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Joe Biden Spent Years Embracing Michigan. Now He Hopes Voters Return The Favor

Vice President Joe Biden waves after speaking in Detroit in September 2015.
Paul Sancya

With a shiny city bus as backdrop, Vice President Joe Biden rolled up his shirtsleeves for a 2015 speech in Detroit.

"Detroit isn't just an important city," he told the crowd at an event celebrating the arrival of 80 new city buses. "It's an iconic city."

As vice president, Biden visited Detroit nearly a dozen times, more than President Barack Obama. He was in Detroit again on Monday, this time campaigning for the White House before Michigan's Tuesday primary.

In Detroit, Biden often talks about his affinity for the city. He tells audiences that he's a car guy, that his father sold cars for a living, and that he connects with the city's working-class character.

But the voters in this majority-black city are also key to Biden's political future. The question now is how much Biden's history in Detroit, and as Obama's vice president, will drive the decisions voters make here in 2020.

"We would never, never abandon the people of Detroit," he told the crowd in 2015. "It's like abandoning the heart of America. And so folks, the president and I decided to bet on the automobile industry, bet on Detroiters, bet on this city."

The city had a year earlier emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. During the recession, unemployment had soared into double digits and the auto industry teetered on the brink before Obama expanded a multibillion-dollar bailout initiated by President George W. Bush.

Over dinner in Detroit, Biden had asked the city's new mayor, Mike Duggan, what he could do to help the city. Duggan said buses. The city needed new buses.

Detroiters sometimes waited hours for a bus to show up, if it came at all. Most of the time, only 58% of the aging fleet were on the road. The vice president came up with a plan. He pointed Duggan to a new Obama administration grant competition.

For months, Biden kept checking in. Once, Biden called from an official trip to Ukraine to tell Duggan he hadn't forgotten about the buses.

"He must have called me back a half a dozen times to make sure the project was on track," Duggan said in an interview from his office, with sweeping views of the Detroit Riverfront.

"President Obama, when I went to the White House once, referred to him as the vice president of Detroit," he said.

Duggan, who endorsed Biden early on, says the former vice president kept tabs on efforts to replace the city's dismal streetlights and tear down vacant houses. He once showed up at a backyard barbecue and several times headlined the city's Labor Day parade.

"His heart naturally goes to the underdog," Duggan says.

"It's like somebody that you've known"

That feeling is common among many Detroiters, particularly older voters.

Cindy Reese introduced Biden at that event in 2015.

"I was shaking in my boots," she said, showing a photo of her and Biden on that day. "But he said, 'If you get nervous, just say, "here's Joe!" ' And that relaxed me."

Cindy Reese introduced Joe Biden at an event in 2015. She says Biden's dedication to Detroit has literally helped make her family's life better.
Sam Gringlas / NPR
Cindy Reese introduced Joe Biden at an event in 2015. She says Biden's dedication to Detroit has literally helped make her family's life better.

Back then, Reese told the crowd how her grandson had to walk miles to school in the middle of a Detroit winter when his bus didn't show.

"The buses were ragged, they were breaking down," she says now. "We hadn't had buses in so long. And it was just pitiful."

Reese says Biden's dedication to Detroit has literally helped make her family's life better. And she says that's true for a lot of people.

"Remember, the autoworkers, they haven't forgotten they still have a job because of Obama and Biden," she said. "They haven't forgotten that."

Over at the Adams-Butzel Recreational Complex, Gloria Rogers is in water aerobics class for seniors, doing a move called the "cross-country."

While she swayed her foam barbells back and forth in the water, Rogers said there's no question whom she's voting for: Joe Biden.

"We need to feel embraced, we need to feel like we did when Obama was president, that we're loved and that we're going to be protected," she said. "No drama Obama. We need that. We want that."

Vice President Biden greets kids during a campaign stop at Renaissance High School in Detroit in August 2012.
Paul Sancya / AP
Vice President Biden greets kids during a campaign stop at Renaissance High School in Detroit in August 2012.

Wearing a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, Tom Wilson says he swims here three times a week.

Wilson is a big Biden guy. He has seen him speak twice and met him once.

"It's like somebody that you've known, seemingly forever," he said. "Where else have you heard of a public elected official that will get on public transportation, and go from D.C. to Delaware every day? You can't get any more warm and fuzzy than that."

