PITTSBURGH — Joe Biden's decision to kick off his presidential campaign in Western Pennsylvania Monday shows that he is not just in a battle for the soul of the country; he is in a battle for the soul of his party.
That battle begins and ends with long primary contests that many Democratic experts and officials believe will be decided exactly one year from now, on Pennsylvania's April 29 primary voting day.
"This nominating process certainly has all of the ingredients to go long, and the Democratic voters in this state hold the key to help defining our party as being the party of the working class," said Harold Schaitberger, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, in an interview with The New York Post.
The IAFF, which represents more than 316,000 full-time firefighters and paramedics, announced its endorsement of Biden in Pittsburgh, something Schaitberger said is one of the earliest endorsements it's ever done, and one it did not give Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
"That marked the first time we've ever not endorsed in a presidential election," he said.
Schaitberger bluntly admits Clinton just did not connect with labor, but Biden does.
"We're also responsible to make sure that, quite frankly, the nominee isn't a nominee that is gonna take the party off the left cliff," he said. "It seems that too many candidates have high-minded, aspirational ideals, but it's not a recipe for winning and succeeding. And it doesn't really reflect in many ways the heart and soul of workers, middle-class workers."
If you think the IAFF's influence in the Democratic primary process is not of significance, a moment in the 2004 election cycle is often overlooked, when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had captured the imagination and speculation among the press and pundits.
"As you know, Howard Dean was gonna be the nominee. It was that simple — at least, that is what everyone said, until all of a sudden, we snuck up and literally carried John through Iowa and through New Hampshire," Schaitberger said of John Kerry. "And then he was off and running in the rest of the world."
The decision to back Biden has already annoyed President Trump, who tweeted Monday, "The Dues Sucking firefighters leadership will always support Democrats, even though the membership wants me. Some things never change!"
Often, where the firefighters go, so do other union workers.
Harold McDonald, a Democratic committee man from Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, and retired council representative for the Carpenters Union, is convinced this race is going long: "This is truly the battle for the soul of our party. You have pundits and reporters on the national news saying our party is one thing, and then you have the rank and file voters here saying that's not what we are voting on at all."
McDonald, who is African American, said voters here worry about health care and education. "That is what is important to me as well," he said. "That is why I am supporting Biden already."
The same goes for 22-year-old Hannah O'Toole, who sang the national anthem at the Workers Memorial Day celebration in Pittsburgh ahead of Biden's visit along with her father, 60-year-old Marty O'Toole, who is the business manager for Plumbers Local 27.
"Joe Biden's been a big part of the way we think and want to go and he has always been a front runner for us here in Pennsylvania," said Marty O'Toole, who is personally supporting the former vice president.
Hannah O'Toole is also leaning toward Biden. "I've liked him since Obama," she said.
Darrin Kelly, president of the powerful local labor council here in Western Pennsylvania and a city firefighter, said the Party has drifted too far left. And this is the state where, not just in the general but mostly in the primary, that will be decided.
"Today is an important reminder of what is important to voters in Pennsylvania in a Democratic primary and we expect the Democratic Party to truly start listening to what our message is, stop polarizing us and start welcoming us back, we want FDR style politics," Kelly said. "If our strength is truly our diversity then the party has to start listening to the working class, they have to welcome us back and our voice will be heard in the primary in this state and that the message we want about job creation, health care and pension security is what will bring us out in a general."
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