Biden vows to change 'systemic racism' during first NC appearance in months

©The Charlotte Observer

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden brought his campaign to Charlotte on Wednesday, telling a dozen African American business owners and educators that the “tough times” for Americans in this pandemic are even worse for African American communities.

“It’s sort of emblematic of the inequality that exists,” he said at what was billed as a Black Economic Summit at Camp North End. “We have a gigantic opportunity to change the systemic racism.”

Biden also ripped President Donald Trump for what he called “the most corrupt administration in modern American history.”

Biden’s first trip to North Carolina since February reflected the stark difference in his approach to the campaign and that of Trump.

On Wednesday, members of the audience and the media sat in chairs placed in socially distanced circles on the ground. While Biden’s campaign has relied largely on virtual events in the state, Trump will hold an airport rally in Charlotte on Thursday — his fifth trip to North Carolina in a month. Vice President Mike Pence and members of the Trump family also have made multiple in-person appearances.

And while Trump has spoken to crowded rallies of largely unmasked supporters, Biden on Wednesday wore a mask under his aviator sunglasses before removing it to speak outdoors to a masked audience. His campaign is relying mostly on phone calls to reach out to voters; the Trump campaign has volunteers knocking on doors.

Biden’s visit coincided with the release of two new digital ads featuring female African American entrepreneurs from Rocky Mount. The Biden campaign considers Black turnout key in a state where they make up nearly one of four registered voters.

After leaving Camp North End, Biden joined Mayor Vi Lyles and basketball star Chris Paul at Mert‘s Heart & Soul uptown where they got lunch to go.

“The strategy (of Biden’s visit) seems to be: Come in, mobilize, get some enthusiasm in the Black voting base of the (Democratic) Party,” said Kerry Haynie, a professor of political science and African and African American Studies at Duke University. “The Black vote will be critical in North Carolina.”

Polls show the candidates essentially tied in North Carolina, a state analysts call a toss-up.

A RealClearPolitics average of September polls put Biden at 47.3% and Trump at 46.5% — a margin of less than 1%. Trump carried it by nearly four points over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“North Carolina is as competitive as any battleground state in the country,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College and author of the “Old North State Politics” blog.

Biden was introduced by Winston-Salem-born Paul, a former Wake Forest University basketball star who is now playing with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. The candidate then fielded questions from the crowd, with Lyles as moderator.

Biden pledged that his administration would spend an additional $70 billion over 10 years on historically black colleges and universities and would more than double the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“No one should be working a 40-hour job and still live in poverty,” he said.

The former vice president said he would pay for these and other changes by getting the wealthy and corporations to pay “their fair share” in taxes.

He told one teacher that, because of existing tax breaks, “you’ll pay more as a school teacher than the guy making $20 million in investments.”

Biden told one restaurant owner that he favors spending money for businesses like hers to routinely test employees for COVID-19. He also criticized Trump for having “no national standards” in reopening schools during the pandemic.

Asked about the Trump Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr, Biden said Barr is running the Justice Department as “a private law firm for the president … It’s become the Department of Trump.”

If he’s elected, Biden added, “the Justice Department under my administration will be totally independent of me. … I’m not going to pursue prosecuting anybody.” He said he’s been asked if that includes Trump.

“I’m going to do what the Justice Department said should be done and not politicize it,” he said.

Some Democratic activists have been calling on Biden to increase the number of in-person visits to battleground states — including North Carolina, where Black voter turnout was lower than Democrats hoped for in 2016.

“Voters want to see the candidates,” said Susan Roberts, a Davidson College political scientist. “We’re the Iowa of the (general) election: We want to feel that, ‘Yes, we’re important.’”

Roberts added that Biden’s decision to spend a day in Charlotte, even in a more subdued way than in the days prior to the pandemic, is a recognition that “the Biden voters need a dose of enthusiasm. The Trump voters are already getting that” with the airport rallies.

Bitzer said that, with his visit to Charlotte, Biden is trying to honor the kind of “retail-based politics that still work in this state” while also playing to his Democratic base, which “is very hesitant when it comes to public health issues.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, a former member of the Democratic National Committee, said Biden’s decision to wear a mask and not hold Trump-like rallies is politically smart when many voters worry every day about the COVID-19 virus.

“It shows that he supports the science,” she said. “He’s not just talking the talk, he’s walking the walk.”

