Accusations mar Biden's potential run for top post

Women express discomfort with how former V-P touched them

WASHINGTON • Mr Joe Biden waited less than a minute before he alluded to the controversy that threatens to undermine him should he run for president.

"I just want you to know, I had permission to hug Lonnie," Mr Biden said at the start of his speech in Washington last Friday, referring to the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (Ibew), Mr Lonnie Stephenson, who had introduced him.

The remark drew laughs from a few thousand of the gathered union members, coming just two days after the former vice-president - in response to a series of accusations that he made women feel uncomfortable with how he touched them - promised to change his behaviour.

But to many in the Democratic Party, the issue, which highlights 76-year-old Mr Biden's generational challenge in a young and diverse party, is serious enough to imperil his candidacy before it even begins.

Meanwhile, much of the Democratic presidential field descended on a hotel in New York, pitching their candidacies to a gathering of the National Action Network, a civil rights organisation founded by Reverend Al Sharpton.

They did not go out of their way to draw contrasts with Mr Biden, but his deliberations - and his controversies - were unmistakably part of the backdrop against which the conference unfolded last week.

Former US vice-president Joe Biden (far left) hugging International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (Ibew) president Lonnie Stephenson as he addressed the Ibew construction and maintenance conference in Washington last Friday. Mr Biden is consideri
Former US vice-president Joe Biden (left) hugging International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (Ibew) president Lonnie Stephenson as he addressed the Ibew construction and maintenance conference in Washington last Friday. Mr Biden is considering a 2020 presidential candidacy. PHOTO: REUTERS

"Biden's got to make some serious decisions about his candidacy," said Senator Sherrod Brown, who had himself considered running for president. 

 
 
 

Those remarks came in response to a question about whether Mr Biden had sufficiently answered to the women who expressed discomfort with him.

"Let him and voters decide," Mr Brown said. It's not for me to say whether those remarks are sufficient or not."

Over the past week, a number of women have said Mr Biden's tactile approach to engaging and campaigning - sometimes an unsolicited kiss on the head or an unwanted shoulder grip - made them uncomfortable.

And many of the officials and lawmakers at the conference last week were peppered with questions about Mr Biden.

"We need to listen to those who are raising their stories, who have the courage to come forward to share their experience," presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke of Texas said last week on the sidelines of the convention.

"Ultimately that's going to be a decision for him to make, but I'm glad that people are willing to and have the courage to step up. They must be heard and listened to."

Back in Washington, Mr Biden denied after his speech that he meant to make light of the accusations against him, saying he understood that he needed consent before touching anybody.

But asked if he was sorry about the incidents, he offered only a qualified apology.

"I'm sorry I didn't understand more," Mr Biden said.

'I'm not sorry for any of my intentions."

Over the past week, a number of women have said Mr Biden's tactile approach to engaging and campaigning - sometimes an unsolicited kiss on the head or an unwanted shoulder grip - made them uncomfortable.

The controversy threatens to distract Mr Biden, who reiterated last Friday that he was close to making an announcement about a presidential candidacy, from his core message.

In his speech to the Ibew, Mr Biden offered what could have been a preview of his stump speech, recalling his blue-collar roots while bemoaning that the country had forgotten how working men and women were the true heart of the country.

"This country was not built by Wall Street bankers and CEOs and hedge-fund managers," Mr Biden said, though he was quick to add that many of them are still good people.

"It was built by the great American middle class."

DPA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 07, 2019, with the headline 'Accusations mar Biden's potential run for top post'. Print Edition | Subscribe