Wilson, who is the sergeant-at-arms for the 14th District Democratic Party, says he's feeling good about 2020.

"In 2018, there was a blue wave," he said. "Let's turn that wave into a roaring, crushing, resounding tsunami."

But there's an undercurrent to all this.

In 2016, voter turnout was 48.6% in Detroit, compared with about 51% in 2012. Hillary Clinton got 46,872 fewer votes in Detroit than Obama did in 2012, and Clinton lost Michigan to Trump by about 10,000 votes. It was the first time a Republican presidential candidate had won Michigan since 1988.

Branden Snyder had a close-up view. In 2016, he led youth outreach for Clinton's campaign in Michigan.

As he knocked on doors that fall, Snyder said he got the sense from many voters, especially young people, that they weren't enthusiastic about the former secretary of state.

"That started to feel deafening as it got closer to November," he said outside a rally last week for Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Detroit.

Snyder is now executive director of a community organization called Detroit Action. The group has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders. Snyder said Warren was his first choice, but now he plans to vote for Sanders.

The Vermont senator won the Michigan primary in 2016, and he has been aggressively campaigning in the state this weekend, banking on another upset win to propel his campaign forward.

Snyder voted for the first time in 2008 for Obama, but his politics have evolved since then. That's in part because of issues he says the Obama years left on the table, like dealing with student loan debt and police brutality.

"So a lot of folks don't necessarily see Biden as a savior kind of candidate," he says. "They see him as emblematic of all the things that went wrong or the failed promises. It's only so long he can talk about 2008 to 2016 because many of the voters were children at that time and don't have any memories of that."

Snyder worries that if Biden doesn't rejigger his pitch, some voters will stay home again in November.

Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist is trying to bridge that gap. He endorsed Biden last week. He's also a black millennial from Detroit who voted for Sanders in the 2016 Michigan primary.

Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, at center back in red tie, has endorsed Joe Biden and recently helped celebrate the opening of a field office in Detroit's Arden Park neighborhood.
Sam Gringlas / NPR
Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, at center back in red tie, has endorsed Joe Biden and recently helped celebrate the opening of a field office in Detroit's Arden Park neighborhood.

Together with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, he flipped Michigan's governor's mansion blue in 2018 by 10 points. On Friday, the lieutenant governor arrived in Detroit's Arden Park neighborhood carrying treats to celebrate the opening of a Biden field office here.

"The path to turning Michigan blue starts in neighborhoods like this one," he told a cheering audience of staff and volunteers.

Gilchrist says in 2018, ground game and showing up in communities mattered when the votes were counted.

He also says it's important to make a pitch to millennials that's not just focused on Biden's or Obama's identity, but also on what their administration achieved for young people, like health care reform.

"It was important he served alongside Obama," Gilchrist told NPR. "What also matters is the substance of what he delivered for people."

Bringing young people into the fold and letting them take some ownership of the campaign will also be critical, Gilchrist says.

"It's important for me to work with my peers, to ensure that young people of color know that they have a role to play in defining the future of this country. They have a role to play in the vice president's campaign."

Voters like Oriana Powell.

In 2016, Powell didn't vote.

That fall, she was living with a friend, bouncing from place to place for the first time. Powell was working three jobs, trying to get back on her feet.

On Election Day, she had car trouble and had to pick up her niece, so she just didn't make it to the polls.

Powell says she didn't like Trump or Clinton and figured her vote didn't count for much anyways.

"Whether I do this or not, this country's going to run the same way, it's going to look the same way for me, so I didn't feel like it would matter," she said.

Since Trump's election, Powell got involved with a nonprofit called Mothering Justice that organizes around issues like paid sick leave and affordable child care. The experience influenced her outlook on the political process.

She calls Biden "a wolf in sheep's clothing."

But if he's the nominee, she'll vote for him.

"I know that one day is not all of the work," she says. "It's just the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of the work."

Powell says she's ready to cast that ballot and then get back to work.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam Gringlas is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered and is helping cover the 2020 election for the Washington Desk. He's produced and reported with NPR from all over the country, as well as China and the U.S.-Mexico border. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was news editor at T he Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.
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