Joe Biden makes play for blue collar votes with Pittsburgh rally
Democrat Joe Biden’s decision to kick off his 2020 presidential run at a Pittsburgh union hall is a clear sign that the former vice president plans to court the blue collar, working class vote as he vies for the White House, labor officials and political analysts told the Tribune-Review.
Biden has come to Pittsburgh often, marching in St. Patrick’s Day and Labor Day parades and campaigning for other Democrats, but Monday’s visit to the Teamsters Local 249 banquet hall on Butler Street in Lawrenceville may be his most politically charged stop yet.
“He wants to send the message that he is the candidate who can steal back those white, working class voters that went to Donald Trump in 2016 and made the difference in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin,” said Paul Sracic, chair of the political science department at Youngstown State.
Labor unions around Western Pennsylvania haven’t endorsed Biden, but officials pointed to Biden’s affinity for working class Pittsburgh and his strong connection to organized labor as likely reasons why the Scranton native picked the Lawrenceville union hall to launch his presidential bid. Doors for the campaign event open at 2 p.m.
“Organized labor is extremely strong in Western Pennsylvania, and Joe Biden has always been vocal for organized labor,” said Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council. “I’m not surprised in any way that a presidential candidate is opening here in Pittsburgh. We believe this city has always been the pulse of politics throughout the country. We’re excited that any candidate is starting their campaign here in Pittsburgh.”
Kelly said he won’t attend the rally because the AFL-CIO has not offered an endorsement. Paul Kapetanovich, recording secretary for Teamsters Local 249, said the local is simply renting its hall to Biden and declined further comment.
“I’m absolutely excited that he picked Pittsburgh,” said Ralph Sicuro, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1, which is helping the Biden campaign coordinate Monday’s event. “We’re a labor town, a working class town.”
Biden, who has consistently supported organized labor during his long political career, is expected to draw strong union backing should he win a Democratic presidential nomination.
“Coming to Pittsburgh, I think, emphasizes that ‘These are my voters.’ That’s what he’s saying with that choice,” said Robert Morris political science professor Phillip Harold. “He has that likability factor, that ‘Somebody I’d like to have a beer with’ factor going for him.”
Opening his campaign in Pittsburgh shows that he is paying attention to blue collar votes, Harold said. Western Pennsylvania is home to traditional Democrats and conservative Democrats who want to vote Democrat, Harold said, but candidates need to give people a reason to vote Democrat.
Biden characterized the 2020 race as a “battle for the soul of this nation.”
“The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America, is at stake. That’s why today I’m announcing my candidacy for president of the United States,” Biden said in a video posted to his campaign website.
It will be Biden’s first appearance in Pittsburgh since he campaigned for 17th District U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb last fall. The fact that Biden arrived in Washington before Lamb was born underscores one of the challenges he faces in the presidential race. Despite being the presumptive front runner in a crowded field of 20 candidates, at the age of 76, he is the second oldest among them. Bernie Sanders, who campaigned in Pittsburgh this month, is 77.
This is Biden’s third time running for president. He served in the U.S. Senate for 36 years and was Barack Obama’s vice president for eight. Biden is seen as part of the establishment wing of a Democratic party with a growing number of members skewing younger, more diverse, more liberal and showing enthusiasm for fresh faces like Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Julian Castro.
“He certainly can’t be seen as someone who is exciting and new that can draw energy from the freshness of their campaign in the way others can, and that is a challenge, I think,” said Chris Borick, professor of political science and Director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “But strategically, in some ways, he has an advantage, even though he might not be in line with some of the direction of the party, because he might be best positioned to hold on to those conservative-leaning Democrats. In a place like Southwestern Pennsylvania, there are still a lot of them.”
Biden’s announcement comes after recent allegations by women that he has made them feel uncomfortable by touching them inappropriately. It’s an issue that could come up on the campaign trail. Biden has said he will try to be more “mindful about respecting personal space in the future.”
“I have met Joe Biden a number of times, and he likes to be close to people, and I completely understand why women are uncomfortable with that closeness,” said Dana Brown, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University.
Brown said she was uncertain whether Biden could get past the issue during his presidential run.
“In his comments, I think he has been dismissive of the power dynamic that is at play when the vice president holds women close. It’s certainly troubling,” said Brown. “He’s going to have to consistently apologize and also demonstrate that he has learned from this. It’s incumbent on him as a candidate to demonstrate those things.”
Harold said he doesn’t see the issue being a long-term liability for Biden.
“It’s a matter of contrasts. When you look at Donald Trump’s problems with women, there was an audio tape played ad nauseam on TV. And it didn’t affect anything. And that was pretty bad, a pretty nasty blow to a candidate,” said Harold. “This is an over enthusiastic, friendly, hugging politician. Is this really going to influence anybody? It could if there are more revelations. But I think at this point, they’ve kind of turned the page on that.”