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    The Biden Factor in the Politics of Space and Equality

    By Andrea Shorter–

    With the recent entry of Representative Eric Swalwell of Dublin, California, the Democratic field of presidential candidates expands to a whopping 20 official hats in the ring. In the category of thinking about running, there are reportedly about five contemplatives including Democratic rising star Stacey Abrams of Georgia, Clintonian old guard and former Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe, and Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz, who is flirting with a run as an Independent, which reads more like a decaffeinated Democrat.

    Bringing up the rear of likely runners we have Governor of Montana Steve Bullock, and former Vice President Joseph Biden. The anticipation of perennial poll front runner VP Biden’s formal announcement of his candidacy by mid-April was blunted and presumably delayed by his camp’s scramble to address the complaints from a series of women who were uncomfortable with his grabby glad handling.

    From unwelcome kisses on the backs of heads to forehead-to-forehead mind melds to nose-to-nose rubs, Biden’s old-fashioned, off-putting brand of a little too intimate meet and greet retail politicking in the #MeToo era finally ignited what should have been an issue over the nearly five decades of his political career: his unintended, perhaps well-meaning, but habitual, invasion of personal space was never okay.

    To some, the hugs, the kisses, shoulder rubs, and other physical contacts might have been personally welcome and comforting. To others and women, in particular, (as he is prone to be as grabby with men), it was received as paternalistic, misogynist, creepy, invasive and even condescending. The uneasy impositions of the presidential candidate-to-be have been commented upon and editorialized to the hilt, rightfully bringing to the fore the implications and dynamics of gender, power, race and age. While none of the women has so far alleged or described the contacts as harassment or assault—as has been alleged and even described by the sitting “grab ‘em by the genitals” President himself on numerous occasions—in the #MeToo era, respect for women’s personal space and bodily autonomy is essential to truly embracing a basic tenant of equality.

    No one likes or wants to be treated, greeted or encroached upon in a manner that suggests physical, political or occupational dominance over themselves, and especially by someone of historically racial or gender privilege. No one is suggesting that a friendly hug or appropriate embrace is never welcome from an acquaintance or even the U.S. Vice President. What is being proposed is that respect for boundaries is an indication of one’s respect for equality.

    Through his leadership to enact the Violence Against Women Act, Biden might have eventually redeemed himself somewhat from the debacle of Anita Hill’s appearance before the all-white male Senate panel that he poorly chaired. And, for LGBT Americans, he was actually an early supporter of same sex marriage; before then, former President Obama was evolving towards acceptance and support.

    Still, he has much to answer for a sketchy and disconcerting record on supporting reproductive rights, school desegregation by bussing, and the abysmal results of a crime bill that led to mass incarceration of African Americans. Each of these issues is tied to and rooted in the promise of equality—gender and racial equality.

    In a presidential candidates’ field historically crowded by more women and people of color than ever, Biden will have to do better than producing a cursory, crisis management, non-apologetic video offering some contrite acknowledgment of the “changing times” and promise to do better at respecting others’ personal space. While most voters are not seeing his unintended violations of personal space as neither disqualifying or of real concern as he embarks upon his anticipated candidacy, he’ll be better served by realizing that there is seriously qualified competition in the field that represents the diversity of an American electorate that no longer tolerates, nor feels, the need for looking the other way at the privilege that being a white older male in power suggests over others.

    I do hope that Biden can maintain the loving, caring and empathetic qualities that many people do appreciate and enjoy about him, and yearn for in the next president. However, while on the debate stage with formidable female, LGBT, and people of color identified candidates, please—no more jokes from Joe about permission to hug his opponents. This is not a good feeling nor a good look, Joe. Friendly, cordial handshakes will do.

    Andrea Shorter is a Commissioner and the former President of the historic San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for criminal and juvenile justice reform, voter rights and marriage equality. A Co-founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, she was a 2009 David Bohnett LGBT Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.