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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

A Chicago SuperPAC is Pushing Joe Biden for President

The super-small Draft Biden effort picked its Chicago location for basically one reason: its proximity to Iowa.

Feel the Joe-mentum.  Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

The stroll (not race) to the 2016 Democratic nomination for president treats Hillary Clinton as if she were an incumbent or the nation’s vice president. But, wait, there is a Democratic VP who would love to move up. That would be two-term veep Joe Biden—the man who was described in 2012 by then-National Journal chief correspondent Michael Hirsh as “one of the most powerful vice presidents in U.S. history.” Hirsh places Biden at the top of the heap of VPs “in terms of the sheer number of issues [he] has influenced in a short time.”

That article features prominently on the site of a new SuperPAC: Draft Biden 2016. Formed in March, the recently registered SuperPAC is not based in Delaware, Biden’s home state, or D.C., but rather curiously, Chicago. 

Operating out of an office on West Washington Street, the Biden draft started small and remains small. Its leader, Will Pierce, 27, is a veteran of both Obama/Biden campaigns, as well as a veteran of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pierce says the movement started with 50 supporters and has amassed 50,000 activists around the country. Though the operation is bare bones, Pierce claims it’s slowly gaining what Draft Biden people call “Joe-mentum.” (Not the best slogan, of course, considering what happened the last time someone used that phrase.)

I called Pierce on Tuesday to determine just how serious this push is. An early question, though, was why locate in Chicago in the first place. “[It’s] an easy location in the center of the country,” says Pierce, who lives in Hyde Park, “and it’s close to Iowa.” Draft Biden is focused on a respectable showing next year in the state that gave Hillary a third-place finish in 2008. (Biden finished fifth that year and dropped out of the race, only to be picked as the vice presidential candidate a few months later.)

“We’re opening a field office in Iowa,” Pierce says. “We’ve had ten events so far, in private homes and in coffee shops, and we’re focusing on endorsements from state representatives and senators.” As of today, you can count those endorsements on one hand: State Sen. Tony Bisignano of Des Moines, State Sen. Joe Seng of Davenport, State Rep. Jim Lykam of Davenport, State Rep. Mary Gaskill of Ottumwa, and Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz.

Pierce told The Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift that Draft Biden hopes to raise a half a million by the end of the second quarter—which Clift dismissed as “chump change.” Pierce assured me that donations are accumulating—we’ll have to wait until the second quarter ends on June 30 to find out how much—but he claims to be proud of his group’s “chump change” status, telling me that money has poisoned politics. “We’re not looking to raise a billion dollars,” he says, sounding, for the moment, like one of the true believers surrounding another Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders.

Although Draft Biden has ten paid staffers spread across the country with titles such as political director (in Phoenix), finance director (in Boston), and outreach director (in Philadelphia), Pierce works pro bono. When I asked for his title—he’s executive director—he said “staffer.”

Who’s on the Draft Biden’s finance committee? “A few attorneys and doctors and private donors; five to ten people who have pledged to raise or donate X amount. I can’t give you names. As of now, no one from Chicago.”

The most concrete gauge that Pierce would offer was to tell me that they had sold out of the “I’m Ridin’ with Biden” bumper stickers, featuring the VP behind the wheel of a sports car and wearing his signature aviator shades. 

Assuming a decent showing in Iowa, Draft Biden will move on to organize in New Hampshire and South Carolina; in the latter state, Dick Harpootlian, former chair of the state’s Democratic party, is advising the Biden group. Harpootlian told The Daily Beast why he prefers Biden: “It’s the ability to speak to 25,000 people and have every one of them feel you’re speaking to them. Clinton had it, Bush had it, Obama had it, Reagan had it. Joe Biden has it—he can bring people to tears. [Hillary] ain’t got it.”

