'Keep punching till your arms fall off'

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Four decades ago, Ellen Casey stepped to the microphone in Reading, Pennsylvania, to speak. She was standing in for her husband, Bob Casey Sr., not yet the governor of Pennsylvania but a political force nonetheless.

“When she got up to speak, she didn’t give a political speech. She just walked through my father’s kind of biography and all the things he did well in his life and what a great husband and father he was,” Bob Casey Jr., now a Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, explained in an interview with the Washington Examiner.

The keynote that day was Joe Biden, who called Ellen’s speech “the best introduction of a candidate I’ve ever heard.”

Thus began a close family friendship. Casey and the former senior senator from Delaware, now the president-elect, became closer over the past decade and a half after Casey entered the Senate in 2006. “He’s the kind of person who checks in on people and says hello. And he was throughout this campaign, he was periodically, he would call and just say hello.”

In January 2007, just after Casey was sworn in, Biden shared with me in an interview in the U.S. Capitol his assessment of the fellow Scrantonite: ” Oh, I’m proud of him. I literally lived … my family was raised and I was raised six blocks from the Caseys. And it’s kind of funny: His dad’s as much older than me as I am Bobby … and we’re kind of straddling. I joke when I’m in Scranton, which is, the reason I moved out of Green Ridge in Scranton is I knew only one Catholic could make it, and it wasn’t going to be me.”

On Election Day this year, Casey said he had this unusual experience he won’t soon forget.

“I got a call at midnight on Monday night, the night before the election, saying that Biden was going to be at Scranton the next morning. And he can’t talk about it. But if you want to be there, he’s going to be at the Carpenters Union Hall, and he might have one other quick stop. But then, he’s got to get right back to Philadelphia. So, it’s going to be in and out quick,” Casey explained.

“So after, we go to the union hall, which was totally outside. It’s just in a parking lot. And he spoke to the crowd there, not very long. The whole event was probably 25 minutes. He went around and said hello to people and got some pictures.”

Casey then does something he rarely admittedly does — ask a favor.

“I walked up to the young woman who’s been his kind of traveling chief of staff, and I said, ‘Where are you headed next, because I know you have to get back to Philly?’ She said, ‘Well, we’re going to go by his boyhood home up on North Washington Avenue,’ which is about three and a half blocks,” he explained.

So, he asked if Biden could wave to his mother as they drove by, since they’d be passing her house on the street. “I was thinking that’d be a good luck thing for the campaign, right?”

Casey thought it was a long shot, but the campaign said yes.

So, Casey runs into a corner in the kitchen of the union hall, all alone, and calls his mother. “And I say, ‘Mom, I don’t know how to tell you this, but Joe Biden’s going to stop by the house, and we’ll be there in about 20 minutes. Do you think you can be ready?’ She’s 88. And she’s very meticulous about how she looks every day,” he said.

“I mean, she’s really meticulous. So she said, ‘Oh, OK. I can do it. I just got out of the shower.’ And I said, ‘OK. We should be there roughly 20 minutes.’ And then, I hung up the phone and I thought, ‘This is great.’”

And then, he said, dread came over him.

As they were driving in the motorcade, he says he started to get more and more nervous, imagining what could go wrong: She won’t be ready on time, and he’ll be waving at an empty porch, or worse — he’s rushed her so much she falls in the process of getting ready.

When the motorcade gets about a block from the house, Casey in his panic asks if he can run up ahead and make sure everything was OK.

“So, I’m sprinting towards the front porch of our house, the house I grew up in. And there she was, on the steps, ready to go,” he said in relief.

And, of course, Biden gets out of the car to chat with her from the sidewalk and turns to Casey and says, “God only created two perfect women. My mother and Ellen Casey.”

Casey also spoke with the Washington Examiner about the election results, the pandemic, and his future. This has been edited for clarity.

Washington Examiner: What are some things you’d like to see occur in the next Congress working with a Biden administration in terms of jobs and the economy?

Sen. Bob Casey Jr.: We need a New Deal-style jobs bill, like a Works Progress Administration or Civilian Conservation Corps jobs bill. Now, it should be locally designed and managed. But we should use government money for locally designed jobs programs and get people hired and give people paychecks. And I know I can hear the howling of the Right saying, “Oh, you can’t do that.” Well, guess what? It worked in the ’30s. And we need to get people a paycheck.

This idea that you can just put a stimulus or incentives out there and the private sector will just rebound quickly in a matter of months is a bunch of bunk. We need to get people paychecks.

I mean, yes, the unemployment rate’s gone down a lot. But it is going to be persistently high for a group of Americans, people with high school education, women who are sometimes the sole breadwinners in their families, workers in communities of color who have all kinds of disadvantages to getting a job. And yeah, we need to get people hired. And we need to make sure we don’t just hire them to do low-wage work. We need to get them a good wage. Get them hired. Get them a paycheck. That’s the fastest way for the economy to fully recover.

WEX: On COVID — I drive through big, small, and in-between cities in our state, and they are ghost towns. There’s nobody going inside or outside of offices. Restaurants that have been around for generations are shut. What are your thoughts about what this has done to our culture and our society?

