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Biden stresses party unity in Detroit as protesters disrupt event

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Detroit — Former Vice President Joe Biden and his supporters campaigned across Michigan on Monday, calling for party unity and stressing the stakes of Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary election.

Biden told a crowd estimated at close to 2,000 in Detroit Monday night that he’s “counting” on Michigan. 

“This election isn’t a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” said the 77-year-old former U.S. senator from Delaware. “It’s a battle for the soul of America.” 

Biden was joined on a stage before his speech by two former presidential rivals, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, as well as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The four linked and raised their hands together before the former vice president began speaking. 

The show of unity was disrupted minutes later. Two different groups of protesters interrupted Biden’s speech for about six minutes. One group raised banners criticizing Biden’s support of the North American Free Trade Agreement. “NAFTA killed our jobs,” a banner said. 

After those two individuals were removed, another larger group of demonstrators raised signs focused on climate change. “Green jobs for all,” one sign said. 

Biden responded from the stage that it was “not a Trump rally.” He identified the protesters as "Bernie bros."

“It’s not who we are,” Biden said as the crowd of his supporters chanted, “Joe, Joe, Joe.” 

Harris praised Biden’s record of service during her speech, saying the former vice president “understands who people are.” She also stressed the importance of Michigan.

“Michigan, I do believe that you are going to make the difference in terms of the outcome of this election,” Harris told the crowd.

In Flint and Detroit, Booker, whose mother is from Detroit, joined Biden to reinforce the message of unity.

"I’m telling you right now Michigan: You’ve got to know that this could be the turning point," Booker said in Flint. "Not just of a primary campaign, this could be the day we remember when we turned a whole nation around."

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker takes a photograph with Haroletta Martin of Flint after an event in Flint on Monday, March 9, 2020, a day before Michigan's Democratic primary election. Booker endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden earlier in the day.

Biden: Sanders too far left

Biden is competing with Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for votes. Sanders had his own events in Michigan on Monday. Although polls showed Biden in the lead, Sanders won the state's primary four years ago. Ahead of the 2016 election, polls also showed Sanders behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The campaigns of Biden and Sanders flooded Michigan over the weekend. While six states vote Tuesday, Michigan controls the most delegates with 125.

Biden's team has criticized Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, for being too far left. Sanders' team has argued that Biden won't deliver the level of change needed for the country.

Some voters, like Chris Brooks of Ann Arbor, remained undecided Monday night, just hours before polls open. Brooks attended a Sanders rally on Sunday and was in line Monday with hundreds of other people for Biden's event at Renaissance High School in Detroit.

"I just want to get a warm and fuzzy feeling for one of the candidates," Brooks said. "I didn’t get it that much from Bernie yesterday, quite frankly."

Among those making Biden's case to voters Monday were Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley.

Booker, Gilchrist and Neely joined Biden Monday afternoon at Flint's Berston Field House, a historic landmark in the city.In the 1930s, the facility was the first community center in Flint to admit African Americans who lived in the neighborhoods surrounding it.

Biden spoke for about 15 minutes at the event, where he called for party unity and discussed the Flint water crisis.

“To unify this nation, we first have to unify our party," Biden told a crowd of about 100 people.

"We want you. We need you," he said. "There’s a place in our campaign for you."

Flint suffered lead contamination that first surfaced in August 2015, eventually leading to a state emergency and federal aid. Critics have argued that if foul smells from the drinking water and skin rashes had occurred in a wealthy suburb, state officials would have been quicker to fix the problems.

Biden said Flint “has become shorthand for the incredible division that still exists in this country, based on zip code."

Former Vice President Joe Biden embraces New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker at an event in Flint on Monday, March 9, 2020. Booker endorsed Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination earlier in the day.

"We aren’t looking for a revolution, but what we want to be able to do is trust the water comes out of the pipe,” Biden said, referring to the "political revolution" that's been the focus of Sanders and the democratic socialist's supporters.

Gilchrist, who admitted at the Detroit rally that he voted for Sanders in 2016, touted Biden as the "next president of the United States." Michigan's first African-

American lieutenant governor highlighted former President Barack Obama's work to rescue the auto industry during the great recession.

