‘Meat on the bone:’ How Joe Biden changed the practice, ideology of Delaware politics
Delaware News Journal
In 1970, one of the highest-ranking Democrats in all of Delaware was a guy who just won his first seat on New Castle County Council.
He was a 28-year-old with a young family and budding law career. He was a self-described political novice, who at one time thought being on the county council meant long meetings in the state capital of Dover.
He was vocal on issues revolving around the environment, violence against women and segregation — topics Democrats decades older wouldn’t touch.
The Republicans had a firm grip on state politics, and Joe Biden was the Democrats’ only bright spot.
Two years later, his shocking upset against the popular Republican incumbent Caleb Boggs in the U.S. Senate race helped usher in a new era of Democrats in the state — both in the party’s ideology and how it campaigned. Today, Delaware is predominantly blue.
“It just changed the whole dynamic of the Democratic Party,” said Ted Kaufman, former U.S. senator and longtime Biden adviser and confidant. “He transformed people’s view of the Democratic Party. The whole thing.”
Now, many think the former vice president — set to speak Saturday, March 16, at the First State Democratic Dinner at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino — appears likely to enter a crowded Democratic presidential primary. He’ll be doing it at a time when the national party is once again becoming more progressive.
‘Joe Biden put meat on the bone’
It started in 1969. The reverberations of the race riots and National Guard occupancy of Wilmington the year before were still fresh. The mainstream national Democrats were becoming more progressive on race issues — yet the Delaware state party lagged behind.
Every Wednesday night, 26-year-old Biden left work at his law firm and walked down Market Street to Piane Grill.
The restaurant was the unofficial headquarters for the Democratic Forum, a liberal political citizens group. Once a week, a group of idealistic 20- and 30-somethings mapped out a way to remake the state’s Democratic Party.
Arlen Mekler, now 86, started the forum in 1967 because local Democrats were against school integration and open housing for black residents, among other liberal policies. The group also pushed to improve the state’s nomination process, specifically by holding state conventions instead of allowing party bosses to choose nominees.
Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir “Promises to Keep” that Sid Balick, his boss at his law firm who would go on to become a giant in Delaware politics, “swept” him into the organization.
“I was practicing law I believed in, and I was getting involved in politics,” Biden wrote. “I was right where I wanted to be.”
Mekler recalls Biden being an “articulate moderate” who was as “colorful” back then and he is today. Mekler convinced Biden to become the group’s vice president. He knew the lawyer, who was about a decade younger than him, would attract more young people.
And Biden did. He grew so involved with the forum that a senior member asked him to consider running for New Castle County Council in a predominantly Republican district.
Biden enlisted his sister Valerie to run his campaign, the first of many in the coming decades. Valerie studied voter records for several elections and created an index for “every block in every neighborhood” and began recruiting block captains.
Although Biden spent most of his time in Democratic areas like Elsmere, Newport and Stanton, he knocked on many doors in “overwhelmingly Republican” areas. They reminded Biden of the neighborhood he grew up in as a kid and, as a result, the aspiring politician could connect with them.
“I understood they valued good government and fiscal austerity and, most of all, the environment,” Biden wrote. “I promised them to try to check the developers and fight to keep open space. And those middle-class voters were key to me.”
Biden would win that election. But overall, the state elections were a “washout for the Democratic Party in Delaware.”
Looking back, Meckler said that election was a big moment for the party, particularly the Democratic Forum. Biden was one of the first from the group to be elected into office. Others would later become mayors and state senators and representatives.
It was the beginning of the Democrats’ “silent takeover,” Mekler joked.
“I was able to get doors open for him, but once you get inside you’re on your own,” he said. “The fact of the matter is Joe Biden put meat on the bone.”
‘It was real grassroots movement’
Despite having won an upset election, Biden admitted his political future “didn’t look all that bright.” The party, he wrote in his book, was in a sorry state.
Desperate local leaders established the Democratic Renewal Commission weeks after the 1970 election. This group included Biden, a former governor, former congressman and a former Supreme Court justice.
“We knew we had to modernize our organization, our campaign techniques and our substance,” Biden wrote.
Sonia Sloan, then a member of the New Democratic Coalition, was a part of the commission. The native Delawarean drove with Biden all over the state, including places she “didn’t know even existed.”
They met with every Democratic committee member in every county, she said.
In the summer of 1971, Henry Topel and Bert Carvel, former party chairman and former governor, urged Biden to run for U.S. Senate. The councilman, just 29 at the time, met the age qualification by 5 weeks.
He was a rising star, but more importantly, he was the only Democrat who had a chance of defeating likable Republican incumbent Boggs. Valerie once again ran his campaign and Biden’s wife, Neilia, and his brother Jimmy played important roles.
Sloan, now 90, helped secure his first campaign contribution of $25,000, a significant amount of money for the candidate.
Karen Peterson, a former state senator and New Castle County Council president, was a young Biden volunteer in 1972. Valerie ran an “incredible” campaign, Peterson said, by making sure there was block captain in every neighborhood in the state.
Peterson helped deliver campaign literature to voters. The literature looked like a newspaper, detailing information about Biden’s views and policy ideas. It was a rather new concept at the time.
“It was a real grassroots movement,” she said. “A lot of people who were on that original campaign got elected to office later.”
Kaufman, Biden’s longtime chief of staff, believes the family’s network, specifically Valerie and brothers Jimmy and Frank’s young friends, helped create a “children’s brigade” of supporters.
Through campaigning, Biden showed people the party consisted of “new, bright, young people,” he said. Kaufman recalls more Biden supporters showing up to debates than Boggs supporters — despite the Democrat being behind in the polls.
The Biden campaign, and the enthusiasm he created, helped other Democratic candidates, including Wilmington mayor Thomas C. Maloney get elected that year, Kaufman said.
Sloan, who has volunteered on every Biden campaign since 1972, believes voters were also ready for a change. Biden was discussing issues of the times, including the United States leaving Vietnam, the environment and violence against women.
Sure Boggs was nice, but he “didn’t take a stand on anything,” she said.
“It energized the party,” Sloan said of Biden’s win, “that we can do more.”
With attention turned to the 2020 presidential race, one of the biggest issues of the campaign will be the Democratic Party trying to “identify where its future is,” said David Redlawsk, chair of the University of Delaware’s political science department.
Redlawsk said Democratic candidates will need to speak more directly to the working people to explain why voters should support liberal policies and get non-white and Millennial voters to show up to the polls.
He says no one can predict whether a candidate like Biden, who at age 76 has an extensive political career, will be the person who can appeal to the working and middle classes and progressive Millennials.
“Nobody knows, because that’s what elections tell us, what the voters think about this. No matter how much polling goes on,” Redlawsk said. “In the end, it will be Donald Trump versus somebody. And that’s how we’ll learn what the voters think.”
Karen Peterson, the former state senator, sees Biden as a “steady force” in the Democratic Party. While he’s not “going to take a hard left,” Biden has moved more left on certain issues, Peterson said.
And he does it thoughtfully and methodically, she said.
“We’ve all moved,” Peterson said of the Democratic Party. “In a better direction.”
In the weeks before Biden announced his run for U.S. Senate, he, his wife, Neilia, and siblings Valerie and Jimmy planned the campaign in the family’s living room. They talked about issues like civil rights, crime, the environment, women’s rights and the Vietnam War.
Creating his liberal message was, Biden wrote in his memoir, “one of the greatest times of my life.”
“I could feel the world was turning on its axis,” Biden said, “and I wanted to give it a little shove.”
Contact Meredith Newman at (302) 324-2386 or firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MereNewman.
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