For Biden, Detroit embodies personal story, political future

Friday, September 18, 2015 - 12:32am

DETROIT — When Joe Biden arrived at the Detroit Department of Transportation headquarters Thursday, the group of shift workers and local dignitaries who came to see him offered the kind of welcome you’d extend to an old friend.

“I want to introduce the man who I keep saying is Detroit's best friend: Vice President Joe Biden,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, joking that the vice president has probably spent more time in the city than any place besides Washington, D.C.

Biden is no stranger to Detroit. Thursday marked his fifth trip to the city since Duggan assumed office a year and a half ago. This time, the vice president came to herald the addition of 80 new buses to the city’s fleet, secured with the help of federal dollars.

Biden loves Detroit, and should he decide to launch a bid for the presidency as several media reports insist he is considering, he would likely look to the city and the state to love him back.

“Detroit isn’t just an important city,” he told the crowd, a shining city bus behind him. “It’s an iconic city.”

In his speech, Biden touted the city’s resurgence and the Obama administration’s efforts to assist in that process — securing funds to restore street lighting and locating a lightweight metals manufacturing research institute in the city.

“We would never abandon the people of Detroit,” he said. “It’s like abandoning the heart of America.”

Throughout the speech, Biden recalled his own working-class roots, describing a time when his father climbed the stairs to young Joe’s bedroom and told his son he’d need to find work in another city. Still, Joe Biden Sr. assured his son everything would be OK.

Biden, who expressed a love for automobiles and spoke of a father who sold cars his whole life, was telling Detroit’s story by telling his own.

“We’ve got a lot further to go,” he said, his shirtsleeves now rolled up. “We won’t give up until everyone in Detroit who wants to work makes a decent wage and can make that walk over and say, ‘Honey, it’s going to be all right.’”

Mayor Duggan told another anecdote.

When Biden met with him in 2014, not long into the new mayor’s term, he asked what the one thing was the Obama administration could do to lend a hand.

Duggan’s answer: buses. Duggan saw Detroiters braving the January snow, waiting for buses that often didn’t show up.  

So Biden called Duggan every week, and the vice president said he’d do his best to come up with a solution.

Even as Biden dealt with a foreign policy crisis in Ukraine last year, the vice president kept calling.

“I want you to know, I haven’t forgotten about the buses,” Biden told him.

And he didn’t. The administration created a grant competition, told Duggan to apply, and the city ultimately secured the funds to bring 80 new buses to the city of Detroit.

When White House adviser Gene Sperling and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who served as the administration’s point people for revitalization efforts in Detroit, left office, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D–Dearborn) said she told Biden that Detroit needed a new champion in Washington.

“He’s really been that person,” she told The Michigan Daily. “He understands the importance of it. You’ve got to have somebody that is fighting for people, and Joe Biden cares deeply about wanting to see the city come back.”

Dingell, however, wasn’t ready to commit her support to Biden, were he to run, but noted that Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton doesn’t have Michigan locked down.

“I love Joe Biden. I love Hillary. I hope I don’t have to make the decision between the two of them,” she said. “They’re both two talented, wonderful people and they would both be good presidents of the United States.”

Aaron Kall, an expert on election politics and the University’s director of debate, said Biden’s base would likely draw from Rust Belt states, including Michigan.

“He’s always been a defender of the working person and I think Detroit really embodies that,” he said. “He relates to the history of the city and the work ethic of the community, and he wants to do whatever he can to support it.”

Kall said he thinks Biden could carry Michigan in the primary, were he to challenge the current Democratic contenders.

“If you compared visits (to Michigan) with him and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, he’s just going to have a much higher name recognition,” he said. “I do think the race would be up for grabs. I think his past history and experience would serve him well.”

As he sipped a glass of wine at the Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company on Woodward Avenue, where Biden made a Labor Day stop last year, Detroit resident Donnie Sackey said Biden could add to the race, but he doesn’t see the vice president as a viable candidate.

“Do I think that Joe Biden has a shot at becoming president? This (would be) his third time running,” he said. “I think people look at that and say, “You lost, why do you want to run for president?’ ”

Biden first sought the White House in 1988, but ended his candidacy after accusations of plagarism derailed the campaign. In 2008, Biden ducked out of the race after a fifth place finish in the Iowa caucuses. 

George Robinson, a DDOT shift supervisor who listed to Biden’s speech on Thursday, hasn’t committed his support to a candidate yet, but said he’s followed Biden’s career for quite some time.

“I would definitely consider him,” he said. “No doubt about it. He has a history of supporting the middle class. He’s a down-to-Earth type of guy, just a regular man right next door. He can really relate to me. He’s not someone who’s so high up that he (doesn’t) understand the issues that people day to day deal with.”

Cindy Reese, a Detroit transportation activist who spoke at Thursday’s event, said she was impressed by the vice president’s grasp of Detroit’s transit issues — and the displays of empathy he's become known for. 

“I listened to him today, and I’ve heard some other speeches, but he really touched my heart today,” she said. “My struggle was his struggle and that’s what you want — a person in office to understand and be part of your struggle, too.”