Invoking police and the economy, Biden and Pence compete for Pa.’s swing voters

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the “Back the Blue” rally at Philadelphia FOP Lodge #5. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the “Back the Blue” rally at Philadelphia FOP Lodge #5. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A large, passionately pro-police crowd was in Northeast Philadelphia on Thursday to greet Vice President Mike Pence for a rally at the city’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge.

Also Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden pitched a $700 billion economic recovery plan in northeastern Pennsylvania, while Pence affirmed relationships with business owners and shored up ties with police officers.

The two crisscrossed the commonwealth for a series of competing events. Biden headed to Dunmore in Lackawanna County for a speech at a metal fabrication business near his childhood hometown, Scranton, while Pence embarked on several strategic stops on behalf of President Donald Trump. He touched down in Lancaster County, then headed to Chester County, in the Philadelphia suburbs, and finished in the city itself.

The day featured an indoor speech, few face masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and tense clashes between FOP supporters and protesters outside the event. And it showcased Trump and Biden’s dueling visions on economics and police brutality for a carefully selected population of Pennsylvanians.

Supporters of the Philadelphia Police gathered outside FOP Lodge #5 Thursday night during Vice President Mike Pence’s visit. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

After a roundtable discussion at wireless tech manufacturer Rajant Corp., at which Pence painted a rosy picture of reopening the economy, he shifted gears to his and Trump’s enthusiastic support for police.

With several families of officers who died on the job sitting in the front rows of the audience, Philadelphia FOP President John McNesby kicked off the event, saying that over the last two months — after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd and kicked off weeks of intense protests — it has become “unpopular” to support police.

Black Lives Matter protesters argued with members of the Proud Boys outside FOP Lodge #5 during a visit from Vice President Mike Pence. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
Philadelphia FOP President John McNesby hosted the “Back the Blue” rally in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The following speakers echoed that sentiment. FOP National President Patrick Yoes, U.S. Attorney William McSwain and Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey all argued against reductions in police funding — like the one Philadelphia politicians are adopting — and pushed for stronger policing.

McSwain took a particularly strong, pro-police stance — saying any insinuation that Philadelphia police are racist is a “vicious myth” since many of them are not white, and many crime victims also aren’t white.

U.S. Attorney William McSwain spoke at the “Back the Blue” rally at the Philadelphia FOP lodge. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

He also pushed for strong crackdowns on drug-related crimes — repudiating a growing coalition of progressive prosecutors like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who are pushing for decarceration and decriminalization for nonviolent offenses.

Pence’s remarks were in the same vein. He promised the crowd that the Trump administration would never defund police — “not now, not ever.”

“We live in a time when the radical left is presenting the American people with one false choice after another,” Pence said. “Like lately we’ve been hearing people say we’ve got to choose between funding our police and funding our communities.”

Philadelphia and many other cities have, indeed, been negotiating rerouting funding for police to other community programs that are also intended to reduce crimes — though support for those changes have come in large part from mainstream politicians.

Philly’s recent budget, for instance, restored some proposed cuts to arts and affordable housing while axing a proposed boost to police funding.

City resident Jackie Kradzinski, who watched Pence’s speech with her family, said in her mind, Trump is the only candidate for a police-supporting voter.

“This government supports our police,” said Kradzinski, whose son and daughter both work in law enforcement in Philadelphia. “That’s what we need. We need that backing for our cops.”

Black Lives Matter protesters argued with members of the Proud Boys outside FOP Lodge #5 during a visit from Vice President Mike Pence. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As the vice president spoke, a crowd of FOP supporters outside the lodge grew unruly as a small group of Black Lives Matter protesters approached them. The crowd included groups of bikers and men representing the group the Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a hate group and FBI documents labeled as extremist (though FBI officials later walked that back). They were heard hurling insults at protesters by a WHYY photographer on the scene.


Meanwhile, up near Scranton, Biden was keeping his focus firmly on the economy. At his Dunmore stop, the former vice president took a tour of McGregor Industries, a specialty metal fabricator headquartered there.

In a speech afterward, he rolled out a $700 billion plan aimed at forcing more companies to stop outsourcing manufacturing jobs to other countries.

The proposal includes putting $400 billion into American concrete, steel and cement, and another $300 billion into the development of new technology, like electric cars and 5G internet.

Biden said he also wants to shift Trump’s trade deals and stem dependence on China for goods.

“[Trump] promised to bring back jobs, but manufacturing was in a recession even before COVID-19. He promised to buy American, but then he let federal contractors double the rate of offshoring jobs in his first eighteen months,” Biden said. “I’m going to change that. We’re going to double to tax on foreign profits so we don’t encourage people to leave and build abroad.”

The spate of action on both sides of the aisle in Pennsylvania comes as Biden’s campaign tries to capitalize on Trump’s dipping poll numbers.

Biden leads Trump by 6.5 points in an average of recent polls of Pennsylvania voters. It’s a strong position for the former vice president, according to Chris Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College.

The Democratic and Republican campaigns are competing for similar ground. Pence met with business leaders and Philadelphia’s police union, and Biden targeted some of the working-class voters Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in 2016.

Borick said all of this is calculated to shift the razor-thin margins by which Pennsylvania swung Republican in 2016. For instance, he said, the Trump campaign’s decision to send Pence to Chester County — which is trending left — and to overwhelmingly blue Philadelphia speaks to a desire to chip away at the edges of the Democratic bloc.

“If you can get even a sliver of votes from a place like Philadelphia in a way greater than you did in 2016, it’s valuable,” he added. “All votes count the same.”

Based on its recent messaging, the Trump campaign has identified two policy areas as winning issues among blue-leaning voters: economics and law and order. And Borick said that’s why Biden has to take on the president on those same exact issues.

“I think when you look at the president’s standing, economic issues, despite the downturn, remain one of the more positive sides, so that could be a potential weakness for Vice President Biden,” Borick said. “Speaking on economic issues in key areas of a swing state makes sense.”

He added that on at least one issue, Trump seems to be going firmly against the preferences of most Americans: coronavirus safety.

Even though Republicans and Democrats have starkly different views on mask-wearing, he said, polling shows that public opinion tends to align more with Biden’s public health-informed approach.

Those partisan differences were clear at Pence’s FOP rally. Of the roughly 100 people who filled the small, enclosed auditorium at FOP headquarters, only a handful wore masks.

It was enough to draw the attention of Mayor Jim Kenney, who said the Trump campaign’s predilection for indoor events during a pandemic “doesn’t make any sense to anyone” — though he noted, the FOP lodge is private property.

The entire state of Pennsylvania is still under a mask-wearing order from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, and Philadelphia never reopened fully as case numbers rose again after a period of decline. City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley recently said that since Philadelphia is averaging more than 100 new cases per day, he considers it to be in the throes of a second COVID-19 wave.

A spokesperson for Pence said officially, the vice president “has encouraged all Americans to follow state and local guidance.” His office said he wore a mask when he wasn’t speaking.

That guidance wasn’t enforced or posted anywhere at the event.

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