Casey: Well, it’s done a lot of damage, to be blunt about it. In addition to the obvious direct damage when it comes to the impact of the virus, the deaths and sickness that it caused, the economic pain that it caused, the small business people to folks who lost their job who have been unemployed for a long time, or because they’re unemployed for a period of time had some adverse impact on their families. I mean, we all know from our own history in Pennsylvania, especially in places like southwestern Pennsylvania, when someone loses a job in a family, especially the main breadwinner, that can have devastating consequences for that family, even if, ultimately, that person’s able to get back to work. In the interim, there’s all kinds of trauma that gets heaped upon a family.

WEX: One of the things as a citizen I love about Election Day is voting in-person pre-COVID. You see the same people that are always working your precinct. Most of the time, there’s donuts and coffee at my precinct. And it was a sense of community. Do you think people will return to that once this is over? Or do you think mail-in will become the norm? Or a combination of both?

Casey: I think probably a little of both. And I understand what you mean. Sometimes, you see neighbors that you don’t see any other way.

Obviously, some people want to do it in person, and they should be given that opportunity. I think what I hope will happen under Pennsylvania law is refine it and improve it. I mean, No. 1, we have to pass a law to do this pre-canvassing so you don’t have this Wednesday, Thursday, Friday counting. If Florida can do it, why can’t we? I mean, it’s just crazy to have that happen. Legislature really needs to do that.

But in addition to that, I hope we can make other improvements so you can vote early too.

WEX: As it stands, Joe Biden is at 80,000 votes over Donald Trump in Pennsylvania. What happened to Democrats down-ballot? They were supposed to win the state House, state Senate, pick up the Perry and Fitzpatrick Republican House seat, and win all three of the statewide row office elections; they only won one of them. What is going on?

Casey: So, we’re still a pretty divided state. We don’t know the exact number, but a significant number, maybe even a decisive number, of Republicans who voted for Joe Biden against Donald Trump then voted Republican down the ballot.

So that means a couple things. One is Democrats have work to do to persuade them to vote for them on a more regular basis if it’s part of a trend. It’s a little bit at variance with where it’s been going the last number of years, where Democrats have been winning those suburban counties and large parts of Allegheny County with higher and higher numbers. But so that’s one question, or maybe one result to consider.

The other is, what is the effect of Donald Trump on the electorate when he is actually on the ballot? Does he drive votes for and against him in ways that no candidate has ever done? I think he’s the strongest Republican candidate for any office that they’ve nominated, at least for Pennsylvania, since Reagan. I mean, he was able to get a very high percentage of the Republican vote, but also pull a few Democrats over.

Now, he did less of that this time but still got, I think still maybe the second- or maybe the third-highest vote ever in the history of the state. So, he’s got a huge base of support in the state.

So, I don’t know whether in 2022, or 2024, if he’s not on the ballot, we know he won’t be on the ballot in ’22, if that changes it. Because I don’t think Democrats can assume that he only is impacting the vote based upon the turnout he gets in red counties or rural communities. He’s also driving votes in the suburbs. And the question is, will the suburban vote for a Democrat be as high with him not on the ballot? So, that’s something.

What Democrats should assume is that we got some extra votes in the suburbs because of Donald Trump even as we’re assuming, as well, that he got some extra votes in the rural areas. So, in other words, the Republican candidate for Senate or governor may not get the same rural margins. But they also may not lose the suburbs by as much. That’s what you have to assume if you’re a Democrat. Assume the worst and get ready for it.

WEX: Does your party need better messaging too, things like defunding the police and banning fracking? Even though it wasn’t your specific message, it was a message that got pushed. It was something Joe Manchin pushed back on in our interview two weeks ago. Do you think the Democrats need to maybe push back on some of those things when it goes too far?

Casey: I know that’s what a lot of people are saying. But I say two things. No. 1, it’s very hard in a broad and diverse political party to start seizing megaphones.

You can’t say that: Give me your megaphone. Can’t say that. It’s just really hard.

And the second part is related to the first. Republicans never do that.

They never go back and say, Hey, that crazy man over there, we got to shut him up. Frankly, what Republicans do is they just punch harder.

So, if you come to the public square and a guy hits you with a left hook, you’ve got to hit him with four punches. I hate to say that. It’s a brutal business. But I think if you’re talking about how you are going to be as a party, back on your heels, you’re dead. You’re going to lose.

You should always be talking about how you never get on your heels. And the best way to never get on your heels is to keep punching till your arms fall off. Now, punching can mean making the case against your opponent. That’s part of the deal.

That’s just politics. Sorry if people are offended by that. But that’s part of the deal.

Our side really didn’t have … an economic message. Our side was, I think, appropriately saying, “Wear a mask and listen to the scientists.” But we also weren’t saying, “And here’s how we’re going to get you your job back. Here’s our game plan.”

Now, we voted the right way. We all voted for CARES, and it’s still like that. But you got to have an economic message, I think, in every election.

WEX: So, how many times have you been asked if you’re going into the administration?

Casey: [Laughing] A number … I was close to the Biden team and as a friend, but also a very early supporter. The day he announced, I supported him. Obviously, I made it clear early that my very, very strong preference was to stay in the Senate. I like the work in the Senate. We have a lot of work to do. I’ve got more I want to do.

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