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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Should Biden step down? Spokane-area politicians, residents and others weigh in

President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a concert marking Juneteenth on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday in Washington, D.C.  (Kent Nishimura)
By Mathew Callaghan The Spokesman-Review

President Joe Biden declared on the White House lawn Thursday that he’s “not going anywhere” after calls for the 81-year-old president to step aside after his age and questions about his abilities to lead began to reverberate throughout the Democratic Party.

Biden’s bungled presidential debate performance last week, headlined by his mental lapses, mumbled sentences and seemingly absent stare, stirred questions of whether he’s able to run the country effectively, or even if he can get elected again. Some are saying it’s time for him to step aside and let someone else take the reins. Others believe he’s still able to be commander in chief for another four years, and that the June 27 debate was simply a bad night for Biden.

Local Democrats and other community members are deeply split over whether Biden should drop out of the race, based on interviews with The Spokesman-Review.

Cornell Clayton is the director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute at Washington State University and a political science professor at Washington State University. He described the June 27 presidential debate as deeply troubling for all Americans, regardless of political affiliation.

“I don’t think that there’s going to be dramatic swings in voter attitudes,” Clayton said. “We’re in a highly polarized period right now, and voter preferences are pretty much locked in. There’s 45% of the American public that’s going to support whoever the Democratic nominee is, and 45% who will support whoever the Republican nominee is. You’re really talking about playing to 10% or less of the American electorate.”

Clayton is concerned Biden won’t be an effective campaigner, and that he’ll be unable to sway swing voters in several states. But there’s still a lifetime in politics between now and the election, Clayton said. If Biden decides to step down, then there is still plenty of time to rally behind a new candidate. If he decides to continue to run, the coming months and Biden’s performance will determine the likelihood of his victory.

Jennie Willardson, a Spokane County Democratic precinct committee officer since 2007, said she’s against Biden dropping out. She said it’s too late in the term to change anything now.

“I’ve already voted for the delegates from the state of Washington,” Willardson said. “The system more or less doesn’t allow for it.”

Clayton disagrees. He said the nomination of another candidate could go one of two ways, depending on who it is. Should Vice President Kamala Harris be nominated, Clayton believes the Democratic Party would likely stand completely behind her. If the nomination went to someone else, he thinks it could either serve as a basis for generating more support or it could turn into a “very ugly internal blood bath, a civil war within the Democratic Party.”

“If Biden were to decide to step down at this point,” Clayton said, “I think it’s very difficult to predict whether it would be a really good thing for the Democratic party or a really bad thing.”

Others, like Mark Westbrook, who works at a local cemetery, are calling for the would-be Democratic nominee to step away from the race before it’s too late.

“I am more concerned about someone being able to do the job than I am being loyal to someone,” Westbrook said.

While Westbrook believes there is not another choice on the ballot, he expressed that “we all age, and at some point, we can no longer do what needs to be done in order to be president.”

Christopher Connell, 31, works in HVAC sales, and he also believes that Biden is unfit for office.

“If you go and compare the debate from four years ago to the debate that he had last week, you can tell that there is definitely a significant difference based on the way he speaks and in the way he argues,” Connell said.

Connell suggests Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom as a possible candidate, mentioning how he would be a great opponent for challenger Donald Trump based on “how he mopped the floor with (Republican Florida Gov.) Ron DeSantis.”

The debate occurred last November, and Connell pointed to Newsom’s ability to put up a strong argument as a good reason for why he could be the nominee instead of Biden.

Connell mentioned that he disliked both current candidates, and that the recent debate between Biden and Trump negatively affected his view of Biden.

“If I had to vote, I’d probably vote for Trump just because I think he can do the job better than what Biden can, just based on his communication and the way he talks,” Connell said.

Former Spokane County Democratic Party Chair Nicole Bishop said, “I really support whatever would be in the best interest of American democracy. Right now, I feel like it’s a very precarious position.”

While Bishop’s worried about Biden’s ability to lead, she urges voters to band together to defeat what “could be a real shame for American democracy.”

As the discussions of Biden dropping out continue, Bishop said it’s a little premature to know anything for certain.

