(Photo by Ralph E. Moore Jr.)

By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
Special to the AFRO

President Joe Biden’s visit to Baltimore, October 21, was a big friggin’ deal for Baltimore, to borrow the phrase he excitedly whispered in President Obama’s ear regarding passage of the Affordable Care Act.  Biden told that story, more on it in a bit.

On the news in Baltimore all day, Lacee Griffith, news anchor and reporter for WBAL TV, warned us how difficult traffic would be in the streets surrounding Center Stage where the CNN Town Hall would be held. Perhaps her warning to avoid the area was heeded; there was no traffic at 5:30 p.m. for the 6 p.m. meeting on Calvert Street.  That was the first surprise.  

The crowd that waited patiently was well dressed and well behaved, if not a touch snooty. The state troopers and the city police were obviously polite. We were asked to show our vaccinations card (I’ve had two Pfizer shots, a booster and a flu shot), our identification and our invitation from CNN. We showed the information twice to get in the door. Then, not surprisingly, we emptied our pockets and went through the metal detector. Once that was done, we were admitted into the 541 seat Pearlstone Theater, Center Stage’s largest of three theaters. Once in, ushers escorted us ticket holders to a seat. I was surprised there was no social distancing involved at all. There were no empty seats between audience members and no empty rows between us either. Since I was seated in the third row from the stage, second seat from the end (the last seat belonged to a CNN staffer who never used his chair), I was surprised where Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen sat along with 7th District Congressman Kweisi Mfume. The three of them were two rows behind me.  When the President spotted them in the audience, during the broadcast, he called the Senators out by name enthusiastically. And because Mfume was wearing a mask, Biden acknowledged him as the mayor.  It was a slightly awkward moment that few realized and it quickly passed.

Earlier in the evening before the broadcast started, Duane “Shorty” Davis was escorted from his seat in row 2 by security.  No one who was seated nearby is clear why.  He protested loudly, shouting his usual cry, “Mike Check!” several times and asking a couple of the elected officials present to help him stay in his seat, but none assisted him. Before the show was on the air, Mayor Brandon Scott gave a warm welcome to the audience and wished he could thank the president 641,000,000 times for the $614,000,000 sent to Baltimore from the American Rescue Plan. “But there was no time,” Scott joked.

President Biden was happily greeted by the audience with thunderous applause, after being introduced by CNN’s Anderson Cooper. The audience was supposedly comprised of Democrats, Republicans and Independents, but the big Baltimore welcoming applause seemed biased.  Biden won the state of Maryland with 1,985,023 votes to Trump’s 976,414; In Baltimore City Biden got 207,260 votes or 87% to Trump’s 25,374 votes or 10.74%. So, Biden must surely have felt very comfortable here. And he seemed very much at ease as he answered pre-hand-picked questions from the audience and sometimes from CNN’s Cooper.

In answer to CNN’s email invitation-application, potential attendees were asked to tell what three questions we would ask if presented with the opportunity.  And although, I believe, most in attendance thought we could possibly be picked from the audience for a question, the questioners were already seated nearest the standup mikes in the center aisle. The fix was in. Surprise.

Some of the President’s responses and off-the-cuff remarks caught me off guard.  I didn’t expect he would be so very complimentary of Senator Joe Manchin a “Democrat” from West Virginia. “He’s not a bad guy. He’s a friend,” the President said.  And of Senator Krysten Sinema, the other holdout from the Democrat majority, Biden called her “very smart and very supportive of environmental issues in his budget proposal.”

When Anderson Cooper asked if this current Build Back Better deal is the toughest one he’s ever done, Biden responded, “No. Assault weapons was.”

The first question from the audience was about the prospect of getting affordable child care passed. Biden was confident it might pass despite Manchin’s call for a work requirement for those getting the childcare tax credit.  Biden disagrees with Manchin and remarked how the United States is “one of the few industrial countries without paid family leave.”

A Loyola University English professor then asked if the two years of free community college will pass. Biden replied, somewhat jokingly, “I’m going to get it done and if I don’t, I’ll be sleeping alone for a long time.” His wife, First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, who teaches community college was seated in the front row. President Biden believes twelve years of schooling is not enough to keep the U.S. competitive in the world. “I promise you we will get free community college eventually.”

A doctoral student from Morgan State University, John Meche, complained that “Democrats cannot usher through their agenda like Republicans have.” Biden essentially dismissed the idea that Republicans have an actual real agenda.  “Their agenda is to stop me.” In that moment he must have forgotten about the Republicans wrestling control of the Supreme Court and a vast number of federal judgeships. And their misuse of the filibuster. Oops.

President Biden spent the three and a half minutes of commercial break time during the broadcast speaking with the members of the audience who had sidled up to the front of the stage. He and the First Lady were calmly but completely engulfed by audience members until the breaks were over. Their willingness to engage was impressive. There was talk about the changing state of the labor market and its impact on supplies in America, the availability of child vaccinations—time and locations, the filibuster’s end (Biden said he’s willing to end it to get voting rights passed), Steven Bannon getting charged for ignoring the Congressional subpoena and the reduction of children at the southern border from 5000 to 500 since he took office. And then it was over.

Although we were asked to stay in our seats until the President and First Lady were on their way, the audience was not detained long.  They motored to Fort McHenry in south Baltimore and boarded the helicopter, Marine One, back to the White House.  

And after half an hour of waiting for my Uber due to CNN’s blocking traffic to load their trucks, I was home in time for the late night news.

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