The incoming administration is on the defensive after leaked audio revealed that President-elect Joe Biden recently warned civil rights leaders against immediate police reform out of fear it would hurt Democrats’ chances at winning the upcoming Senate runoff elections in Georgia.
Biden spoke Tuesday with a group of civil rights leaders and insisted, unprompted, that Republicans’ ability to define the Democratic Party as one in favor of defunding the police is how they “beat the living hell out of us” in downballot races, according to audio obtained by The Intercept that can be heard on its podcast “Deconstructed” this week.
During the meeting, NAACP President Derrick Johnson warned Biden that appointing Tom Vilsack ― instead of Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) ― to be agriculture secretary would anger Georgia’s Black voters, and particularly Black farmers. Vilsack, who was agriculture secretary under the Obama administration, notoriously fired Black USDA official Shirley Sherrod from her role as Georgia’s director of rural development.
Sherrod’s firing was based on a manipulated video aired by the late conservative Andrew Breitbart. Johnson told Biden that Georgia very much remembers Vilsack’s decision to fire her.
“If you consider the victory that you appreciated in Georgia, it was around 12,000 votes. And so as you consider appointments, you must also consider what impact would that have on voters in the state of Georgia,” Johnson can be heard saying. “And I will submit to you that former Secretary Vilsack could have a disastrous impact on voters in Georgia. Shirley Sherrod is a civil rights legend, a hero.”
Biden announced Thursday that he had nominated Vilsack anyway.
Biden argued that a push to implement police reform during the transition, rather than Vilsack’s appointment, is what’s likely to hurt Democrats during the Georgia runoffs in January.
“Also, don’t think we should get too far ahead of ourselves on dealing with police reform,” the president-elect can be heard saying, warning that Republicans have “already labeled us as being ‘defund the police.’”
“That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not,” he added.
While Democrats did lose an unexpected number of races across the country, it should be noted that many of the progressive candidates who were vocal about defunding the police actually won reelection.
“We’re talking about holding them accountable. We’re talking about giving them money to do the right things. We’re talking about putting more psychologists and psychiatrists on the telephones when the 911 calls through. We’re talking about spending money to enable them to do their jobs better, not with more force, with less force, and more understanding,” Biden said.
The phrase “defund the police” refers to the redistribution of government funding from police departments to social services for underserved communities that tend to be targeted by law enforcement. The Brookings Institution’s Rashawn Ray noted that defunding does not equal abolishing police ― which is also a movement being pushed by some progressives ― but instead “highlights fiscal responsibility” and “advocates for a market-driven approach to taxpayer money.”
After The Intercept published the audio of Biden’s remarks, his transition team reiterated its defense of the president-elect’s position.
“President-elect Biden is the same person behind closed doors that he is public; honest, direct and realistic about the challenges facing our nation the day he is sworn in,” the transition team told NBC News. “As he made clear throughout the campaign, he believes in supporting bold and urgent reform to our criminal justice system while continuing to support law enforcement’s mission to keep our communities safe.”
In January’s runoff, Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff will be facing Republican Sen. David Perdue, while Democratic Rev. Raphael Warnock is facing Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
Ossoff’s platform includes calling for a new Civil Rights Act and an end to police brutality. Warnock, meanwhile, has an agriculture platform that includes “level the playing field for Black and minority farmers by expanding access to capital for equipment and financial resources and ending discriminatory policies at the federal level that limit opportunities,” according to his campaign website.
The Biden transition did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s questions about how his comments on police brutality and his nomination of Vilsack play with the two Democratic Senate candidates’ platforms.
Biden has made no secret of his position on defunding the police, a cause that grew in popularity during this year’s protests against police brutality and racial injustice. During his campaign, the president-elect repeatedly expressed support for police reform but said he would not take away police funding. Many progressives argue that the police system is past the point of reform and should have its funds redistributed to preventative resources.
Former President Barack Obama recently received backlash after expressing sentiments similar to Biden’s and those of other moderate Democrats. In a Dec. 1 interview on the Snapchat political show “Good Luck America,” Obama warned that a “snappy” slogan like “defund the police” makes it “a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.”
Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza said earlier this week that establishment Democrats’ attacks on the push to defund the police is insulting to the activists who helped secure Biden’s victory.
“This movement, which really helped to push [Biden’s] campaign over the finish line, was used as a political football all throughout this election cycle and that was true in 2016 as well,” Garza said Tuesday at Politico’s Women Rule Capstone event. “There’s a lot of valuable airspace that was used to be condescending to the very people who have opened the imagination that this country can be ― and how we can get closer to the promise that this country has offered so many.”
HuffPost also asked if Biden felt like his response to civil rights leaders on Tuesday is letting down the wave of Black Americans who helped bring about his victory. The transition team did not respond.