Former Vice President Joe Biden declared his third run for the White House on Thursday, arguing in a video that the 2017 white supremacist violence in Charlottesville showed that the 2020 presidential election will be a battle for the soul of America.
While it was reported that Biden had considered making his announcement in the city itself, he ultimately declined to do so. Instead, “Charlottesville” is the first word he speaks in a video about President Donald Trump’s comment that the Unite the Right rally involved “very fine people” on “both sides.”
The Aug. 12, 2017, rally, which was meant to coalesce disparate far-right movements, resulted in the deaths of a local counter-protester, Heather Heyer, and two state police troopers monitoring the rally in a helicopter that crashed. James Alex Fields Jr., an avowed white supremacist from Ohio, was convicted of driving his car into a crowd of people, which included Heyer, after the rally descended into chaos and police declared an unlawful assembly.
Biden’s announcement only uses footage of the Aug. 11 torch-lit march at the University of Virginia. He also mentions those who stood against the rally in a circle at the Rotunda and were attacked, calling them “a courageous group of Americans.”
"We are in the battle for the soul of this nation," Biden said in the video. "If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation — who we are. And I cannot stand by and watch that happen."
Biden's sister and longtime political confidante, Valerie Biden Owens, told The Associated Press that Trump's comments were a "blow" to the man who had served with America's first black president.
"It really started percolating, and the essence of this was Charlottesville," Biden Owens said. "I can tell you that was a major motivating moment for my brother, and the entire family."
"The big 'yes' started with this," said Ted Kaufman, Biden's longtime Senate chief of staff.
As rumors of a Charlottesville announcement swirled, local activists and others said that they did not want Biden to use the city to launch an anti-Trump campaign, with some vowing to protest if Biden came to town.
Biden’s announcement did little to assuage those criticisms.
Walt Heinecke, an associate professor of education at UVa, said he believed the video was inappropriate.
Heinecke was part of the scrum around the Thomas Jefferson statue on Aug. 11, 2017, and organized counter-demonstrations for the next day. He said he invited the White House to participate in the counter-demonstrations but received no response.
“Joe could have come and spoken that day,” he said. “I think many folks on the ground that weekend and working for justice since feel offended by the video. Where were these politicians when we were in the streets and since when we have been addressing affordable housing and discriminatory policing?”
Jalane Schmidt, a UVa associate professor who has been an active anti-racist voice in Charlottesville before and after rally, tweeted that Biden’s video positioned counter-protesters as a “political prop.”
Leslie Copeley, an insurance underwriter who said she has lived in the area for 20 years, said she remains open to all political candidates running in 2020, but saw Biden’s video as a further attempt to divide people.
“My initial gut reaction was that I was put off by [the video],” she said. “I’m not saying the events of Aug. 12 should be covered up or ignored, but he went straight to how it divided us. I wish candidates looked at ways to bring people together; that issue is not the only issue that divides us.”
Some, however, commended the former vice president for calling out Trump’s response to the rally.
City Councilor Mike Signer tweeted: “As the Jewish mayor of Charlottesville serving when [President Trump] made his contemptible remarks giving safe harbor to neo-Nazis, I’m grateful to [Biden] for centering his campaign on our own Thomas Jefferson’s ‘idea of America’: dignity for all.”
Biden, 76, joins a crowded field of 20 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president. His early campaign plans, however, don’t appear to include Charlottesville.
The former U.S. senator from Delaware will hold his first public event as a 2020 presidential candidate in Pittsburgh on Monday. Then it's off to Iowa, home of the leadoff nominating caucuses on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by two days in South Carolina. He'll visit the other two early-voting states, Nevada and New Hampshire, in early May, before holding a major rally in Philadelphia.
Biden's first media appearance is set for Friday morning on ABC's "The View," a move that may help him make an appeal to women whose support will be crucial to winning the primary. He also hired Symone Sanders to serve as a senior strategist, tapping a prominent African American who previously worked for Biden's chief competitor, Bernie Sanders, in the 2016 presidential contest.