Civil rights icon John Lewis endorsed Joe Biden Tuesday, becoming the 38th member of the Congressional Black Caucus to officially back the former vice president's campaign for the Democratic nomination.
In announcing his support, Lewis paired his endorsement with a public recommendation that Biden pick a woman of color as a running mate.
"I think Vice President Biden should look around. It would be good to have a woman of color," Lewis said on a conference call to tout his endorsement with reporters when asked about the subject.
Though the Atlanta-area congressman didn't make an explicit demand, his comments reflected a broad sentiment among African-American leaders and activists who point out that Biden was catapulted into his frontrunner status thanks to the overwhelming support of black voters during the presidential primary. And Biden will need strong black turnout to win in November.
The announcement from Lewis comes at an uncertain time in the primary campaign: the day that Wisconsin is scheduled to have its primary amid widespread fears of the coronavirus contagion, which has led the Democratic governor to call for a delay to accommodate an all-mail election. Republicans opposed the move.
Democrats and activists say Wisconsin's absentee ballot system has failed and, coupled with precinct closures and worries of getting sick, stands to disproportionately affected black voters in the crucial swing state's biggest county, Milwaukee. Without strong African-American turnout in the upcoming general election, Democrats worry they could again lose the state by the narrowest of margins along with other swing states like Florida and Michigan.
Lewis said lawmakers need to plan for elections that account for the coronavirus and "make it easy and simple and convenient" for voters to cast ballots.
"I'm worried about whether we're going to be able to have a free and clean election," Lewis said. "I just hope that, in spite of whatever's going on now, that people would not be afraid to come out and vote."
Biden has urged people to mail-in ballots. As for his vice presidential search, he acknowledged Sunday that he spoke with opponent Bernie Sanders about moving forward with a running mate selection before the primary was over. Biden last month announced he'd have a female running mate but didn't commit to choosing a woman of color - although early on in the campaign he said that California Sen. Kamala Harris would be a possible pick.
" Black women have clearly demonstrated both their commitment to the Democratic Party and their commitment to removing Donald Trump from office since the 2016 election. But to be clear, thoerse two things are linked in Black women's political calculations," Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, said in an email. "The selection of a Black woman as VP would obviously serve as an acknowledgment of Black women's commitment to correcting the current trajectory of our democracy."
Rep. Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democratic lead whose endorsement helped Biden secure his first win in South Carolina on Feb. 29, similarly said he would "prefer an African American woman." But like Lewis, he didn't issue a demand.
Lewis, who is 80 and in poor health, pledged to travel the country to drive up support for Biden, particularly among black voters. He described Biden as "a friend, a dear friend. He is a man of courage, a man with a great conscience, a man of faith."
One way to increase turnout with African-American voters is for Biden to pick a black woman running mate, said Quentin James, executive director of The Collective, a super PAC that advocates for African-American candidates. He noted that Biden's support of the 1994 crime bill is a turnoff for young black voters who aren't impressed enough that Biden served as the loyal wingman to the first black president, Barack Obama.
"Black voters bailed him out and he's the architect of the most destructive piece of legislation that devastated the black family," James said.
When asked about Biden's relatively low support among young black voters, Lewis said they need to learn history about how activists like him in the 1960s were beaten and jailed for the right to vote.
"People died for the right to vote," Lewis said. "If we fail to vote, we don't count."