At Biden rally, Obama's party comes into view

A crowd of Teamsters and electricians -- once thought to be Clinton voters -- stayed up late in south Philly to get excited about voting for Barack Obama.

By Gabriel Winant
Published November 4, 2008 9:25PM (UTC)
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PHILADELPHIA -- Joe Biden’s rally in south Philadelphia Monday night served as an example, writ small, of just how far the Democrats have come. Sensing imminent success, the early-2008 party torn apart by Bitter-gate and "hardworking, white Americans" seems to have been seamlessly knit back together.

The Biden rally was in a park in Philly's deep south, a rowhouse neighborhood, the kind of place that gave birth to the post-civil rights ethnic white resentment that wrecked the New Deal coalition. It's where Rocky comes from, and infamous Mayor Frank Rizzo, the local version of Richard Nixon.


It was, in other words, the kind of crowd Barack Obama might have struggled with back in May, full of white folks with blue collars. These are the voters Scranton-born Irish Catholic Joe Biden was supposed to help win over. At least a quarter of the crowd seemed to be there with the local for the Teamsters, the electricians, the painters or the firefighters.

A series of local pols warmed up the crowd, starting with Bob Brady, a hulking sausage of a congressman. The former carpenter kicked off the rally with a series of union-guy shout-outs: "Jimmy! Harry! Guy! Johnny Doc! Manny! Ronny! Tony!" before, with a joke about hiding his knuckles, handing off the lectern to a nun and walking backstage to smoke a cigarette with a cop. A series of local luminaries followed, including Mayor Michael Nutter, Gov. Ed Rendell and Maryland's governor, Martin O'Malley.

Every speaker made sure to emphasize how important it was that voters stay in line Tuesday, no matter how long the wait might be. Rendell in particular captured the spirit of the night.


"I don't care if you're in line for two and a half hours. Don't bitch about it," the governor said. "Do you remember when South Africa got the vote for the first time? People stood out in the heat for five and a half hours to vote for Nelson Mandela. Why? Because their country's future was on the line ... Make a party out of it. Sing songs. 'Kumbaya,' you name it. 'Philadelphia Freedom.' Whatever. Have fun."

To hear a crowd of south Philly carpenters and electricians cheering wildly for Nelson Mandela and "Kumbaya" seems as good a measure as any of the kind of Democratic Party that looks poised to win the White House Tuesday. When Biden himself came on, two hours late, he played the role cast for him, talking up the World Series-winning Phillies and joking about his own locally appropriate ethnic background: "I tell you what, we got two Irish guys here, O'Malley and Biden. And I tell you what, I may be Irish, but I'm not stupid. I married Dominic Giacoppa's granddaughter."

The group was cold and tired by then, but Biden kept it short and sweet. The crowd of 2,500 disappeared almost immediately after he finished, but everyone had the same thing to say. Local Paul Gambone "came for the excitement." "Biden was electrifying," said Chris, a south Philly 20-year-old. Jabbing this reporter in the chest, firefighter Joe Love said, "He tells it from the heart." Nearly everybody who spoke to Salon used some variation of the word "exciting" or "energizing."


In south Philly, at least, Obama and Biden seem to have put to rest some of the demons from earlier this year, and from earlier in the city's history.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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