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Steyer, Biden feud on debate stage over SC legislator's remarks about campaign payments

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From left, Democratic presidential candidates entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and businessman Tom Steyer stand on stage Friday before the start of a Democratic presidential primary debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

COLUMBIA — A dispute between South Carolina lawmakers over payments to one of them from a presidential campaign briefly became the center of attention during a nationally televised debate Friday night in New Hampshire.

Businessman Tom Steyer personally called on former Vice President Joe Biden to disavow comments from state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a prominent Biden supporter from Columbia, who earlier this week chastised Steyer for paying state Rep. Jerry Govan more than $43,000 to serve as a senior adviser on his campaign.

In a tweet and an interview with The Post and Courier on Wednesday, Harpootlian referred to Steyer as "Mr. Moneybags" and suggested he had purchased the endorsement of Govan, the chairman of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus, a 44-member group of black state representative and senators.

Several members the Black Caucus then held a news conference, spearheaded by longtime Harpootlian foe state Rep. Todd Rutherford, who called Harpootlian's comments racist and demanded Biden repudiate them.

Harpootlian made no mention of Govan's race and insisted he would gladly make the same comments about any white lawmakers if he learned they had similarly been paid by a campaign.

Then, on the debate stage Friday night, Steyer elevated the issue into the national spotlight, calling Harpootlian "one of the leaders of Joe Biden's South Carolina campaign."

"Joe, I'm asking you to come with me and the Legislative Black Caucus and disavow Dick Harpootlian and what he had to say," Steyer said. "It was wrong and I'm asking you to join us. Be on the right side."

While Harpootlian is a longtime friend of Biden's, he does not hold any official role on his campaign. Paige Hill, a spokesman for Biden's South Carolina campaign, said Harpootlian does not speak on the campaign's behalf.

Biden responded to Steyer by noting that he has support from many members of the Black Caucus and black community.

"I have more support in South Carolina in the Black Caucus and the black community than anybody else," Biden said. "Double what you have or anybody else here." 

At that point, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders interjected: "I don't think that's quite right." Biden and Sanders have the same number of endorsements from the Black Caucus at eight each.

After Steyer again called on Biden to denounce Harpootlian's comments, Biden said he had spoken to Harpootlian and "he said he is sorry for what he said." Harpootlian could not be reached for comment Friday night.

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In a brief interview with The Post and Courier after the debate, Steyer said he just wanted Biden to "stand up for what's right."

"I wasn't attacking him," Steyer said. "I was asking him to join the Legislative Black Caucus and me in standing up for what's right and condemning racism, that's all."

Asked what Govan has done for the campaign to warrant earning $10,000 per month, Steyer said he doesn't know.

"I'm not the person running the campaign," Steyer said. "I know he's a senior advisor and I know he's been working for us. Exactly what that means, I don't know."

"That's not my job," he added. "My job is just to stand up and be the candidate and stand up for what's right, and when I see racism, to try and be on the side of good and do it in public on the biggest stage I can find."

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Charleston Democrat and Biden supporter, noted that he and several other members of the Black Caucus did not participate in the press conference.

"It was to his benefit to give the impression that it was a Black Caucus press conference but it simply was not," Kimpson said.

Kimpson argued Steyer "took advantage" of an internal dispute between SC lawmakers and "distorted the the facts" to hit Biden.

"It’s very unfair for Joe Biden to be swept up into this," Kimpson said.

As to Harpootlian’s comments, Kimpson allowed that the senator "lacks credibility with the black community because of his history."

"But there’s not been a lot of conversation about it being racist other than the few who have a political motivation to use race as a distraction," he said

As Kimpson noted, underlying the back-and-forth are several long-running personal feuds between certain South Carolina lawmakers, particularly Harpootlian and Rutherford.

Now that bad blood, typically reserved to the low-profile platform of the Statehouse, has risen all the way to a presidential debate stage.

Caitlin Byrd contributed to this report. 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.

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