There are certain things that the late Rev. Leon Sullivan, iconic Philadelphia civil rights leader of the 1960s, might not today recognize about Progress Plaza — America’s first black-owned shopping center, his enduring invention on North Broad Street that was christened with a campaign stop from Richard Nixon in the fiery year of 1968.
The modern brick-and-beige facades. The national chain stores that have turned Sullivan’s dream of 100 percent black ownership into a dream deferred. Or — as the nation approaches a presidential election every bit as momentous as that ’68 race — the flood of local affection for a 76-year-old white presidential candidate with an up-and-down lifetime record on civil rights who nevertheless is lapping a large, diverse field that includes two African American U.S. senators.
In the back corner of Progress Plaza where his district office is located, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta — a 21st-century kind of groundbreaker who became Pennsylvania’s first nonwhite LGBTQ lawmaker at age 29 — talks about his Day One endorsement of that septuagenarian, the ex-veep Joe Biden, using words like authenticity while endorsing the elevator pitch of Biden’s 2020 bid for the White House, that we’re in a war for “the soul of America.”
But for the everyday black folks who shop or work at the Fresh Grocer a few doors down, the former Delaware senator earns a simpler, four-letter characterization:
“I love Joe Biden,” Wade Hanks, a 62-year-old Fresh Grocer employee from Northeast Philadelphia who assists shoppers and closes the store at night, told me. Although he concedes he’s not following the election closely yet, he called Biden “the next president in line ... because he works with the people.”
A moment later, Sharon Scott — 62, from the nearby Temple neighborhood, wearing her uniform from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia environmental unit, grabs a shopping cart. She tells me her biggest goals for 2020 are getting Donald Trump out of the White House with a big voter turnout. What about Biden? I asked.
“Joe Biden?” Her eyes widened. “I love him! He’s a man of the people.”
There are still a total of 20 people running for the Democratic nomination, down from the original rugby scrum of 25. The first actual votes, at the Iowa caucuses, are nearly five months away. And on this afternoon, the 10 leading candidates were taking turns on a bright stage in Manhattan, offering complicated, competing plans about how to quickly wean the United States off fossil fuels and stop greenhouse-gas pollution over the next decade.
But spend some time in a predominantly black neighborhood like North Philadelphia and you can’t help but wonder if any of that even matters, if it’s already all over but the shouting (which there will certainly be a lot of).
In the five months since he entered the 2020 race as the Democratic front-runner, Biden’s lead among African American voters — who are about one-quarter of the party’s primary electorate, and far more than that in critical early states such as South Carolina — has been a large, immovable object for anyone else hoping to dislodge Barack Obama’s two-term vice president.
For example, a recent Morning Consult poll showed Biden with a sizable lead among African American voters — 41 percent to 20 percent for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose black support is largely among those under age 30. When you get to older black voters like Hanks and Scott, Biden’s backing leaps to nearly two-thirds. Meanwhile, two trailblazing candidates — Sens. Kamala Harris of California, seeking to become the first woman of color in the Oval Office, and Cory Booker of New Jersey, the former Newark mayor raised on urban politics -- are barely making a dent.
As Yogi Berra may have said, it gets late early out there. Yes, it’s long been theorized that Biden — gaffe-prone, with a long record that contains something to offend pretty much everyone, with disastrous runs for the White House in 1988 and 2008 notched on his belt — will eventually stumble. And that someone like Harris or Booker will “pull an Obama” and break out of the pack the way the 44th president did after his upset win in the 2008 Iowa caucus. Right?
Not necessarily. There are differences between 2008 and now. Some, like the cross-current of gender politics, are subtle. Others — like ... Donald Trump is the president!!! — are not subtle. It’s hard to imagine Biden’s 2020 rivals playing the Obama ’08 role. Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who rivals Biden among white Democrats, are the latest progressives whose big utopian plans leave many black voters cold. Harris and Booker are like the May college grads finding every ad for their dream job requires at least 25 years of experience, and there’s no way to get it.
“The issue I hear constantly in the African American community is the authenticity of Joe Biden,” U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia — who, like many leading Pennsylvania Democrats, black and white, endorsed the Scranton native as soon as he announced — told me by telephone. “They feel they know him. They have a stronger sense of him than any other candidate.”
Older black voters were around in the 1970s when Biden spoke out against most kinds of busing plans to end school segregation, in 1991 when he forcefully questioned black university professor Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and in 2006 when he told a TV interviewer he could compete in the South because “my state [Delaware] was a slave state.” Yet any past political sins seem to have been washed away during eight years of loyal service to Obama.
But African American politicians, and most rank-and-file voters, also know how to read the polls. Most want to make Trump a one-term president, and the current surveys say Biden is the safest choice to make that happen — not lost on someone like Evans, also one of the first House Democrats to call for impeachment. The congressman said one reason Philadelphia voters sent him to Washington “is to get rid of the current occupant” of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Other Democrats are desperately trying to break down the big black wall of Biden, knowing they probably can’t win if it’s left standing. When Warren came to Philadelphia this summer to speak to progressives at Netroots Nation, she spent the rest of her 24 hours in the city mostly wooing would-be black supporters, such as a lunch with young female African American influencers like writer Feminista Jones. But Warren’s support from everyday black voters remains anemic so far.
As a left-leaning 20-something, newly minted North Philly State Rep. Kenyatta perfectly fits the profile of black voters that candidates like Warren or South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — who is running on “generational change” and seeking to become the first gay president — hope to pry free. Instead, Kenyatta endorsed Biden almost as soon as he announced.
“We’re in a spot right now where we’re really going to need somebody who’s going to restore our credibility abroad as well as really restore the promise of America,” Kenyatta said, even as he noted the nation has often fallen short of that promise. “We have somebody in the White House now who’s saying we need to go back 40, 50, 60 years in the opposite direction, and that rhetoric is really scary to me. It’s led to an increase in hate crimes. ...”
Kenyatta also said that while he likes many of the candidates’ ambitious plans for climate change or wiping out college debt, Biden doesn’t get credit for more down-to-earth ideas — like doubling federal Title I aid to struggling public schools — that could make an immediate difference in people’s lives. It’s that kind of pragmatism that is the underlying rationale for Biden generally, in a community where 9 out of 10 want Trump out by any means necessary.
“They were standing in line for those chicken sandwiches,” Scott, the Children’s Hospital worker, told me, referencing America’s bout with Popeyes mania. “They can stand out there to vote.”