PITTSBURGH—Christine Norton is in a bareknuckle Facebook exchange with a college undergrad in Youngstown, Ohio who told her he’ll refuse to vote for Joe Biden, even if the former vice president is the Democratic nominee, and “he won’t stop it with the mass incarceration shit,” referring to Biden’s Senate votes on tough-on-crime laws.
Norton, 67, is one of hundreds of Pittsburghers who attended Biden’s first campaign rally Monday afternoon in a union hall, a structure representing the old pillars of Democratic support in the Rust Belt. She’s fit thanks to swimming and belly dancing but has bouts of arthritis, which necessitated requesting a chair from one of the union firefighters who manned the event.
And says she’s had it with young people, particularly this “baby,” with whom she shares a private Facebook group for progressives, and who she says can’t forgive Biden for bills he supported in the ’80s and ’90s that increased the prison population.
“I tell him people change,” said Norton, who labels herself a “renaissance woman.”
She added, “We have to stand united. The young people have to understand that now might not be the time for big changes. We can’t have the Green New Deal… We have to keep our eyes on the orange monstrosity,” meaning President Trump.
Norton, who like Biden says she touches people on the shoulder and wrist when chatting with them, sometimes gets into arguments with her millennial daughter and thinks her generation is obsessed with moral purity. “I told her to eat a healthier breakfast and she accused me of ‘fat shaming,’” said Norton. “Jesus.”
At the home of Teamsters Local Union 249, Biden railed against the decline of the middle class, pledged to fight for a $15 minimum wage, declared that health care is a right, and even borrowed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ key phrase of “millionaires and billionaires” as the sole beneficiaries of new economic growth.
It was a mostly baby boomer audience, many of whom were ready to declare him their choice his first week as an official candidate. They were more taken by his character and background than any policy proposals or issues. And they are convinced he can—and must—beat Donald Trump.
Richard Ducan, a 64-year-old retiree, said he is “sickened” by the possibility of another Trump term. He “likes the progressive ideas of some of the [other] candidates” about the environment and minimum wage, but is moved towards Biden because the warmth and sense of knowledge he exudes.
“I think he’s someone everyone agrees has experience and integrity,” Ducan said. “He’s human and inclusive. He presents the best part of the Democratic Party and the country.”
The message of Biden’s speech was largely economic. “The country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers, CEOs and hedge fund managers,” he told the crowd. “It was built by you. It was built by the great middle class.”
He said that workers were getting shut out of gains in the Trump economy. “The stock market is roaring but you don’t feel it. There was a $2 trillion tax cut last year. Did you feel it? Did you get anything from it? Of course not. It all went to folks at the top and corporations that pay no taxes.”
“The basic bargain that used to exist,” he added, “that Democrats and Republicans used to agree has been broken and that is if you contribute to the welfare of the enterprise you work for, you got to share in the benefits and profits. If the enterprise hit hard times, everyone took a hit, from the secretary to the CEO, but that bargain has been broken. Now the only people who benefit when a corporation does well is the CEO and shareholders, the people at the top. Now, the only people who get hit when the company hits hard times are the workers. The bargain has been broken.”
He gave the example of General Motors, which he admitted he “worked like the devil” to bail out as vice president, only to be chagrined when GM moved much of its production to Mexico.
For Biden’s supporters, the Big Bad of America is not the corporate class or the wealthy; it’s Donald J. Trump.
“I want Trump out of office and I think Biden can do it,” said Nicole Howell, a 45-year-old who lives on Medicaid and disability social security because of multiple sclerosis. Howell uses a motorized scooter and carried a cardboard sign reading “Fuck Trump, Racist M.F.” like a shield.
She made it for the first Women’s March in 2017 and often displays it from her home’s window. She says she fears cuts to social services. “I’m still shopping [for candidates],” she said. “But I think [Biden] has the best words right now.”
Andrea Salapow and Chris Voss, two friends from Pittsburgh’s suburbs, bought Biden campaign shirts at the event and instantly put them on. They both said that trust in Biden as an individual was more important than specific issues.
“We were waiting for him to join the gang of 20,” said Salapow, a 50-year-old substitute teacher. “He will bring decency back to the office of president. He seems trustworthy.”
“He was in the Senate for 30 years,” added Voss, a tax paralegal, also 50. “He knows how to get things done and work across the aisle.”
The two said they are fond of “Beto and Mayor Pete” but want a more experienced campaigner. They do not have any concerns that Biden, would be the oldest president at 78. “I think with today’s longevity, age is no longer a factor,” said Salapow.
They both live in swing areas, the parts of the Pennsylvania tapestry outside the cities and rural counties, where sits the decision-making power on who gets the state’s electoral votes.
Salapow says in her hometown of Mars, about 25 miles north of the city, “There’s a big discrepancy. People live on farms in the middle of nowhere and people live in mansions.” There are 2016 Trump voters in both and she thinks Biden will win them more easily than would a candidate whose brand is progressive orthodoxy.
Biden admitted in his speech that he had to. Pennsylvania is a vital swing state. Trump won it by 44,292 votes out of more than six million cast, less than one percent of the state vote total. It’s one of a handful of similar states where a thin margin gave him an unexpected path to the White House.
Although Biden has been fundraising in tonier zip codes near Philadelphia in the last few days, Sunday marked the first public event of his campaign and he told the crowd it was no coincidence it was in Pennsylvania. He spoke of the importance of winning back the state’s working class, inserting the expected Scranton reference.
“I believe that Pittsburgh and my native town of Scranton and my hometown of Wilmington and Claymont,” he said, “they represent the towns that make up hardworking, middle-class America who are the backbone of this nation.… I also came here because if I am going to beat down Trump by 2020, it’s going to have to happen here in Western Pennsylvania.”