HERMANTOWN, St. Louis County — Former Vice President Joe Biden sought to rally the support of a crucial voter bloc here Friday that could be decisive in the all-important Upper Midwest: Trades unions.
Touring a carpenters union training center near Duluth, Biden drove home his support of unions and middle-class jobs in an area of the state where “jobs, jobs, jobs” has been the winning campaign slogan for generations.
“The only real power for workers in America is union power,” Biden said, speaking at the Jerry Alander Training Center in Hermantown.
Both Biden and President Donald Trump have promised public works spending that would help the union carpenters in the training hall. But during his first term, Trump prioritized a major tax cut that benefitted corporations and wealthy Americans the most instead of doing a significant infrastructure package during his first term. Republicans say Trump is better for infrastructure and mining projects because the president is willing to forgo environmental regulations that get in the way.
The Biden visit came on the first day of early voting in the state, which also drew Trump to northern Minnesota, where he was holding a public rally at the airport in Bemidji.
Despite northeastern Minnesota’s deep ties to organized labor, the area’s cultural conservatism and alienation from the Twin Cities have been pushing it into the Republican territory in recent years.
And, unlike, say, Rochester, northeast Minnesota is not a haven for the highly educated or racially and ethnically diverse voters that have helped Democrats win elsewhere. Trump won the 8th congressional district here by 15 points over Hilary Clinton in 2016. In 2018, the district was one of the few that turned red during the so-called “blue wave,” with Republican Pete Stauber winning the seat of now-retired U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a longtime member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
Biden played up his working class roots in comparison to Trump, who received a massive inheritance from his real estate tycoon father.
“I view the campaign as between Scranton and Park Avenue. All Trump sees from Park Avenue is Wall Street. That’s why the only metric of the American prosperity for him is the value of the Dow Jones,” Biden said. “Like a lot of you, I spent a lot of life with guys like Donald Trump looking down on me, looking down on the people who make a living with their hands.”
But Trump supporters — more than a hundred of them — lined the highway outside the carpenters union with a couple dozen Biden supporters on the other side and several dozen more a quarter mile down the road.
The Trump supporters, including some first time attendees, were jubilant.
“Let’s just make Trump king,” said Marlene Cooksey, a truck driver who spends summers in Minnesota.
Cooksey said it was the first Trump rally she’d been to, chuckling at the irony of it being outside an event for Biden.
She later clarified she was joking about making Trump king, though she added “if I could, I would.
“It’s going to take a long, long time to get things straightened out, and they haven’t really let him do squat in these four years. He’s had to do it himself,” Cooksey said.
Trump has won over mining voters in northeast Minnesota with his administration’s strong push for copper-nickel mining, including near the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness, which its defenders say would create an intolerable risk of polluting one of the state’s most cherished natural resources.
Trump’s support has extended to those who don’t work in the mines, however.
“Every time mining goes down so does the city of Duluth,” said Ron Schinocca , a retired car salesman from Duluth who carried a sign that read “Keep the Iron Range Working.”
Biden sought to use the visit to stunt Trump’s prowess with working class white voters, and Biden’s decades-long relationship with organized labor is an asset.
Labor leaders issued statements praising Biden’s visit, which also drew union members.
Sandy Norbeck, of Duluth, came to show support in a white sweatshirt with “Biden for President” and “Save Unions” written on it in permanent marker. Norbeck is a retired officer worker from Essentia Health, where she was a member of the United Steelworkers Union.
“He’s for the working class. He wants the 1% to pay their fair share of taxes so we don’t have to sweat so hard,” Norbeck said.
During his public remarks, Biden spoke to the identity and security that a job provides.
He repeated a now well-worn story about a conversation he had with his dad about work: “He said, ‘Joey, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about your place in the community.’”
“That’s what I saw here at this training center: dedicated women and men investing in their dignity,” Biden said.
“Here on the Iron Range, you can see the resilience and the grit in the communities that build America, the metal they’re made of and fortified by the strength of union power,” Biden said.
Despite Trump’s victory in the 8th Congressional District in 2016, he is still an underdog to break the Republicans’ near half century losing streak in presidential elections in Minnesota. Recent polls show Biden with a 9-point lead over Trump, who has invested heavily in what would be a trophy of sorts: Winning the state with the longest stretch of voting for Democratic presidents of any state.
Trump visited Mankato earlier this summer. His daughter Ivanka Trump also visited Duluth and Blooomington in July, though she was visiting as part of her official duties as senior advisor and not for Trump’s reelection campaign. Vice President Mike Pence has also visited and is returning next week.
The Biden visit was tightly choreographed, with Biden’s campaign limiting attendance to a small group of mostly national reporters, citing concerns about COVID-19. The campaign also didn’t release details of the event until about 30 minutes before Biden’s arrival at the carpenters union.
Although the visit was ostensibly about labor issues, Biden’s message of returning peace and decency to the White House also resonated with some voters here.
Skip Van Kessel, a retired pharmacist from Duluth, came wearing an Army hat and waving a large Biden flag.
“I went through this once during the Vietnam era, and I saw the discord and I just think we need some unity,” said Van Kessel, who said he served in the Army during the Vietnam war. “I don’t appreciate Trump’s five deferrments and the bone spurs. I think it was a scam. And if it’s true what he said about veterans being ‘suckers’ that really offends me.”
Van Kessel was referring to a recent article in The Atlantic magazine in which unnamed senior officials said they heard Trump repeatedly denigrate military service and veterans, including those who died in war as “losers” and “suckers.”