Three years ago, though, he was still just former Vice President Joe Biden, arriving in North Dakota on a mission to try to save the Democratic-NPL’s remaining toehold on statewide offices. U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the party’s final statewide Democrat, was running for re-election, and in deep-red North Dakota, she would need all the help she could get.
Biden’s trip took him to the Alerus Center, where the state Democratic Party — technically, the Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party — was hosting its state convention and gearing up for the 2018 midterms. He gave the keynote speech, taking the stage to thunderous applause. He spoke in the kind of folksy, populist political language that, at least for Democrats, made him the man for the moment.
“My dad, we heard him say it once, we heard him say it a thousand times. … He’d say, be a man of your word,” Biden said. “Without your word, you’re not a man.”
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Biden came to endorse Heitkamp — which he did, enthusiastically — but he also briefly criticized then-President Donald Trump’s character, wondering “how someone in the highest office in America can look at someone and make fun of … a disability, or make fun of their weight or make fun of how they look.” And he offered a private speech at a luncheon at the Alerus, where one attendee recalled him rejecting the word “entitlement” to describe benefits taxpayers have already purchased.
The visit was well before he assumed office as president. The same was true of Barack Obama’s visit to the Alerus Center in 2008, when the then-senator from Illinois, on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton, came to the 2008 state Dem-NPL convention. Grand Forks’ history with top U.S. leaders goes back decades.
Sitting presidents to visit include Franklin Roosevelt, 1937; Harry Truman, 1952; John F. Kennedy, 1963; Richard Nixon, 1970; Ronald Reagan, 1986; and, during the Flood of 1997, Bill Clinton.
Kennedy’s visit — during which he received an honorary degree from UND — was just two months before he was assassinated.
President John F. Kennedy delivers a speech at the University of North Dakota in September of 1963. (Courtesy, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Item No. 11078-4055)
Former President Theodore Roosevelt visited Grand Forks while campaigning for another presidential, and unsuccessful, run in 1912.
When Biden visited, he still had made no mention of a president run. A Grand Forks Herald editorial a few days later noted that Biden seemed too busy “for a man who wishes to stay on the sidelines.”
Biden’s visit was short — just long enough for some remarks and meet-and-greets — but he left an impression. Dem-NPL Chairwoman Kylie Oversen recalls him taking time with as many people as he could, for photographs and autographs, even to the point that his aides likely wished he’d move faster.
“My now-husband, Brian — we were just dating at the time — (Biden) looked at him and made a joke and said, ‘Well, it looks like you married up too, just like I did,’” Oversen remembers with a laugh. “And he met my younger brother … he’s a bigger guy. He’s tall and pretty muscular and shook his hand and said, ‘Well, you look like you could throw a cow,’ or something like that.”
Anna Rosburg, the Alerus Center’s general manager, remembers that effusiveness, too. She said when a VIP visits, staff are usually directed to act professionally — not ask for pictures — but Biden insisted.
From left to right: Alerus Center food and beverage employees Alex Peterson, Carrie Peterson, Tom Weber and Molly Kuntz, with General Manager Anna Rosburg, stand with Joe Biden during Biden’s March 2018 visit to Grand Forks (Courtesy/Alerus Center)
“As soon as he got there, he was incredibly friendly with all of our staff, stopped to shake hands with everybody that passed by, asked if he could pop into our kitchen and thank our staff … everyone including our dishwashers,” Rosburg said. “That was kind of unique to him.”
The visit was a bright spot for Democrats, who put a household name into Heitkamp’s Senate campaign. As Election Day drew near, Biden visited Fargo to help make a push across the finish line — one that ultimately fell short when Heitkamp lost to then-Rep. Kevin Cramer.
But many observers, looking back at the campaign, still see Biden as the perfect messenger for that year’s Democratic-NPL — focused on the “kitchen table economics” its candidates talk about so often.
“I mean, I think his life experience — you know, he talks about his dad losing his job, and how your job is your dignity,” Heitkamp said last month in an interview with Forum News Service. “And he also tells a pretty amazing story about the owner of the business throwing coins on the floor and people scrambling for him, and how that made his dad feel.”
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Heitkamp saw someone who was still pondering the future of the country
“I think he was already concluding that (Trump) had created serious problems for the country — whether it was domestically or whether it was in the work that he was doing internationally,” Heitkamp said.
On his way out the door, Biden couldn’t resist still more glad-handing. Two Grand Forks Police officers got caught in the way — immortalized now in a photo Biden insisted he take with them, provided by department spokesman Lt. Derik Zimmel. Everyone is smiling.
“They were saying, ‘We weren’t going to ask for that, but he insisted upon it,” Zimmel said.