“Trump got impeached and Republicans stood by him. He got impeached again, and they stood by him,” Bishop said. “What Democrats have to point to is Biden had a poor debate performance, and now we’re questioning standing by him. If he’s our candidate, we have to stand by him.”

Pat Foster has been living in Spokane since 1992. This 79-year-old retired educator is proud of the work that Biden has done so far.

“Biden has done an incredible job and accomplished so much for the average person,” Foster said.

To Foster, Biden is leagues ahead of Trump.

“When Donald Trump was elected, I became quite alarmed and became politically involved at that point,” she said. “I certainly will vote for the Democrat,”

Still, Foster isn’t sure that Biden is the candidate for the job.

“I have mixed feelings,” Foster said. “On the one hand, he’s been a really good president and accomplished so much. On the other hand, we cannot afford to lose this election, and if he’s not the best candidate, we need to move onto somebody else.”

As for the potential replacement, Harris is her first choice. Should Harris be elected, Foster would like her to continue to uplift and support Biden’s agenda. She also likes the diversity that Harris would introduce to the government.

“We need to reflect the diversity of our country, and so I would like to see that done,” Foster said. “The fact that she’s a woman would be really great … that Kamala Harris is a woman of color.”

Despite her political affiliations, Foster wants everyone to participate for themselves.

“Everybody needs to absolutely vote, because this is such a critical election,” Foster said. “And be careful who you vote for.”

Spokane County Democratic precinct committee officer Derek Reynolds is completely against Biden dropping out of the election.

“It’s July, our democracy is at stake, and I think it’s a little late to be playing hem-and-haw with our Democratic candidates right now,” Reynolds said.

Similarly, Spokane County Democratic precinct committee officer Frank Malone said he is strongly against Biden dropping out of the election.

“He, as a president, has performed – and his team – have performed in an excellent fashion,” Malone said. “He has chosen a strong team that’s capable of doing a lot of things, and he guides them well.”

Regarding Biden’s performance at the debate, Malone said: “He had a bad three hours.”

Rosemarie Schmidt said there’s no comparison between Trump and Biden.

“Why hasn’t anybody asked for Trump to step down?” Schmidt asked. “He stated about 30 lies in that debate. Thirty lies!”

Schmidt is a 76-year-old retired registered nurse who still has a license and works actively, besides her work for the Medical Reserve Corps and her volunteering in charities and nonprofits.

“Trump is the lowest thing on the ladder, as far I’m concerned. He is a mess,” Schmidt said. “This is a guy that shouldn’t even be running; he’s a felon … I would vote for Biden any day; he’s far better, far better, than the lying felon. He’s honest, and he’s for the people.”

Mary Dailey Evey, 79, has lived in Spokane since 1992. She also worked as an registered nurse. This “libertarian at heart” is concerned mainly about Biden’s mental capacity and thinks it’s bad enough that he should step down.

“He doesn’t have the mental capacity to stay in office, and he hasn’t had for some time,” Evey said.

She’s mainly concerned about how the Democratic party has pretended that Biden was capable, while, according to her, he’s “absolutely not.”

“We’ve been gaslighted for I don’t know how many years by the Democrats and the media,” Evey said. “I just don’t think he’s mentally stable.”

But she doesn’t know who a good replacement would be.

“Harris was in on the gaslighting, so I don’t know who they’re gonna pick,” Evey said. “There haven’t been that many Democrats that have been out in front on any of this or in on any important issues lately other than Newsom and Harris.”

Ann Marie Danimus is a Democrat running to represent Eastern Washington in Congress in a race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. She said Biden should and will remain in the race.

“The president is a decision maker,” Danimus said. “Biden has proven his ability to, first of all, surround himself with highly qualified, intelligent, conscientious people.”

She recognizes that the current president struggles with communication, though she feels he has always been “absolutely on point.” The president has talked openly about overcoming his childhood struggles with a stutter.

Danimus also worries about what another Trump presidency would be like, as she said he’s “the wrong move for America.”

Two other Democrats running for McMorris Rodgers’ seat, Carmela Conroy and Bernadine Bank, did not respond to a request for comment.

