MILFORD, Del. — Standing amid soybean fields, in the quiet middle of Delaware, Sean Smith represents a lot of Delawareans when he says, about Joe Biden: “All my life, I’ve had to hear it. From my aunt, my grandmother, everybody.”
Smith has emerged as a Trump guy, flying that flag for the few people who actually drive past the intersection of Cedar Neck and Shockley Roads, but that’s definitely not true of his aunt, Nancy Sykes, who’s known Biden for years.
Sykes spent 11 years working in Biden’s Senate office in Georgetown, Del., and is sitting on her porch a few miles away, shelling pole beans, underneath an old “Delaware’s Joe Biden” campaign sign. Like so many in Delaware, she’s known Biden up close.
“I think he’s there for everybody,” Sykes said. “We all used to love him, and I still do, but there’s plenty of wackos out there.”
She’s feeling some nerves as that most familiar of Delaware politicians inches toward what would be the biggest moment of his long career, not to mention a singular moment in American history. Is he ready?
In Delaware, Biden is that ubiquitous homegrown pol it seems so many have met in person, or come close to meeting, or feel as if they’ve met. Or maybe they’ve met Beau, when he spoke at their high school or served with their son in the Guard, or their daughter had Jill as a teacher, or they once sold Joe a Thunderbird. Biden’s a guy who has held Delawareans captive in a decades-long love-him-don’t-love-him relationship.
As Biden is trying to finally vault to the top of his career goals, Delawareans are holding their breath. Those like Sykes, who vouch for him, recalling how he called her when she was staying in a Red Roof Inn while her husband was hospitalized, chiding her for not staying with the Bidens themselves.
“I get goosebumps just talking about him,” she said.
Others in Delaware reject Biden as the career politician, someone who has represented a state that is home to beaches, farms, and cities but also has long laid out a welcome mat for corporate America.
“Who does he answer to?” said Abraxas Hudson, a Lewes gallery owner who defied shutdown orders this summer and supports Donald Trump. Hudson was one of a couple of dozen people who attended a “unity rally” in the state’s capital, Dover, at dusk Tuesday night, in front of Legislative Hall (“Leg Hall” as it’s known). Republican candidate for governor Julianne Murray also attended; invited Democratic candidates did not.
Hudson echoes theories about Biden’s finances advanced by the Trump campaign, but with a local angle: “I know people who knew him, that knew him to be in terrible financial condition," Hudson said. "That leaves him vulnerable to bad actors.”
‘I see what he’s for’
The touches of that sentimental guy known as “Delaware Joe” are everywhere in a trip through the tiny state, from signs over twin garages of their Rehoboth home (Beau’s Gift and Forever Jill), to the counter at Janssen’s, the upscale market near the Biden home in Greenville, a suburb of Wilmington, where meat cutter Bill Keenan notes the “always polite” Jill favors the turkey patties with feta, lately with curbside pickup.
Walking on the boardwalk earlier this week, Larry Hobbs, public works foreman in Rehoboth, said: “I see what he’s for."
“He seems to be a people person for real,” Hobbs said. "Honest and transparent.” Hobbs says he views the crime bill Biden supported as a mistake, but, “we all make mistakes.” In advance of a recent Rehoboth campaign stop, Hobbs made sure to send over a crew to clean Norfolk Street.
There’s the family on Barley Mill Road, just around the corner from the Bidens, in Greenville, in a house with a Biden-Harris sign planted beneath tall trees flaming with orange leaves. The nearby line of parked cars is a signal their neighbor is home. This family still thinks about seeing then-Vice President Joe and son Beau behind them in line as they took their son to vote for the first time. The Bidens refused multiple offers to jump ahead. It made a big impression on their son, and on them.
In Claymont, just over the Pennsylvania line, where Biden claims a modest upbringing but also attended the exclusive Archmere Academy, Curtis Watkins, 69, a retired banker, said: “He’s a great man.”
Watsin’s stepdaughter attended Brandywine High School when Jill Biden was a teacher, he said, one who stayed for PTA meetings. “It was a joy going to the PTA meetings,” he said.
Dinner at the Bidens
Political insiders recall warm dinners at the Bidens, daughter Ashley mixing the drinks, Hunter and Beau sent off to bed after some polite mingling. Others, like Paul Fallon, who lives in Claymont, met Biden only once at a Memorial Day ceremony, where Biden “came down and shook every hand.”
Standing behind an old “Delaware’s Joe Biden” sign, a bunch of which he says he found by chance one day, Fallon said: “I like him. I trust him.” He added: “I’d vote for a potato besides Trump.”
Along the coastline in Slaughter Beach, Bill Wernick and Roxana Moayedi, newly transplanted Delawareans, neighbors and academics, are so firmly in Biden’s camp that they sport a big Biden flag planted on their piece of beach along the Delaware Bay, for all the world (or at least Cape May, N.J.) to see.
“I think he would bring back the ideal of America that I came to this country for," said Moayedi, who is originally from Iran. Environmental issues also are key, she said.
“I don’t know him personally,” says Wernick. “I just believe in him.”
The day the Bidens voted
On the day Joe and Jill Biden voted in Wilmington, Denise Trader, 63, also voted, at the same place, but waiting in the car on French Street while her grandson carried her ballot into the Carvel State Office Building.
“I’m voting for Joe Biden, and I don’t appreciate that Donald Trump keeps lying about Joe Biden,” Trader said. “Joe Biden made a lot of things happen here in Delaware."
Andrea Wilson-Harvey also voted that day, and posed for a photo waving the way Joe and Jill Biden had done a few hours before. She said she planned to tell her history class in Lower Merion all about it.
“I’m so happy for him,” she said. “I’m happy for all of us who want change.”
Anthony Powell brought his grandchildren with him to vote, and said he had marveled watching Biden and Kamala Harris accept the Democratic nomination in Wilmington, while he sat at home watching on TV. He was a bit sore he hadn’t managed to get there in person. “It was right down the street,” he said.
So much of the Joe Biden story Delaware has known all along is wound up with grief, from the death of his first wife and daughter in 1972 to the death of son Beau, at age 46.
Even Joe Biden’s toughest Delaware critics have kind words for Beau, who was Delaware’s attorney general and served in the military before dying of cancer in 2015 -- people like Gary Reddick, who sat on a Rehoboth beach bench leveling blistering attacks about Biden’s financial ties, and Hunter Biden’s alleged dealings with China, then said, “I would have voted for Beau.”
Biden’s first wife and daughter and Beau are buried in the cemetery beside the old yellow church in Greenville the Bidens still attend, St. Joseph on the Brandywine, as recently as Sunday.
Of late, Beau Biden’s gravestone has been turned into a mini-shrine to his father’s final try at the presidency. A Biden-Harris sticker is on the lower right, along with campaign buttons and flowers. Someone also left a white bracelet with the words “I voted early.”