Ridin’ with Biden: Tales from the trail

Betty BeanKnox Scene, West Knoxville

It’s Feb. 15, and Mark Siegel is in South Carolina knocking on doors for Joe Biden. He’s in a Black neighborhood where the householders are older and the reception is warm. He hits 47 doors, and encounters 19 strong Biden supporters. Three more are leaning Biden and one likes Tom Steyer, the kinder, gentler billionaire.

Feeling good about his candidate’s chances, Siegel returns to his car and unwraps a peanut butter sandwich, flips on the radio and hears talking head Rick Tyler (a Republican who worked for Ted Cruz in the 2016 presidential election) pronounce Biden dead:

“Older Black folks are abandoning him.”

“I wanted to yell at him, ‘I am here! You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

Siegel is a lifelong Knoxvillian who spent time in Iowa this season, too, and hadn’t been impressed with Biden’s organization there. But he was buoyed by the support the former vice president was getting in South Carolina.

The West Knox lawyer hadn’t been politically active in recent years because he was an administrative law judge hearing Social Security cases. But as 2020 approached, he wanted back in the game. He met with his accountant and discovered that he could afford to retire. So, he did.

“I did it because I want to do everything I can to make Donald Trump a one-term president,” he said.

But he still hadn’t decided on a candidate to campaign for, so he surveyed the massive field with two criteria in mind: “Who did I think would be the best president, and who had the best chance to beat Trump? The answer – to me – was Joe Biden.”

Biden warms up in South Carolina. (Photo by Mark Siegel)

Despite the rising popularity of Bernie Sanders, Siegel didn’t feel welcome in that camp.

“Sanders doesn’t seem interested in people like me – older, long-term Democrats who are more concerned with helping people than the revolution.”

Meeting Biden in Nashville and later spending time with him in South Carolina made Siegel confident in his choice. Even though he’s aware that his guy is famously gaffe-prone, he had an up-close look at Biden’s easy way with people, his energy and his upbeat manner. Most of all, he likes Biden’s resume.

“I’m blue, no matter who, and I liked most of the people who were running. But what struck me was how much really important stuff Joe Biden had gotten accomplished.”

Siegel ticked off a list of Biden’s accomplishments over his long career: the assault weapons ban, the Violence Against Women Act, the Recovery Act, the Affordable Care Act, the Paris Accords on climate change, the treaty that kept Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

“Big, big stuff to make people’s lives better,” Siegel said. “The contrast was overwhelming.”

The notion being circulated on social media by Trump and Sanders supporters that Biden has dementia makes him angry.

“It’s a remarkably cruel kind of thing that you would expect from Donald Trump and his supporters; not from a primary rival. And it’s just not true. When you are around Joe Biden, you see an entirely different person than what you are seeing projected during a lot of the campaign. He makes mistakes, sure. But so do I. Who doesn’t? He’s funny, together and lucid. I’ve been there and I’ve seen it and I’ve talked to him. I’m much more concerned about the fact that Bernie Sanders had a heart attack and won’t release his records.”

On Feb. 1, Siegel made a quick trip to Indiana, where his daughter Sarah is in college. When he was ready to leave, he decided to make a detour into Iowa because it’s way closer to Indiana than South Carolina, and it was caucus time. When he got there, he found himself presiding over two delegations in Clinton County. He was not impressed.

He also visited Davenport, where Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang all had campaign offices in the same building. Everybody got excited when the Yang Gang came through, and when Yang himself appeared in the midst of his followers, Siegel was puzzled by his attire.

“He was wearing this weird capey thing and all these Biden people came out to take his picture. There were Yang people running around, and all this energy building. I’d seen a lot of Yang signs in people’s yards, and I thought he was going to be the big surprise coming out of Iowa. That was before I went to this house with a Yang sign. The front door was open and a woman was standing in it. She told me, ‘I don’t know who put that sign there.’”

Siegel felt uneasy coming out of Iowa. “I told the folks at home, ‘I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not getting a good feeling about this … I kept hearing, ‘I like Joe Biden,’ but a lot of people were just really undecided.”

Things were different in South Carolina, where he discovered events like The Galivants Ferry Stump Speaking on the banks of the Pee Dee River. He also found lots of love for Biden there. His major concern – Trump supporters obeying his call to cross over into the Democratic primary to vote for “Crazy Bernie” – didn’t amount to much. Biden rode a ringing endorsement from U.S. Rep. James Clyburn and crushed the primary opposition. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar ended their campaigns and threw their support behind Biden ahead of the March 3 Super Tuesday.

Biden crushed Super Tuesday and followed that with solid victories in most of this week’s round of primary states, taking a solid delegate lead and setting up a head-to-head match against Sanders.

Siegel is temporarily sidelined with some health concerns but remains engaged in the Biden campaign and plans to campaign in North Carolina, the closest swing state. He’s liking his candidate’s chances, and he carries a memory of a hot July day in Charleston.

“I’m working the door in a union hall, and one of the advance people comes out, points to a guy with a video camera and asked me to help him get to where he needed to go. Then a white SUV pulls up, and Joe Biden gets out.

“I’m standing there in my Biden T-shirt and I’m the first person he sees. He comes bounding up to me, grabs my hand and says, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ I say, ‘No, thank YOU.’ We go into a room filled with exercise equipment, he goes over to this machine and starts pulling on the bar and says, ‘Hey, there’s not enough weight on here.’

“Somebody asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘I’m just getting warmed up.’”

Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties.

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