Richard W. Riley and Bill Clinton (copy)

Former U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley and President Bill Clinton. Riley, a former South Carolina governor, is endorsing former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. File/University of South Carolina

COLUMBIA — Dick Riley, the Democratic former South Carolina governor whose focus on improving the state's schools led him to become President Bill Clinton's education chief, is endorsing Joe Biden in the party's 2020 presidential primary.

In an interview with The Post and Courier, Riley praised Biden's lengthy political career and the candidate's focus on what he views as pragmatic solutions.

"I know a lot of the other candidates are good people, smart and have different strengths, but in my mind clearly Biden is, No. 1, the best person to run against Donald Trump and, No. 2, he'd be good for this country," Riley said. "The country is badly in need of a unifier, somebody who can pull us together, and he certainly is that person."

As the only two-term Democratic governor in South Carolina history and the longest-serving U.S. education secretary, Riley is considered a top get for any candidate in the crowded 2020 Democratic field.

When Biden eulogized at the funeral for South Carolina's longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings earlier this year, Riley said he told Biden that he would likely be behind him if he decided to run.

Riley first got to know Biden personally during his tenure in Washington, when the then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee offered his assistance pushing through Riley's legislative priorities.

"He always was willing to meet and discuss any of the issues we thought were important and was always very supportive of education, supportive of teachers and all of the issues children face in education," Riley said.

At 86, Riley said he is unfazed by questions surrounding Biden's age — 76 — and occasional misstatements the former vice president has made on the campaign trail. And he pushed back against any notion that Biden is not progressive enough to lead the Democratic party into 2020.

"He's always been supportive of progressive ideas, but he also is a very practical person who likes to get things done," Riley said. "I think he's plenty healthy and I've watched him very carefully. He's a storyteller and that's a Southern characteristic. In the process, he might make a minor error, but the important thing is the point of the story."

The endorsement from Riley comes after state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010 and 2014, threw his support behind Biden, similarly citing Biden's support for early childhood education.

Former state Rep. James Smith of Columbia, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2018, is a longtime Biden backer.

Sign up for updates!

Get the latest political news from The Post and Courier in your inbox.


Jim Hodges, the only other living former S.C. Democratic governor, said he hasn't decided who he will support yet but expects to make an endorsement within the next couple of months.

"I have known many of them for a long time, including Vice President Biden, and I’m just trying to assess what drives the candidates," Hodges said. "Other than defeating Trump, which is the first priority for a lot of us, who’s going to be the best candidate for us through the primary and the general election, and what is it that would make them a special president?"

Biden has consistently led polls in the critical early-voting state of South Carolina by more than in any of the other early primary states or nationally. In the latest poll conducted by CBS News and YouGov, Biden had 43 percent support in the state, a 25 percentage point lead over his next closest rival, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Riley cited Biden's extensive relationships in the Palmetto State and his high support among African American voters as the source of his success so far.

"The people of South Carolina know him and respect him," Riley said. "I think people understand his heart is there. He's had enormous experience, he is very respected by world leaders and is the right person for this country at this time. He was a loyal and excellent vice president under Barack Obama, and they respect that also."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.