Outrage over George Floyd's death could tip fortunes in Joe Biden's VP search

WASHINGTON — As Joe Biden’s vice presidential search moves into a new, more concentrated phase, external events appear likely to intensify a public pressure campaign on the nominee over whom he should chose, particularly over the long-simmering debate over race.

The death of 46-year-old George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has thrust issues of criminal justice to the forefront, and revived one of the biggest questions surrounding Biden’s choice: will he choose not just a woman, but a woman of color.

The stakes are highest for one Democrat who has long seen as a potential favorite of Biden — Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. Her handling of police-involved cases — like the one now sparking unrest in Minneapolis — has been branded as disqualifying for some.

On the other end of the spectrum is Florida Rep. Val Demings, an African American and former Orlando police chief whose public profile grew after serving as a House impeachment manager earlier this year. She penned an op-ed for the Washington Post Friday in which she wrote, “as a former woman in blue, let me begin with my brothers and sisters in blue: What in the hell are you doing?”

"As law enforcement officers, we took an oath to protect and serve. And those who forgot — or who never understood that oath in the first place — must go. That includes those who would stand by as they witness misconduct by a fellow officer," she said in the op-ed.

Even as Biden’s team hoped to carefully control the process, Biden’s own history as a short-lister speaks to the potential for unforeseen events to have an influence. In 2008, after Russian forces invaded the nation of Georgia, then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden flew to the region at the request of Georgia’s leaders.

Attention on his visit, including his tough talk about Russia’s aggression that followed, offered a showcase of the deep foreign policy experience that became one of the chief reasons Obama announced him as his pick a month later.

Biden’s own search for a running mate has already proven to be a more public process than usual, with some of the more than dozen potential candidates at times seeming to audition or campaign for the role. The former VP has himself discussed his deliberations over the choice more in public than any previous apparent nominee.

But one unintended consequence of the conspicuous nature of his search has been to heighten public pressure on the apparent Democratic nominee over the choice, and the unrest in Minneapolis, coupled with controversial remarks Biden made a week earlier in a “Breakfast Club” interview, has emboldened some activists to press their case.

Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a leading progressive organization focused on racial justice, said the pressure on Biden is less about whom he chooses, but making sure the ticket reflects and understands the concerns of an important coalition of the Democratic Party.

“He needs to make sure that it's not just any African American woman,” Robinson said in an interview. “We are not simply here to say that any person of color will do, or any black person will do. We want a person that's going to champion the issues that we care about, that has a history of championing them.”

Asked if the events of the past week could complicate Biden’s choice, a former Obama administration official who has been in contact with his team said that “there was already pressure” on them, and insisted Biden does not need to have a diverse ticket, if he makes the right choice.

“I’m honestly more concerned about who his AG [attorney general] is than who is VP is. That person has far more power to improve the lives of people of color,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the discussion. “In terms of his running mate — he’s got to pick the person, not only for this moment, but to help him govern for his presidency.”

“The symbolism is important,” the official added, “but the substance is much more important.”

Biden on Friday again declined to further narrow his choices after making a historic pledge in March to choose a woman.

"I've already said I'm going to pick a Supreme Court justice who is a woman of color. I've already said my cabinet will be full of people of women of color — men and women of color,” he told NBC’s Craig Melvin Friday.

"I also already said there are women of color under consideration. That is not the only criteria to determine who will be the vice president of the United States of America, that I'll choose as a running mate. It is just beginning the process. I guarantee you, there are more — there's more than one African-American woman being considered for vice president. I promise you that."

One reason the Biden campaign has been wary of the pressure over choosing a black woman is the risk that if he were to choose one, critics — particularly Republicans — will argue he opted for a symbolic choice rather than someone he felt was truly the best candidate to be vice president, and ultimately president if need be.

James Jones, a Rutgers University professor who is studying the lack of black representation in the federal government, said there is a risk that the discussion about choosing a black running mate leaves the eventual choice to “be tokenized.”

“It could let Biden off the hook of really developing a substantive agenda talking about what the black community really needs at this moment,” said Jones, who has also analyzed the relative lack of diversity on Biden’s own campaign staff, relative to the importance of the black vote to Democrats.

Over the past two months, many of the leading vice presidential contenders have done public (in most cases virtual) events, either with Biden or for his campaign, that have offered he and his team the opportunity to test how they perform as a surrogate — an especially important test for some of the possibilities who haven’t already been in the public eye.

Klobuchar’s handling of the situation, therefore, is a key test for her, and she offered a vigorous defense of her record Friday.

“When I was county attorney, African-American incarceration rate went down 12 percent. I was heralded by The Innocence Project for the work I did in making sure that we had a DNA review of all of our cases, in working to have a new form of witness ID that I implemented to reduce racist misidentifications, to make sure we videotaped interrogations and that would happen nationally,” she said in an interview on MSNBC.

Related: Joe Biden through the years

“There is institutional racism," she continued. "And since I've got into the Senate, I've been one of the leaders in terms of pushing for sentencing reform to reduce sentencing to reduce sentencing for non-violent offenders. A leader on voting rights. That's my record. And Joe Biden will decide who he wants in this job.”

But Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., a key Biden ally whose endorsement helped power him to the nomination, offered a blunt assessment of the likelihood of her being chosen now Friday.

“We’re all victims sometimes of timing and some of us benefit tremendously from timing,” Clyburn said. “This is very tough timing for Amy Klobuchar, who I respect so much.”

Other leading VP contenders have been outspoken on the Floyd case. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., called it a “public execution.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaking with Robinson this week, touted her criminal justice reform proposals.

“I have never experienced the kind of subtle prejudice, the kind of overt prejudice, the kind of dangerous prejudice that African Americans have faced in this country. But to see this now in video, I really feel like all of us have a responsibility to speak up,” Warren said.

Demings, speaking at a forum on gun safety issues Friday, lashed out at President Trump for his reaction to violent protests in Minneapolis, saying it “demonstrates that he is totally unfit for the office that he holds.”

“Building trust and fostering relationships with the community is critical to the police being able to do their job and the public being able to respect and trust them. But you cannot wait until you’re in the middle of a crisis to build relationships and trust,” Demings said.

While the Biden campaign has been careful to say little about the process since it formally launched last month, Biden himself has offered some helpful clues.

At a fundraiser on Wednesday, Biden said he hopes to name his running mate by August 1, and that his search committee has done initial interviews so far.

“We're in the process of deciding the basic cut — about whether or not they really want it. Are they comfortable?” he said.