Michigan Sanders' supporters wrestle with backing Biden

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Arthur Woodson thinks U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders would make a great president and doesn't care much for former Vice President Joe Biden, who won convincingly in last week's Michigan primary.

The 52-year-old Flint activist might be faced with a vexing question: Can he back Barack Obama's vice president against Donald Trump in November if Biden is the party's nominee? While he detests the Republican president, Biden would have to move heaven and earth to get his support.

"I don't see Biden as being any better than President Trump," Woodson said. "Joe Biden worked with segregationists. Joe Biden helped write up the 1994 crime bill. I'd put my own name in there before I'd vote for him. I plugged my nose with Hillary Clinton, and I didn't like her either."

Arthur Woodson is  a community activist in Flint who attended nearly every preliminary exam hearing for the criminal defendants in the water crisis case.

What happens to the supporters of the Vermont democratic socialist hangs over the Democratic Party's prospects in the fall. Trump narrowly won Michigan in 2016 partly because enough Democrats, including some of Sanders' supporters, didn't vote or supported a third-party candidate, such as the Green Party's Jill Stein. 

Sanders vowed last week to stay in the race, a decision his supporters back in part to push the party further left at this summer's nominating convention in Milwaukee. Biden tried to woo them before Sunday's debate by announcing his support for making public colleges and universities tuition-free for students whose families earn $125,000 a year or less and crediting Sanders for his new emphasis on student debt. 

Mario Morrow, a Detroit-based political consultant, said Sanders' supporters "are very loyal to the senator," but he argues "they'll do the right thing because he's going to do the right thing" and back Biden as the eventual nominee.

"It's always a challenge when the reality sets in that your candidate loses or is losing," Morrow said. "And it's like a rude awakening. But I anticipate that they'll get over it because they all have the ultimate goal of beating Donald Trump in the general election. And the only way they can do that is by coming together under one umbrella."

Biden has 894 delegates to Sanders' 743 delegates with 1,991 needed for the nomination. Sanders faces pressure to win Tuesday in states such as Illinois, Florida and Arizona, where the former vice president is favored to prevail.

Struggling with Biden

The party's coalescence around Biden with a flurry of endorsements has irked Sanders' more ardent supporters. When asked by Fox News last week why a University of Michigan rally she headlined with Sanders failed to translate into more votes, Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York blamed "rampant voter suppression" in the form of three-hour lines at the clerk's office in Ann Arbor.

Former President Bill Clinton political adviser James Carville has said "it's time to shut this puppy down" and back Biden.

Such calls anger Woodson. "We're not going to vote for him just because they say so," he said of supporting Biden.

But Meeko Williams said he sees no choice for Sanders supporters like himself if they want to get rid of Trump. He acknowledged some will struggle with the notion of voting for Biden.

Meeko Williams

"I know for me, the name of the game, the goal of the game is to beat Trump," said Williams, 35, of Detroit. "So we've got to do it whichever way we can to get Donald Trump out of office. If that means having to unite around the contender, we're going to have to do whatever we have to do. But that contender has to unite the country."

A major reason Biden won Michigan was because Democratic primary voters said they were more confident he could defeat Trump. An Associated Press poll of more than 2,400 Michigan Democratic primary voters found 82% said Biden could defeat Trump while 63% said Sanders could beat the president.

The day after the Michigan primary, Jessica Martin, 31, of Bangor in West Michigan was unequivocal about staying on the sidelines if Biden wins the nomination.

Laughing "at all the Biden voters saying we need to unite behind him and with them. Ummm, no, I'm putting my energy into organizing for my and other communities," Martin wrote on Facebook. "I currently encourage all to not help Joe Biden campaign or to unite."

A few days later in an interview, Martin still hoped Sanders could win but softened her stance on the former vice president. Biden, she said, "lacks all of my values, aside from standing against domestic violence" of which she is a victim. 

"I can't put my boots on the ground for Joe. I begrudgingly could vote for him, and I say that with tears in my eyes," Martin told The Detroit News. "I know Bernie would do so much better. ... But if Biden were the Democratic candidate, I'd be so torn."

Being 'dangerous,' 'unrealistic'?

The idea of Sanders' supporters staying home or voting for a third-party candidate in the fall "is dangerous because they are being unrealistic," said Morrow, adding the general election electorate is more moderate than the Democratic Party. 

"Bernie did a good job by recruiting and enlisting the 18- to 36-year-olds, black, white and brown," Morrow added. "He understands the damage he caused in '16 by not coming out strong for Hillary Clinton."

Williams said there are deep divisions "within the Democratic Party and on the left" and the way to address it is to let Sanders supporters, particularly the younger ones, talk to Biden to "see what their needs are."

But getting Sanders supporters excited about Biden is the challenge, he said.

"What has Joe Biden done? When has he come up with a policy? Does he support Medicare for All?" Williams said. "Does he support ending student loan debt. It's just hard for anyone to take Joe Biden seriously."

Biden has criticized Medicare for All as too expensive and has supported a public option to let the public buy into a program like Medicare instead of buying private health insurance. The former Delaware senator now backs tuition-free college for certain students. 

The problem is Biden will say anything to get elected and wasn’t truthful in Sunday's debate about backing cuts to the Veterans Administration and Social Security, Woodson said.

Sanders accused Biden of "bragging" in 1995 about working with Republican senators on possibly freezing Social Security payments and urged viewers to find it on YouTube. "We did not cut it," Biden said, to which Sanders responded, "I know because people like me helped stop it."

Woodson said there would be only one way he might support Biden: If he added an African American woman, such as former Democratic presidential rival and California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, as his running mate. Biden promised Sunday to choose a female vice presidential nominee.

"I might be able to support him then," Woodson said. "I might."


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Twitter: @leonardnfleming