Anticipation has been growing for weeks that Joe Biden will make history by choosing the first Black woman as a running mate on a major party’s presidential ticket.
But after news broke over the weekend that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a white woman, had flown to meet with Biden to discuss the vice presidency, frustration and disappointment boiled over among Black female Democrats — including some in her own state.
“He better pick a black woman. If he picks Gretchen, he’ll lose Michigan,” said Virgie Rollins, chair of the Democratic National Committee Black Caucus, who hosted Biden at her home before his Michigan primary win this spring.
“There are a lot of Black people mad at her [Whitmer] in this state,” Rollins told POLITICO, citing her record on Flint’s lead water crisis and education policy, particularly in Detroit.
As Biden prepares to announce his choice this week, Black women activists and operatives have launched an eleventh-hour campaign to pressure him. In a pair of open letters Monday and last week, they made the case that he needs strong African American turnout in swing states like Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to win.
In all those states, a drop-off of Black voter turnout in 2016 compared to the 2012 and 2008 elections, when Barack Obama was on the ticket, helped Donald Trump become president. Dislike of Trump, they say, is probably not enough to motivate the large turnout needed to beat him.
A spokesperson for Biden declined to comment and a Whitmer spokesperson defended her record in Michigan, where polls show her with approval ratings in the low 60s. Biden is expected to unveil his running mate in advance of the Democratic National Convention, which starts Aug. 17.
It’s not just Whitmer’s record that’s led activists and political leaders to speak out. They said they’re also chagrined by the positive press coverage of Whitmer compared to Black women on Biden’s shortlist: California Sen. Kamala Harris, Florida Rep. Val Demings, former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, California Rep. Karen Bass and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
“I don’t want to bash Whitmer, but I could not stand by quietly while we were putting these women, these Black women, out there to take all these hits,” Pamela Pugh, the elected vice president of the Michigan State Board of Education, told POLITICO.
The sentiment was echoed by Flint’s former mayor, Karen Weaver.
“They let Black women out there get beaten up in the media but they protected her. Nobody’s talking about what was promised in Flint that hasn’t happened,” Weaver said.
In the wake of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and Biden’s repeated stumbles over race, many activists thought a Black woman was a lock to be his running mate until the Whitmer news broke, said Latosha Brown, a co-founder of the group Black Voters Matter.
Brown said she was flummoxed by the late consideration of Whitmer because a Black woman would do a better job turning out African American voters, even in Michigan.
“If he picks the governor of Michigan, she might not be able to move the Black vote for him because a lot of people are upset with her,” Brown said.
“At the end of the day, if Joe Biden can’t get the white Midwestern vote, then we’re all up the creek,” she said. “The whole point of Black folks voting for him is he’s supposed to deliver the white people. If he can’t deliver the white Midwestern vote, like what the heck did we vote for you for?”
But Valerie Jarrett, an adviser to former President Obama and a top Biden surrogate, indicated she wasn’t concerned because she trusts “Biden to select the right person for the job. He is uniquely suited to know what the job entails since he had it for eight years.”
“I think that we will see a large uptick in turnout for Vice President Biden, no matter who he selects as his running mate,” she added. “I do think that, certainly, there will be an element of enthusiasm if it is a historic pick by choosing a Black woman. But also, from what I see, there’s an awful lot of enthusiasm for [Biden] and his presidency.”
In a written statement, the state’s Democratic Party chair, Lavora Barnes, stood by Whitmer and praised her leadership.
“Nobody knows the job of Vice President better than Joe Biden and I believe he should pick the woman that he feels best suited for the role,” Barnes, who is African-American, said. “I’m confident that whoever that may be, she will be a strong partner in government and on the campaign trail that will help us beat Donald Trump, elect Democrats up and down the ballot in Michigan, and lead our country through the global health and economic crises that Trump’s failed leadership helped create.”
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