Pierce agrees. He portrays both Bidens—he did advance work for Joe and Dr. Jill—as ordinary people who easily connect with voters. He decided to work for Biden because he was hearing from “activists and volunteers” across the country that no one was better prepared than Biden, who served for 36 years in the U.S. Senate, to lead the country on both foreign and domestic fronts. Elizabeth Warren, the favorite undeclared candidate, is, Pierce points out, a Senate neophyte by comparison. “It’s better for her to stay in the Senate and help regain the majority for the Democrats.”

“It’s a long process, he says, comparing the caucuses and primaries to Super Bowl playoffs. “If we’re going to just crown Hillary, we won’t be prepared for the Republicans.” He declines to say who he would support for the Democratic nomination should Biden opt out.

I asked Pierce if Biden has endorsed Draft Biden’s efforts. “A SuperPAC can’t coordinate or communicate with the candidate,” he answers. “So it’s a great Catch 22. We’re the only group but not his group.”    

Before launching the Biden effort, Pierce worked as field director for Bob Fioretti’s 2015 campaign for mayor. (I asked Pierce if Fioretti, a big loser in the February race, threw his support behind Rahm, whom he had previously vilified, in order to get Rahm’s help in retiring his campaign debt. Pierce claimed ignorance; his job and insider info ended on the February day that Chuy Garcia forced Rahm into a runoff.)

He says that in the case of a Hillary-Joe matchup, he expects that Obama will stay out. “He’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t want to stab someone in the back.” He laughs when I suggest that the President might want to take a cue from Rahm and hide under the table, as Rahm claimed to have done during the 2008 Hillary-Barack battle.

There are people on Biden’s team from Obama’s team, Pierce told me, but, “We don’t have senior advisers. [It’s] all grassroots.” When I asked if there are any celebrities or household names, he promised to let me know in a “few weeks” the names of a few “semi-household” names. “We’re still in talks with people and I don’t want to mess things up.”

One big name to keep an eye out for: Bill Daley. When Biden first ran for president in 1987, Daley served as campaign manager. When Biden was caught lifting remarks about his own childhood, delivered at the Iowa state fairgrounds, from a speech by UK Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, Daley advised Biden to withdraw. But when I ask Pierce about it, all he says is, “He knows we exist and we’ve been playing phone tag; haven’t talked yet, but we will.” 

A Daley snub would hurt, of course, but it’s not like the Daley-Biden relationship has been easy. Recently, Daley publicly volunteered that, while he was Obama’s chief of staff, he had urged the President to replace Biden on the 2012 ticket with Hillary.

(A call to Daley and a text to his assistant seeking an interview were not answered by post time.)

What’s most surprising to me is how modest this effort seems; how little momentum the vice president seems to enjoy. Why doesn’t Biden get more respect as a contender, as a potential vanquisher of the again inevitable Hillary? My hunch is partly because of “Uncle Joe”’s infamous gaffes—the most recent when he practically nibbled at the ear of the wife of Defense Secretary Ash Carter during his swearing in, or when he took the pacifier out of the mouth of Mike Bloomberg’s grandson and stuck it in his own. Those antics, that sometimes goofy demeanor, have stolen the vice president’s serious narrative at a time when the country is in a serious mood.

If Biden lives out his life as a former vice president, I asked Pierce, what will his big issue be? For Al Gore it’s the environment; but what for Biden? “The middle class,” Pierce says. “He’ll focus on fights for a higher minimum wage, for not having to work two or three jobs to support a family, for education, making sure that community colleges are fully funded, for the American dream.”

Biden, 72, even older than 67-year-old Hillary, has promised to announce his intentions by summer’s end. “Honest to God, I haven’t made up my mind,” he told the New York Times. His trips to Iowa and other early caucus/primary states would seem to indicate that he’s close to tossing his baseball cap in the ring.

In the meantime, Draft Biden hopes to keep raising money for the effort. The group has an event scheduled for the evening of June 9 at O’Neil’s, 411 South Wells, that carries a note, “No Maximum Contribution.” Tickets are $25 and up.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.


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