In Charlotte, Biden did not address an issue that has suddenly taken center stage in the campaign: filling the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy caused by Friday’s death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But according to The New York Times, before leaving Delaware for Charlotte, he predicted that a more conservative court could strike down the Affordable Care Act and that “pregnancy will a preexisting condition again.”

Ginsburg will lie in repose at the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday and Thursday. The liberal jurist will become the first woman in American history to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol on Friday. On Saturday Trump is expected to nominate a conservative woman to her seat who will likely be Ginsburg’s ideological opposite.

Chloe Riley of Johnston County said though she’s still undecided in the presidential race, the high court vacancy is pushing her toward Biden.

“I don’t think I want three judges appointed by President Trump,” Riley, a 20-year-old student at North Carolina State, told The Charlotte Observer. “Some of his thinking doesn’t align with mine, especially when it comes to social issues.”

The fight over the high court vacancy is likely to get plenty of airtime when Biden and Trump meet Tuesday night for the first of three debates.

But political scientists the Observer interviewed all said they didn’t think the controversy over the Supreme Court seat would play a big role in the North Carolina presidential contest.

“I honestly think it may be a wash,” said Bitzer. “Trump nominating a pro-life conservative woman will play well to his already-loyal base. But it will also energize the Democratic base.”

In other words, he said, “It may be rallying the troops, but you are also rallying the opposition.”

Added Roberts: “It could help mobilize younger voters, especially young educated women, but most of the people in North Carolina have already made up their minds” who they plan to vote for.

North Carolinians are already voting. And a record number of them — nearly a million — have requested absentee ballots during this public health crisis. A buoy to Biden: Half of those requests have come from registered Democrats, while only 18% were made by Republicans. Unaffiliated voters account for 32% of the requests.

Democrats say 170,000 Black North Carolina Democrats who voted when President Barack Obama was on the ticket in 2012 did not vote in 2016.

Focusing on Black businesses during Biden’s Wednesday visit may also “be an effort to reach out to Black male voters,” Haynie said. “If there’s some leakage in support for Democrats, it might be Black men.”

The Biden campaign is using the airwaves to get its message out. TV ads filmed at a Durham barber shop, with Black men talking about how important it is to turn out to vote for Biden and running mate Kamala Harris, have been running in North Carolina and around the country. The new digital ads feature African American women.

And a radio ad targets Black voters by talking about the disproportionate toll the coronavirus has taken on African Americans. The ad uses the audio tapes of Trump telling journalist Bob Woodward that he intentionally played down the threat of the virus in order not to cause a “panic.”

The Trump campaign also is wooing African Americans, particularly men. One recent radio ad featured former NFL star Herschel Walker. The campaign also announced that the president would speak about “Black Economic Empowerment” Friday in Atlanta.

In anticipation of Biden’s visit, the Trump campaign released a statement Wednesday from Paris Dennard, the GOP’s senior communications adviser for Black Media Affairs.

“If Joe Biden had attended a Black Economic Summit decades ago, he would have understood that raising taxes, supporting jobs in China over Charlotte, being against school choice and creating crime bills that led to the mass incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Black men are all terrible policies,” Dennard said. “Black American voters in North Carolina understand President Trump’s inclusive and empowering policies have impacted them in a positive way.”

But some Black Republicans say they’re undecided.

Derek Partee of Huntersville said while he voted for Trump four years ago, he’s “up in the air” this time.

He told the Observer earlier this month that Trump’s record and rhetoric in office have disappointed him. “He’s not addressing the Black community,” Partee said. “And there’s no diversity in the Trump administration.”

Until 2008, North Carolina was far from a hospitable state for Democratic presidential candidates. But in that year, Obama, with Biden as his running mate, became the first Democrat to win North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

The state has been changing demographically even more in recent years, with newcomers moving to cities like Charlotte and Raleigh and bringing their more Democratic-leaning politics with them.

Charlie Cook, whose Cook Political Report is the gold standard for political analysis, called North Carolina one of the “Big Six” in a short list of battleground states — three in the “Frost Belt division” (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin) and three in the “Sun Belt division” (North Carolina, Florida, Arizona).

North Carolina has become such a purple state — midway between red Republican and blue Democratic — that this year’s presidential election in the state, Cook said, is “really, really close.”

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©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)