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A Pennsylvania father and son backed Sanders and then Trump. They’re not sold on Biden.

Two men from Reading represent a key group of voters Joe Biden wants to win over, particularly in critical states like Pennsylvania that helped Trump secure the presidency by slim margins in 2016.

Jose Frias Sr., left, and son Jose Frias Jr., at their Reading home.
Jose Frias Sr., left, and son Jose Frias Jr., at their Reading home.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Jose Frias Sr. and his son know their political views frustrate Democrats. But they’re frustrated with the party, too. The father and son were huge Bernie Sanders supporters in 2016. Disillusioned and deflated by the Vermont senator’s loss in the primary that year, they both voted for Donald Trump in the general election.

This time around, both have vowed not to vote for Trump again. But they’re still reluctant to get behind the presumptive Democratic nominee.

“Joe Biden hasn’t done anything to grab the attention of a person who thinks like me,” said Jose Sr., 54, a truck driver who emigrated from the Dominican Republic in the 1990s. “My point of view and where he is, he’s not in the position to defend or bring in people like me.”

The men from Reading represent a key group of voters Biden wants to win over, particularly in states like Pennsylvania that helped Trump secure the presidency. The Friases are animated by Sanders and his calls for revolutionary changes, but feel little connection to the institutional Democratic Party and resent suggestions they need to settle.

“There’s an overwhelming urgency to get Trump out of the White House right now,” said Jose Jr., 22. “But I feel like Democrats aren’t really getting that that’s not all people want. That’s kind of why he’s in the White House in the first place.”

» READ MORE: Trump, Biden, and their allies are spending millions on Pennsylvania airwaves, but not in Philly

A USA Today/Suffolk poll last week found that one in four Sanders supporters aren’t supporting Biden yet. About 2% said they would vote for Trump, and 10% would vote third party or not vote for president. In 2016, about 12% of Sanders supporters voted for Trump.

The elder Frias has voted in every election since becoming a citizen in 2001. But there was never a candidate he was proud to back until Sanders.

“This country doesn’t have leaders," he said. “True leaders that motivate the people do something for the people, and that’s the reason the majority of people don’t vote."

Biden, Frias Sr. said, represents a continuation of President Barack Obama, who he believes failed to deliver on promises of immigration reform, deporting eight million people. “He wasn’t as progressive as I thought he would be,” Frias said.

Trump has tried to end an Obama program to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation, known as DACA.

While Democrats eagerly note that Biden’s platform is historically progressive, Frias Sr. said he’s skeptical Biden will be an improvement for the majority of poor and working-class Americans.

Since coming to Reading, Frias Sr. has worked hard to support family back in the Dominican Republic and here. He’s seen little improvement in his community or in the lives of people around him, though he credits a state program that paid for him to get his commercial truck driving license. He wonders why there aren’t more training and technical programs.

“There wouldn’t be so many people in these impoverished neighborhoods," Frias Sr. said. “Selling drugs, getting into crime."

Frias Jr. grew up in Reading, living mostly with his mother, but his father shaped his political views.

“A lot of people are frustrated with people like us,” Frias Jr. said. He’s been called a communist while canvassing for Sanders. He’s said he’s gotten into heated arguments with his older brother, who served in the Marines, and often encourages him to appreciate what the country has given him.

“I love my country, and that’s the main reason I feel so passionate,” Frias Jr. said. "I want this country to be the best for everyone and not be so lopsided, with so many innocent people that want to work hard. I don’t want them to struggle as much as they do.”

The younger Frias remembers friends as young as 11 and 12 getting recruited into gangs in Reading. He’d play basketball with kids and on the walk home, and sometimes the friends he was with would smash car windows — just because.

“Their parents were probably working two or three jobs, most didn’t have a dad in their life," he recalled. "They were kind of, like, being neglected. It’s not really their fault.”

Frias Jr.’s mom moved the family to the suburban Antietam School District for high school, and he saw the wealth and opportunity gap between zip codes.

“It was a completely different environment," he said.

Biden’s campaign is trying to attract people like Frias Jr. in a way Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign didn’t. He’s adopted pushes for loan debt forgiveness for students at public universities and historically black institutions, lowering Medicare eligibility to 60, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy reform plan.

Democrats, stung by Trump’s 2016 success, are more united now. A number of voters who like the Friases said they backed Trump as more of a protest vote against Clinton have said they won’t vote for him again.

But Biden has struggled to stir enthusiasm, polls show, the pandemic has put a stop to traditional campaigning, and a sexual assault allegation against him, which he has denied, has forced him onto the defensive.

Sanders supporters may also be hesitant to consider Biden until after the Democratic Naitonal Convention, where they hope to have a quarter of delegates to influence the party platform.

“We should be doing everything we can to bring Sanders voters into the fold, and we are not," said Rebecca Kirszner Katz, a progressive political consultant. “We know how close Pennsylvania was last time. We know that a lot of voters stayed home. We can’t have that happen this time, so the burden is on the Democrats to show these voters that they do care about them.”

The coronavirus has complicated getting that message out.

Frias Jr., for one, is more focused on family than politics. He was working as an aide caring for people with disabilities at a large facility when the pandemic started. He took an unpaid leave, concerned about getting his mom or girlfriend, who is pregnant, sick.

His mom, who is 56, works overtime caring for an elderly woman to pay the family’s bills. She’s asthmatic, and while there are only three other people in her employer’s house, she worries about the virus.

“We’ve been struggling with health insurance all our lives," Frias Jr. said. When he was 10, his mom needed surgery, and the medical bills overwhelmed the family. She filed for bankruptcy and lost her house.

Medicare for All was the main reason he backed Sanders.

With six months until the general election, Frias Sr. doubts he’ll change his mind about staying home. His son is checking out the Green Party and watching to see how far Biden moves on health-care policy.

“It’s not that I want Trump to win, but I still feel like, this is our democracy," Frias Jr. said. “My vote should have more value than something I’m being pushed into.”