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Former VP Joe Biden Holds First Rally Of His Presidential Campaign In Pittsburgh

Former Vice President Joe Biden held the first rally of his 2020 campaign in a Lawrenceville union hall Monday afternoon, telling a crowd of hundreds that his first goal as president would be “to restore the soul of this nation. The second is to rebuild the backbone of this nation. The third is to unify this nation. We always do better when we act as one America.”

His half-hour speech, made before a receptive crowd with a heavy union presence, focused largely on an economic message, portraying a country in which a social compact between employers and workers had broken – even as the corporate sector itself was booming.

“The middle class is hurting,” he said, citing poll data to suggest most Americans doubt their children will do as well as they did.

Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA
Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke to a friendly crowd built largely from union members at a rally in Pittsburgh on Monday, April 29, 2019.

“The stock market is roaring, but you don’t feel it,” he said. And he took dead aim at the Republican tax cuts of 2017: “There was a $2 trillion tax cut last year. Did you get anything from it? Of course not. All of that went to folks at the top.”

Biden cited some local examples of a breakdown in economic justice. One was General Motors, which recently announced the closure of facilities that include its plant in nearby Lordstown, Ohio.

“The taxpayers bailed them out,” he said of the 2009 government effort to keep the company afloat. “But what happened? … The second they hit hard times, what did they do? They closed plants.”

Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA
Former Vice President Joe Biden picked up his first union endorsement from the International Association of Firefighters. IAFF General President Harold A. Schaitberger, left of Biden and his wife Jill, walked the 2020 Democratic candidate down a rope line of union members at the back of the Teamsters Hall in Pittsburgh.

Biden also noted a long-running labor dispute involving hospital giant UPMC, saying that SEIU’s effort to organize service workers there was “one of the most important organizing fights in this country.” He likened the effort to those undertaken by miners and steelworkers generations ago. “UPMC, stop the union busting,” he said.

The Democrat largely eschewed specific policy proposals, joking that the audience had been standing too long and promised more details in the future. But he backed a $15 minimum wage, ending “non-compete” provisions for lower-wage workers, and said he favored easing licensing requirements for jobs like hairdressing.

He also doubled down on his support for the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have opposed without finding a credible alternative to replace it with. Biden called the act, a signature effort of the Obama Administration, “a huge step forward. … We made historic progress by extending health care to 22 million people. We have to stop this administration’s effort to gut it first,” and then extend it again.

He said workers should be allowed to buy into the government-run Medicare system, which already covers older Americans. That reform would allow for a “public option,” though it falls short of a “Medicare for All” system sought by some on the left.

Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA
Former Second Lady Jill Biden takes the stage ahead of her husband, Joe, who declared his candidacy for President online on Thursday. The rally in Pittsburgh was Biden's first of his 2020 campaign.

Biden concluded that on such issues, “the only thing that stands in our way is a broken political system,” he said – and he blamed President Trump for exploiting it.

“Donald Trump is the only president who has decided not to represent the whole country,” he said. “The only thing that can tear America apart is America itself. … We have to choose hope over fear, unity over division, and maybe most importantly, truth over lies.”

Republicans sought to cast cold water on Biden’s rally hours before it took place.

In a morning call with reporters, state Republican Party Chair Val DiGiorgio dismissed Biden, who he called “the last remnant of a failed administration.” He ticked off a list of purported foreign-policy and domestic failures. Among other things, he faulted Biden for not doing more to stop Russian hacking efforts during the 2016 election – hacking which the intelligence community has said was intended to benefit Trump.

Biden, DiGiorgio said, had “turned a blind eye to Russian interference in the 2016 election. We want to know where Joe Biden was when Russia was trying to interfere with our elections.”

Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA
Joe Biden concludes his speech at the Teamsters Local #249 in Lawrenceville on Monday, April 29, 2019, declaring again to be a "union man" dedicated to working people in Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a Democratic stronghold, but Pennsylvania went for Republican President Donald Trump in 2016.

DiGiorgio also predicted that with many Democratic challengers squarely on the left, Biden would “have to move so far to the left in the primary that I don’t know how he’ll come back to run in the center in the general election.” Citing polices advocated by more left-leaning Democrats, DiGiorgio said Biden “will now have to champion policies like the Green New Deal and the complete government takeover of health care.”

DiGiorgio’s Democratic counterpart, state party chair Nancy Patton Mills, wasn’t having any of it.

Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA
According to campaign staff, the Teamsters Local on Butler Street in Lawrenceville welcomed about 600 people indoors and in an overflow area behind the building during former Vice President Joe Biden's kickoff campaign event in Pittsburgh on Monday, April 29, 2019.

“The people of Pennsylvania are looking for change. They want to replace Donald Trump,” she said, waiting to enter the Biden event. And she shrugged off the idea that ideological divisions would hamper the Democratic nominee. “We’ve always had a lot of voices in this party. There are all kinds of Democrats.”

“I think it’s going to be a very exciting time for Pennsylvania,” she added.

Several attendees said what they most appreciated about Biden had less to do with policy than with a background that, after more than two years of Donald Trump, promised a return to normality.

“I love his decency as a human being and his compassion for other human beings,” said Andrea Salapow of Mars. She cited his eulogy for the late John McCain, a Republican and friend.

“Joe is my front-runner,” she said. “It’s his politeness. He’s a wonderful human being.”