DETROIT — Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden joined forces with two former primary rivals on Monday, telling Michigan voters he can unite the party this fall to defeat Republican President Donald Trump.
U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey rallied with Biden at Detroit’s Renaissance High School, where hundreds of supporters packed a small gymnasium to support the former vice president on the eve of Michigan’s closely watched primary.
But protesters interrupted the kumbaya moment, chanting “Joe Biden has got to go” moments after he took the stage.
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Some held Green New Deal signs, others hoisted banners suggesting Biden “killed” jobs by voting for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.
“It’s just a reflection of what’s wrong with American politics today,” Biden said of the minutes-long outburst, chalking it up to “Bernie Bros” supporting fellow presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who renewed criticism of Biden’s NAFTA vote in a Friday night rally downtown.
Protesters interrupted Biden's rally at Renaissance High, moments after he took the stage. Some held Green New Deal signs, others hoisted banners suggesting Biden “killed” jobs by voting for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
Sanders, locked in a tight fight with Biden for the Democratic Party nomination, won Michigan’s 2016 primary and is again aggressively targeting the state and the 125 pledged delegates at stake in Tuesday’s primary.
The Vermont senator spent his weekend cross-crossing Michigan and continued his ambitious campaign schedule Monday, convening medical experts for a coronavirus public health briefing at Detroit Metropolitan Airport before sitting for a televised Fox News town hall in Dearborn.
In his roughly 23-minute speech in Detroit, Biden touted his past work on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and plans to fight climate change, vowing to immediately rejoin the Paris climate accord that Trump abandoned.
After four years of Trump in the White House, “we have to heal our division, otherwise our democracy is going to be in real jeopardy, beyond what it is now,” Biden said. “The world is watching.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who are both backing Biden, spoke at the rally and praised the former vice president for his role in the 2009 auto industry bailout expansion that is widely credited with helping save General Motors and Chrysler from collapse.
Booker, whose mother was born in Detroit, urged local voters to “stand up, speak up, and rise up” to defeat Trump in November.
Biden “is the best one to heal the soul of America,” Booker said to applause. “He is the best one to bring dignity back to that office. He is the best one to stand up for all of us in America.”
Sanders has promised a political revolution and is campaigning on a platform that includes creation of a single-payer health care system, free college tuition and student debt forgiveness.
“I just don’t think any of those ideas are radical," Sanders said in his Fox News town hall, later arguing his philosophies are too often conflated with communism.
“When we talk about democratic socialism, I’m talking about Finland, I’m talking about Denmark, I’m talking about Sweden. I’m talking about countries all over the world that have used their government to improve lives for working families, not just the people on top.”
Good enough for Obama?
Biden enters Michigan with a delegate lead and momentum following a series of wins in Super Tuesday states and South Carolina, where he fared particularly well with African American voters.
Polls show Biden with a big lead in the Michigan primary, but Sanders was also behind in 2016 when he pulled off an upset in the state against eventual nominee Hillary Clinton.
Biden drew a diverse crowd in Detroit, a Democratic stronghold that backed Clinton in 2016. Several supporters wore hats and pins honoring former President Barack Obama, who Biden served under as vice president from 2009 to 2017.
“If he was good enough for President Obama for two terms, he’s good enough for me,” said Thomas Wilson, a 73-year-old retired Detroit Public Schools teacher. “We got to bring some normalcy back to this country. We’ve got to get some lost respect back.”
Corlette Selman, a 59-year-old Detroit cosmetologist and a self-described “Biden-Obama Democrat” said she would vote for Bernie Sanders if he ends up winning the party’s presidential nomination. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
As a former vice president, Biden is "abreast of the friends and foes of our country, and he is trustworthy," said Corlette Selman, a 59-year-old Detroit cosmetologist. "I love his beautiful, kind heart.”
Selman described herself as a “Biden-Obama Democrat” but said she would vote for Sanders if he ends up winning the party’s presidential nomination.
"I love Bernie as well, but I feel that at this time, when the country is in so much chaos, we cannot afford to be further divided over a whole new thing of health care," she said, referencing Sanders push to create a single-payer health care system.
But the rally was not without its problems, including long gaps between speakers that caused some attendees to leave. Earlier Monday, Biden stopped in Flint and Grand Rapids at events that were coordinated late and drew comparatively small crowds.
Big youth turnout?
Sanders, in contrast, drew huge crowds during rallies Sunday in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids. His key demographic remains young people, who turned out in big numbers in Michigan four years ago to fuel his upset.
While youth turnout has waned in early states, there were some signs of another surge Monday in Ann Arbor, where students registered and voted absentee.
Janani Gandhi and two friends stood in line more than an hour to cast early absentee ballots for Sanders, whom they saw speak Sunday night on campus before an estimated crowd of 10,000.
"A lot of people have been waiting here for a long time, so I think people are excited," said Gandhi, 23. But "it is kind of discouraging because we have also seen a lot of people walk in, see the line and then just leave."
Gandhi had planned to vote for Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts but decided to support Sanders after Warren dropped out because "they're really aligned ideology."
Gandhi said she'd "definitely" vote for Biden if he is the nominee but is concerned that he won't inspire the same sort of enthusiasm as Sanders would in the general election.
"A lot of people who are voting for Joe Biden are voting against Trump, rather than for Biden," she said. "I think that Sanders supporters are a lot more excited and more likely to show up for the general and campaign really hard."
In Ann Arbor, lines were long at the clerk's office, where voters showed up for absentee ballots. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
Early voting is more widely available in Michigan this year because of a new voter-approved law allowing anyone to cast an absentee ballot without the need for an excuse, such as age. Under the 2018 law, first-time voters can now register up to an on Election Day.
The Ann Arbor line was frustrating for J.C. Rosenberg, a 91-year-old retired physician who said he had to come to the clerk's office because he did not get an absentee ballot application by mail this year, as he had in years past.
"It was originally meant to accommodate individuals who were unable to come down or had difficulty coming down," he said of the absentee option. “This isn’t an efficient way to do it.”
Rosenberg and his wife, who had voted Republican earlier in their lives but started backing Democrats more than a decade ago, planned to vote for Biden.
"He knows the Republicans and can work with them, and I think that right now is essential," Rosenberg said of Biden. "Right now the polarization is self-defeating. I think Trump has been so disruptive."