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As Biden Campaigns In Michigan, Detroit Voters Could Be Key To His Fortunes

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Joe Biden is campaigning tonight in Detroit with two former rivals. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have endorsed the former vice president. They're joining Biden in a city where he forged deep ties during the Obama years, visiting more frequently than the former president. NPR's Sam Gringlas went to Detroit to find out whether Biden's history there factors into tomorrow's Michigan primary.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: In front of a shiny city bus, Joe Biden rolled up his sleeves.

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JOE BIDEN: I'm going to take my coat off, but that does not mean a long speech.

GRINGLAS: This was 2015, and Detroit had just emerged from bankruptcy. During the recession, unemployment soared. The auto industry teetered on the brink as President Obama expanded a massive auto bailout.

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BIDEN: We would never, never abandon the people of Detroit. It's like abandoning the heart of America.

GRINGLAS: Biden had asked Detroit's new mayor, Mike Duggan, how he could help. Duggan said new buses. Back then, Detroiters sometimes waited hours for a bus, so Biden pointed the city to a federal grant competition.

MIKE DUGGAN: He must've called me back a half a dozen times to make sure the project was on track. President Obama once referred to him as the vice president of Detroit.

GRINGLAS: Finally, in 2015, Biden flew to Detroit to celebrate 80 new buses. Duggan points out that Biden's dad sold cars for a living and says he's drawn to Detroit's working-class character.

DUGGAN: His heart naturally goes to the underdog.

GRINGLAS: The voters in this majority-black city are also key to Biden's political future. The question now is how much his legacy here and as Obama's VP will drive voters in 2020. So I went to see Cindy Reese. She introduced Biden at that 2015 event.

CINDY REESE: I was shaking in my boots, and he says, oh, if all else fails, just go, here's Joe. I laughed, and that relaxed me.

GRINGLAS: Reese told the crowd at the time that her grandson once waited for a bus to school that never came.

REESE: The buses were raggedy. They were breaking down. We hadn't had new buses in so long, and it was just pitiful.

GRINGLAS: Reese says Biden helped improve the life of her family and others.

REESE: Remember they're auto workers. They haven't forgot they still have a job because of Obama and Biden.

GRINGLAS: Over at the Adams Butzel rec center, Gloria Rogers is in a senior water aerobics class doing the cross-country.

GLORIA ROGERS: Like skiing underwater (laughter).

GRINGLAS: She's voting Biden.

ROGERS: We need to feel embraced. We need to feel like we did when Obama was the president - no drama Obama. Come on.

GRINGLAS: Tom Wilson swims three times a week. He's a Biden guy.

TOM WILSON: In 2018, there was a blue wave. Let's turn that blue wave into a roaring, crushing, resounding tsunami.

GRINGLAS: There's an undercurrent to all this. In 2016, turnout in Detroit was down by over 2%. Hillary Clinton won almost 47,000 fewer votes here than Obama did in 2012. Clinton lost Michigan to Trump by about 10,000 votes. Branden Snyder had a close-up view. He led youth outreach for Clinton's campaign in Michigan. During door knocks, he noticed enthusiasm lacking.

BRANDEN SNYDER: The momentum of that, you know, started feeling deafening as it got closer to November.

GRINGLAS: I met Snyder at an Elizabeth Warren rally on Super Tuesday. She was his first choice. Now he supports Bernie Sanders, who won the 2016 Michigan primary. Snyder voted for the first time in 2008 for Obama, but his politics have been evolving in part because of issues he says Obama left on the table, like student loan debt.

SNYDER: So a lot of folks don't necessarily see Vice President Biden as a savior sort of candidate. They see him as emblematic of the failed promises.

GRINGLAS: Snyder worries if Biden doesn't go beyond nostalgia for Obama, some young voters will stay home again in November, voters like Oriana Powell. In 2016, she was working three jobs.

ORIANA POWELL: I was living with a friend, kind of bouncing from place to place.

GRINGLAS: On Election Day, she just didn't get to the polls. Powell didn't like Trump or Clinton.

POWELL: Whether I do this or not, this country is going to run the same way. It's going to look the same way for me. And so I didn't feel like it would matter.

GRINGLAS: Since then, Powell got involved, organizing around issues like paid sick leave and affordable child care. She calls Biden a wolf in sheep's clothing, but if he's the nominee, she'll vote for him.

POWELL: I know that that one day, that one vote is not all of the work. That is just the tip of the iceberg. That is the beginning of the work.

GRINGLAS: Powell says she's ready to cast that ballot and then get back to work.

Sam Gringlas, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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