Delawareans rejoice as odyssey of hometown ‘Joe’ leads to the presidency

Joe Biden gives a speech at The Queen Theater in Wilmington

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden gives a speech at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The 2020 presidential race was a squeaker and a roller coaster of an election, in essence a microcosm of Joe Biden’s entire life and political career.

The nail-biter of a race against President Donald Trump is reminiscent of Biden’s first big win as a 29-year-old New Castle County councilman who pulled off an improbable victory over longtime incumbent U.S. Sen. J. Caleb Boggs by little more than 3,000 votes nearly a half-century ago.

It was 1972, during the presidency of Richard Nixon, and that upset win propelled the handsome, glib young politician on a roll of huge victories as he served six Senate terms and became one of its leading voices and forces.

And though brief presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2008 ended in defeat, Biden’s more than three decades in the Senate put him in position to be tapped by 2008 Democratic nominee Barack Obama as his running mate.

Now, 48 years after that first Senate triumph, Biden has reached the ultimate prize, securing enough electoral votes to become president-elect.

He was already the first person from Delaware to serve in the White House, as vice president. And he will become the first Delawarean to become commander in chief.

That’s welcome news to hundreds of thousands of residents of a state where everyone seems to have a story about meeting Biden at some point throughout his career.

“He’s a really decent person, and that has come across so much,” said Steve Tanzer, a longtime Delaware political observer and former Democratic staffer in the General Assembly. Tanzer predicted early in the campaign that Biden would once again fail to win his party’s nomination.

But now that Biden has vanquished Trump, Tanzer joined other Delawareans in voicing pride. “The contrast with Trump is so stark,” Tanzer said. “We need someone like Biden.“

“It feels like morning in America,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, quoting President Ronald Reagan. Carper, who’s worked with Biden for more than 40 years, said he’s the right person to repair the political divide sown by Trump. “There’s a lot of healing to do, and I think we’re going to have a leader who can help us heal as a nation.”

As night fell Thursday, with the vote count in Pennsylvania and other undecided states trending toward Biden, anticipation began building to a fever pitch in downtown Wilmington, where Biden was at the Queen Theater receiving a coronavirus briefing and made a brief televised statement.

Outside the theater on King Street, a phalanx of black SUVs, police vehicles, armed officers and rifle-toting Secret Service agents occupied a stretch of two blocks. Biden’s security detail had been beefed up substantially since Tuesday.

A throng of photographers and camera operators stood at the corner. Dozens of Delawareans across the street held their phones, hoping to do the same or catch a glimpse of Biden on the brink of becoming the president-elect.

Marsha Knight is overjoyed to be witnessing history in her hometown of Wilmington.
Marsha Knight is overjoyed to be witnessing history in her hometown of Wilmington. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Marsha Knight, her voice choking with emotion, told her young grandson Kayden he was witnessing history.

“It’s amazing to see him in his hometown, Wilmington. It’s a great thing. It’s just wonderful,’’ she said.

Knight said she voted for Biden during his Senate races and twice for Obama with Biden as his running mate.

Even when Biden was struggling in the Democratic primaries, “I never gave up on Joe. Not gonna do that. We need this, and maybe the world will change now that we’re going to get hopefully a new president.”

A Secret Service agent stands guard at the entrance to a heavily fortified section of road to the Chase Center on Wilmington's riverfront on Friday morning.
A Secret Service agent stands guard at the entrance to a heavily fortified section of road to the Chase Center on Wilmington’s riverfront on Friday morning. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Kendall Barber, a local transportation union official, was also on hand Thursday night.

“It was cool. This is my first time really being in the forefront, experiencing this because this is  the first time we actually had a delegate from our state actually representing us.”

He predicted Biden would be an outstanding president and “continue Obama’s legacy, you know, the breadcrumbs he set down for the president to keep everything going forward.”

Late Friday morning, after Biden took the lead in Georgia and Pennsylvania, whose electoral votes would vault him over the 270 needed to win, Wilmingtonian Debra Gill drove to the riverfront area after hearing Biden would speak there after nightfall. Biden had addressed the nation after midnight on Election Day from a sprawling blue-carpeted stage while the votes were being tabulated.

