Steyer’s campaign paid Govan’s consulting firm more than $43,000 between October 31 and December 4. Steyer’s campaign told South Carolina’s Post and Courier the money was back pay, as Govan had been serving as a surrogate and adviser since September, making $10,000-per-month.
Shortly after Harpootlian made his gripe known, Govan called a press conference at the state capitol to respond. Flanked by members of the Legislative Black Caucus, Govan not only defended his conduct, but claimed Harpootlian’s attack was racially motivated.
“The connotation is highly insulting as an African American and should be insulting to every African American,” Govan told reporters. Harpootlian “speaks in condescending terms to African Americans and I don’t appreciate what he’s implying considering his track record and history.”
Govan added that his role with Steyer’s campaign involves not only travel and stump speeches, but relies on relationships and trust built over decades in public service.
“For my services, I travel, I do surrogate work, I do advice on policy,” he said. “And because of my expertise … I would think my services for any candidate [are valuable], and [Steyer is] not the only candidate to ask about my services.”
At the press conference, Govan’s allies also accused Harpootlian of displaying a disrespect for African Americans. Todd Rutherford, the minority leader of the South Carolina House of Representatives, cited the senator’s past comments about wanting to “rent” the black vote and his frequent lashing out at African American elected officials.
“The issue is since [endorsing Barack Obama in 2008], every time a black person does anything he does not like, he attacks them and implies that they are corrupt,” Rutherford said. “From the very beginning, he’s been wrong, and he’s wrong now.”
The minority leader demanded that Biden’s campaign repudiate its surrogate and cut off all ties, so as not to permanently damage the former vice president’s support with black voters.
“We ask that Vice President Biden not only disavow those comments but have no relationship whatsoever with Sen. Harpootlian,” Rutherford said. “And we ask that Sen. Harpootlian have nothing to do with his campaign.”
Rutherford further claimed that a refusal by Biden “will not go over well in [South Carolina’s] black community.”
Harpootlian, for his part, attempted to diffuse the situation, claiming he did not speak for the former vice president’s campaign, and his criticism of Govan was not racial.
“I am not racially motivated in any of this,” Harpootlian told reporters after Govan’s press conference. “I will not be silenced by those who use race as a shield from criticism.”
When making his defense, Harpootlian alleged that Govan had told him privately he would back Biden prior to being hired by Steyer.
The dustup comes as Steyer has increasingly gained on Biden, especially among black Democrats, ahead of South Carolina’s primary later this month. A Post and Courier poll made public last week out of the Palmetto State indicates that Steyer has surged to third place behind Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). According to the poll, conducted by Change Research, Biden still leads the field with 25 percent, with Sanders running a close second at 20 percent, and Steyer in third with 18 percent.
The results, though, do not bode well for the former vice president, who once had a 27 point advantage over his competitors in South Carolina. Complicating matters is that Biden’s campaign is short on money and struggling to prove its arguments about electability still hold up after a bruising flop in the Iowa Caucuses.
Although the early nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire were never supposed to be friendly to the former vice president, his campaign has long counted on South Carolina to serve as firewall against those early losses. The plan seemed sure to work, given Biden’s once insurmountable support among black voters, who make up a plurality of South Carolina’s Democrat electorate.
Steyer, however, has disrupted that strategy. The California billionaire and noted environmentalist has poured more than $15 million into ads across South Carolina’s media markets. Steyer has also focused on cultivating the state’s black political leadership, resulting in endorsements from individuals like Govan. The effort seems to be paying off.
The Post and Courier poll from last week indicated Steyer gained thirteen percentage among Democrat voters since a similar poll was conducted in December. Steyer’s newfound position is because of increased support from black voters. In fact, Steyer does better among black Democrats than Sanders and only trails Biden by single digits with the demographic.
Steyer’s surge is partially why Govan and his allies feel Biden needs to repudiate Harpoolitan publicly, lest it seem like the former vice president is taking black voters for granted.
“We know that Joe Biden needs South Carolina’s vote,” Rutherford told reporters on Wednesday. “He needs the black vote. He certainly cannot get it with [Harpoolitan].”
This is not the first time that Biden’s campaign has earned the enmity of African American leaders. Last year, the former vice president elicited widespread rebuke after he praised the “civility” of two segregationist Democrats with whom he’d been allied in the fight against busing to integrate public school.