Gilchrist said the country needs a president with "a vision that includes all o us."

Similarly, Whitmer said on stage that Biden knows knows "how to build a coalition." In the Detroit speech, Biden referenced Whitmer's 2018 campaign slogan of "fix the damn roads."

"Let’s fix the country,” he said.

'They are looking for results'

Biden used a similar line at a Monday morning stop in Grand Rapids, where he criticized Sanders' Medicare for All plan at a Grand Rapids health center

At the nonprofit Cherry Health's center, the 77-year-old Biden took shots at the radicalism of the 78-year-old Sanders, implying his advocacy of a public or government insurance option is more practical than Sanders' support for a single-payer, nationalized health system. 

"The patients at Cherry Hill, they cannot afford to wait for a revolution," Biden said. "They are looking for results for their families and for themselves today, immediately, not tomorrow."

During a 17-minute speech, Biden said it would take a long "slog" to get Sanders' Medicare for All in place, if it could happen at all, Biden said.

The Sanders campaign fired back, arguing the Vermont senator has done more on health care than the former vice president.

"Biden delivered these insurance industry talking points in a community health center," Sanders campaign spokesman Bill Neidhardt said in a Monday statement. "It was Bernie Sanders who secured $11 billion in the Affordable Care Act for community health centers. Joe Biden wants to protect the health care status quo in Michigan. It's that simple."

Sanders has championed the idea of the government providing health care for everyone. While called "Medicare for All," it doesn't resemble the health care program for seniors, which allows them to buy supplemental private health insurance for whatever the federal government doesn't cover. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden gives a speech on health care at a Cherry Hill health center in Grand Rapids on Monday, March 9, 2020, the day before Michigan's primary election.

Sanders calls health care a "human right" and has repeatedly told his supporters to challenge the statements of "pundits" about what's possible when it comes to reform. His plan would cost at least more than $30 trillion over 10 years, according to multiple analyses.

Biden prefers building on the current health care system and the Affordable Care Act by providing a public or government option that people could purchase if they needed coverage or didn't like their private insurance.

"I am running to protect the progress we’ve fought for," Biden said Monday, "progress that lives and breathes ... at Cherry Hill.”

Biden campaigning In Michigan

The health center event kicked off a day of events in Michigan for Biden, who's trying to keep his momentum after winning last week a majority of the 14 Super Tuesday contests.

While Sanders edged former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Michigan four years ago, Biden is riding the momentum of getting endorsements from former campaign rivals and state elected officials. Whitmer, who endorsed Biden last week, introduced Biden Monday in Grand Rapids.Whitmer said health care is "on the ballot."

West Michigan's Kent County, which is home to Grand Rapids, was key to Sanders' victory in the state's primary in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. While Sanders won 73 of 83 counties against Clinton, Clinton won Wayne County, home to Detroit, by 60,332 votes. Sanders' largest margin of victory was Kent County, which he won by 17,412 votes.

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd on the campus of The University of Michigan, Sunday, March 8, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Clinton won Genesee County, where Biden held the Flint event with Booker.

Haroletta Martin, a military veteran from Flint, was among those in the crowd to hear speeches from Booker and Biden. Martin said she voted for President Donald Trump, a Republican, in 2016 but would vote for Biden if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

"Right now, the country is going in a direction that’s very negative," Martin said. "I think we need to put a positive spin on the country.”

Biden attended a fundraiser in Detroit before his evening rally with Harris and Booker. The two former rivals had previously criticized Biden on race-related policy issues before suspending their campaigns. 

Jill Zimmerman of Ann Arbor was volunteering Monday for Biden's campaign inside the Detroit high school. She previously preferred former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden.

Several protesters interrupted Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden's campaign rally Monday, March 9, 2020, at Renaissance High School in Detroit. They were detained and led from the building.

"I think he is a man of great decency and character," Zimmerman said of Biden. "And I think he has the ability to bring together a winning coalition.”

Sanders has held rallies in Detroit, Dearborn, Flint, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor in the four days before Tuesday's election. About 10,000 people attended Sanders' Sunday night event on the campus of the University of Michigan.

"We’re going to win this election," the Vermont U.S. senator told the crowd on Sunday.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.

cmauger@detroitnews.com