Debra Gill of Wilmington fought back tears when talking about Biden overcoming tragedy en route to becoming the president-elect.
Debra Gill of Wilmington fought back tears when talking about Biden overcoming tragedy en route to becoming the president-elect. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Gill, a transplanted Texan who works in the chemical industry and has lived in Wilmington for two decades, fought back tears when she spoke with WHYY News as a gigantic American flag waved overhead in the background.

“I just had to come and feel the excitement and energy, to actually see where this moment in our history is going to take place,’’ she said.

“When you think about Wilmington, Delaware, making it to the grand stage, the global stage, because of Joe Biden, when you think about everything he has sacrificed,” she said, stopping to gather herself.

“I’m getting choked up. And all of his losses, to be so dedicated to our country for so long, to have selected an African American-Indian woman as his VP, I mean, this is just historical and we finally really can get our country united again because we’re so divided.”

From lowest lows to the highest high

Even as he reaches the highest of highs in global politics, Biden and his family have also experienced the lowest of lows. Thousands of Delawareans mourned alongside the Biden family in 2015 after the death of his son, former state Attorney General Beau Biden. Biden’s oldest son died of brain cancer nearly 40 years after Biden’s infant daughter Naomi and first wife Neilia were killed in a car accident just weeks after that first Senate election win. Beau and his brother Hunter were badly injured in the crash as well.

That 1972 tragedy nearly derailed his Senate career before it even started. Biden seriously considered stepping down from his position before even being sworn in to take care of his sons as a single father.

“He and Neilia and the children had worked so hard for this, that it was not right to at least get up and give it a shot,” Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, told WHYY in the 2018 documentary “Delaware’s Joe Biden.” Biden Owens moved in with her brother to help take care of the boys, and Biden would return to Delaware from work in Washington via Amtrak to be with them at night.

Those Amtrak trips would become a signature part of what Biden would become known for. In 2011, the Wilmington station Biden frequented was renamed in his honor. His name also now adorns the state welcome center on I-95 near the state’s border with Maryland. In 2017, the City of Wilmington renamed the pool at Brown Burton Winchester Park where a young Biden once worked as a lifeguard as the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Aquatic Center. During that naming ceremony, former NAACP leader Richard “Mouse” Smith, who swam at the pool when Biden was a lifeguard, spoke about Biden’s influence on Wilmington. He said Biden also inspired him to stay on the right track.

“With Joe’s help as a public defender, as a county councilman, as a person who wasn’t scared to walk the community, this pool changed. When Joe came here, it changed,” Smith said.

“You’ve always had my back, the neighborhood has always had my back, and God willing, I’ve always had your back, and I will as long as I’m around,” Biden said.

Shuffling Delaware politics

Biden’s win opens up some big questions about which Delaware elected officials might possibly join the administration in Washington.

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, who won the special election for Biden’s seat in 2010, has been rumored to be one of those Biden might tap. During his reelection campaign this fall, Coons would not rule out stepping down from the Senate to take a high-profile position in the Biden administration.

“I expect that I will do whatever helps the State of Delaware and the Biden administration the most,” Coons told WHYY News in September. “I am fairly certain that means serving in the Senate, but if the vice president asks me to take on a very senior role, I would seriously consider it.”

But with Republicans possibly holding on to their majority in the Senate, Biden could use a close ally who is a big advocate for bipartisanship. “Biden probably wants someone in the Senate who is able to do what Coons professes to do so well, which is reach across the aisle,” Tanzer said.

Coons isn’t the only possible Delawarean who could be called to D.C. “It’s a really good question. It could even be [Delaware Congresswoman] Lisa [Blunt Rochester],” Tanzer said.

Before being elected as the first woman and the first Black candidate to represent Delaware in Congress, Blunt Rochester led the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services and later the Department of Labor under then-Gov.Tom Carper.

“Frankly, she’d be good at it,” Tanzer said.

If Coons or Blunt Rochester or another Delaware politician were to be tapped to join Biden, that could open the door for more shuffling as those potential vacancies are filled.

On election night, Coons looked back on a whirlwind year and a half working as an advocate for Biden, traveling to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and elsewhere.

“It’s been a long journey, and I think many of us who know Joe and know why he was just the right man for this moment are right now just so encouraged and excited to see this moment,” Coons said.

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