“Boggs never campaigned in the black community,” says Alan Lawrence, a longtime Wilmington resident and retired manager at Delmarva, the state’s utility company. “Biden was considered a long shot at the time. He launched a grassroots campaign in the black community that worked, because a lot of people remembered him from his days as a lifeguard. The black vote was key to getting him elected, and he always says that.”
In the early ’80s, he pushed for more minorities to enroll in service academies such as West Point. A decade later, he nominated Gregory Sleet to serve as Delaware’s first black U.S. attorney and then as the state’s first black federal judge. He also helped local politicians like former City Councilman-at-Large Theo Gregory get elected.
“He walked the East Side with me,” says Gregory. “He knocked on doors and told people to come out and be supportive. Joe always gave respect and acknowledgement to the black community, which is part of his foundation, by pushing for minimum-wage laws and by supporting health care reforms spearheaded by Ted Kennedy. “
It wouldn’t be a stretch for Biden to claim to have been at the forefront of social policies favorable to African Americans since his days as a freshman lawmaker, with one major exception: the war on drugs. Biden headed up the creation of a “drug czar” under the first President Bush and backed policy that led to shameful 100-to-1 sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, which resulted in racially biased prosecutions and longer prison time for black offenders.
In early 2008, though, long after the country realized what an utter failure the initiative had been, Biden tried to make amends by supporting legislation to overturn those policies. “Our intentions were good,” he told a Senate subcommittee, “but much of our information was bad.” Like he’d done at Prices pool so many years before, Biden was willing to admit he’d been wrong, and it helped him rebound from another messy situation. This time, however, the payoff was huge, clearing the way for him to join a history-making ticket.
If Biden’s storied career and populist appeal sound like a throwback to the Kennedy era, that’s hardly a coincidence, says Gregory. Biden was ushered into politics with the Kennedys and “represented a new way of thinking that involved aggressively reaching out to the African-American community and recognizing our need for representation.”
Ultimately, that’s the reason he’s remained so popular among black folks in little ol’ Delaware and why being down with Team Obama was simply a matter of returning to his roots.
Chana Garcia is a New York-based journalist and blogger who is proud to be a square from Delaware.