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In Part 4 of our series on pivotal moments in the lives of the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders, we examine the Senate career of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Mr. Biden came of age during a time of intense racial ferment in Delaware, his adopted state. Having spent his early career building bridges across racial division in Wilmington, Mr. Biden positioned himself as a new type of white politician: always approachable, with meaningful personal relationships in black communities. It was a pitch that helped him, as a 29-year-old political unknown, pull off a stunning electoral upset in 1972 to unseat a popular Republican United States Senator by a margin of less than 1 percent.
Soon after arriving in Washington, Mr. Biden began a bipartisan legislative push against crime that made him a name in the Senate — and lasted nearly two decades. The crime legislation also changed the face of his hometown and hometowns across America.
Today, as Mr. Biden makes his third run for the White House in a crowded field of Democrats — many of whom are calling for ambitious criminal justice reform — he must answer for his role in legislation that criminal justice experts and his critics say helped lay the groundwork for the mass incarceration that has devastated America’s black communities.
That he worked with segregationists to write the bills has added to his challenge, as has the fact that support from black voters is so crucial for Democrats.
Mr. Biden declined to participate in this episode, but in a previous statement to The Times his campaign has said that he has “fought to defeat systemic racism and unacceptable racial disparities for his entire career” and that he “believes that too many people of color are in jail in this country.”
Some Democrats say a fuller reckoning is required. While Mr. Biden argues that civility in politics is an achievement in and of itself, other Democrats say the effect of policies rather than the politeness of the process should be evaluated to determine success.
Mr. Biden’s candidacy hangs on a question: Is his hallmark bipartisanship still applicable — or desirable — in an era of such stark political polarization?
“The Candidates: Joe Biden” was hosted by Michael Barbaro, produced by Rachel Quester and Eric Krupke, and edited by Paige Cowett and Larissa Anderson. Astead W. Herndon contributed reporting.
“The Daily” is made by Theo Balcomb, Andy Mills, Lisa Tobin, Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison, Annie Brown, Clare Toeniskoetter, Paige Cowett, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Larissa Anderson, Wendy Dorr, Chris Wood, Jessica Cheung, Alexandra Leigh Young, Jonathan Wolfe, Lisa Chow, Eric Krupke, Marc Georges, Luke Vander Ploeg, Adizah Eghan, Kelly Prime, Julia Longoria, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Jazmín Aguilera, M.J. Davis Lin, Dan Powell, Austin Mitchell, Sayre Quevedo, Monika Evstatieva, Neena Pathak and Dave Shaw. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Mikayla Bouchard, Stella Tan, Julia Simon and Lauren Jackson.