‘The rest of the country owes Durham’: Former VP Joe Biden speaks at Hillside High

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden campaigned in Durham on Sunday, praising the city’s African-American legacy and also laying into President Donald Trump, calling him a danger to the country.

The former vice president started his 30-minute, wide-ranging speech by thanking North Carolina’s military and acknowledging this weekend’s assassination of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“ISIS remains a threat to the American people and their allies, and we have to keep pressure on them. We can’t walk away,” Biden said. “The Kurds gave 10,000 lives in that fight, and we owe them.”

An estimated 850 people heard Biden speak in the atrium at Hillside High School, many waiting in line for about an hour before the event.

“It’s a good opportunity to meet him and hear what he has to say,” said Pearl Waite of Durham, who said she cares about climate change, among other issues. She said she has not chosen a Democratic primary candidate yet. “If he has a positive plan for the United States, I’ll be on board with it,” she said.

Marshall Jones of Raleigh graduated from Riverside High School in Durham and said Biden’s got the most experience of the Democratic candidates.

“That’s one thing you can’t take from anyone,” Jones said. “Do I think he’s the strongest one? That remains to be seen, but he’s a strong contender.”

He said he appreciated that Biden spoke at Hillside, given its history. During the civil rights movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the school’s previous location. Hillside also is known for its theater program and marching band; the Hornets drumline played as Biden entered and left the stage.

“And it’s on a side of town where we’ve seen a lot of change,” Jones said, mentioning The Streets at Southpoint mall farther down Fayetteville Street.

Myra Shobande of Chapel Hill waved a fan with “I’m with JOE” printed on it as she waited for Sunday’s event to start. She said she is supporting Biden in the Democratic primary and is especially concerned about racial issues, equal pay and America’s standing in the world.

“He’s cool, calm and collected and that’s what we need right now: somebody with a settled mind,” Shobande said.

Civil rights legacy

Biden acknowledged Durham’s role in building the civil rights movement and a black middle class. He cited Parish Street, the home of Black Wall Street; and the Royal Ice Cream sit-in in 1957 when a group of African American protesters, led by the Rev. Douglas Moore, challenged a whites-only lunch counter.

‘Y’all began it here,” Biden said.

“The rest of the country owes Durham,” he said to applause. “That period was a turbulent point, a turbulent test of our values.”

Biden then referenced a series of hate crimes, including the Mother Emanuel church shooting in Charleston, the El Paso Wal-Mart shooting and the Tree of Life synagogue murders in Pittsburgh one year ago.

”We are still in a battle for the soul of America, and this president’s doing nothing but making it worse,” Biden said.

Biden said Trump is “feeling the pressure” from impeachment efforts and the economy. The president inherited a strong economy from the Obama administration “just like he inherited everything in his life,” Biden said. “Now he’s in the process of squandering it, just like he squandered everything in his life.”

Throughout his speech, Biden spoke more in broad strokes instead of specific policies, discussing the need to bolster America’s standing as a world leader and revitalize the nation’s middle class.

He promised to raise taxes on the wealthy and use that money to support renewable energy, revitalize the nation’s infrastructure and to build affordable housing.

And he recalled a meeting with Xi Jinping, president of the People’s Republic of China. Jinping asked the then-vice president if he could describe America in one word.

”I said, ‘Yes, I can,’ and I meant it,” Biden said.

“Possibilities,’” is what he answered. “That’s who we are.”

Biden is not the first Democratic presidential candidate to visit Durham this year: Julian Castro visited in May and Kamala Harris spoke in August at St. Joseph AME Church down the street from the Biden event.

Eunice Jones of Raleigh was a volunteer at the Biden event. Speaking to The News & Observer before the speech, she said she’s still weighing her presidential options.

“I like Pete [Buttigieg], Mayor Pete. I know he’s young, but he’s got a future in politics,” Jones said.

After hearing him speak on Sunday, Linda Peel of Durham said Biden was inspiring.

“I like that he’s talking about improving Obamacare, not just scrapping it,” Peel said. She also said Biden has “not gotten rich off being a senator.”

“I know [Biden] has made mistakes in the past, but still, I think he has a good heart,” Peel said.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden is introduced at Hillside High School in Durham, NC on Oct 27, 2019. Bryan Cereijo

Fundraising flagging

In recent weeks as Elizabeth Warren has moved ahead of Biden in some polls, some have questioned if Biden has enough money to run a full campaign.

Biden enters the final three months of the year with less than $9 million in the bank, according to campaign finance reports, McClatchy has reported. By comparison, Bernie Sanders has nearly $34 million and Elizabeth Warren has nearly $26 million. Buttigieg, who’s polling in the single digits, has more than twice as much available campaign cash as Biden.

A private fundraiser was planned for Biden at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Durham after the Hillside event, according to his campaign staff.

On Sunday, tied to Biden’s visit, N.C. Republican Party Chairman Michael Whatley released a statement saying Biden would raise taxes if elected president.

“Over the last three years, President Trump has fought every day to unleash the American economy with his America First agenda and the results have been remarkable: 6.5 million jobs, higher wages and record low unemployment for women and minorities,” Whatley said. “The former Vice President wants to raise taxes, kick 200 million Americans off of their insurance plans and strangle our economy. We cannot afford to go backwards with a Biden agenda that doesn’t put America first.”

Democratic politicians at the Biden event included U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who told the crowd that four more years of Trump would “rip our country apart.”

Biden “is made for this moment, not just because he’s a fighter but because he’s a healer,” Butterfield said. “He can bring our nation back together again and, as he says, restore its soul.”

Others at the event included N.C. senators Floyd McKissick Jr. and Mike Woodard, Rep. Marcia Morey, former Rep. Mickey Michaux, all of Durham; and Sen. Erica Smith, who is running for U.S. Senate.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Domecast politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.