Michaela Kelso, a Democrat running for state House in Spokane County’s 6th Legislative District, also stands behind Biden.

“I mean, we just need to remember that the choice is Uncle Joe, or someone who’s going to destroy democracy,” Kelso said. “The alternative is scary.”

Kelso acknowledged Biden’s poor debate performance.

“It was not pretty … But the fact of the matter is that one day does not define the presidency. Maybe Jan. 6 did,” she said, “ but OK, the nomination process is internal to the Democratic Party, and the rules were established a very long time ago. So you can’t just change the rules a month before the convention.”

Prior to the 1970s, Clayton said nearly all political conventions were open and had multiple politicians vying to be the party’s nominee. He thinks it wouldn’t be a bad idea to weigh the options, have a series of debates before the Democratic Convention and ultimately let the people decide who should represent them.

“A convention where the outcomes are foreordained and all you get is political speeches, is a lot less interesting for people to watch than one where you don’t know who the nominee is going to be and you have a contested nomination,” Clayton said. “I think you’d have a lot more Americans tuning into that kind of a convention, so it could actually be a boost to Democrats.”

Spokane County Democrat Chair Naida Spencer said she doesn’t have a specific opinion on whether Biden should step down, because they mainly focus on local candidates.

Spencer emphasized how important the national issues are that she and the Spokane County Democrats are leaving up to the National Democratic Party to make. They choose to aim their attention to local issues, which they believe are what truly affect people’s day-to-day lives.

“We will definitely stand behind whoever the Democratic candidate for president is,” Spencer said.

Washington State Sen. Mark Mullet, a Democrat running for governor, said that if Biden were to step away from the race, he wouldn’t be letting anyone down. Picking the best candidate to represent the Democratic party is important to Mullet and is something that must be done with care and attention to detail.

In the event Biden steps away from his candidacy, Harris is next in line, which Mullet supports.

“As the father of four daughters, it’s important to me that we elect someone who is pro-choice, supports marriage equality, and is committed to lifting up the middle class,” Mullet said, “I believe Vice President Harris would be more than up to the task, and it would be exciting to have a woman in our nation’s highest office.”

Ted Cummings, a Democrat running for state House in the 4th Legislative District in Spokane Valley, shows unwavering support for Biden.

“It’s a very dangerous time for America, and we should not get this wrong,” said Ted Cummings, the representative of District 4 in Washington. “This is a time for Democrats to be unified and not just Democrats. All Americans should be concerned.”

He has faith in the Biden administration, which he described as “the most successful and accomplished administration in American history.”

“It’s a record of success, and the alternative is this pathologically lying rapist, criminal, incompetent nutjob,” Cummings said.

Rick Robertson, 71, is retired and firmly believes that Biden should drop out of the presidential race.

“He’s proven in the last few months, especially after the debate, that he cannot win,” Robertson said.

He doubts that if Biden wins the election he can sustain a strong presidency. Robertson also had many doubts about Biden before the recent debate but will still be voting for Biden in the upcoming election.

“Even if (Trump) holds a gun to my head on Fifth avenue, I will not vote for Donald Trump,” Robertson said.

Mike Loe, 27, who helps run a clean and sober house, believes that while Biden may not be in the best shape, he thinks he is still a good option for president.

“As far as governing and doing his job, I feel like in the last 3½ years, he’s done a pretty good job … I feel like one night shouldn’t take away from the fact that he’s done a pretty good job,” Loe said.

Loe thinks that while the debate shouldn’t have benefited Trump, he admits it likely gave Trump the advantage and made Biden look significantly weaker.

“Debating isn’t the most important job of being president; there’s other stuff that you need to do, and he’s been doing a good job,” Loe said.

Jess Hagman, 39, is a math professor who believes that Biden is not fit, and that it is time for Biden to “make way for other voices.”

Hagman did not watch the debate, but felt its impact simply from the reactions of other people. She said she’s always considered Biden to be too old and feels most of his policies are out of touch with younger generations.

Hagman says that Biden has shown that he is “unwilling to push back and engage … it feels very ego-driven.”

Hagman is open to Biden stepping down now for Harris to receive the financial benefits that come with being president, and she’s open for a “two-woman ticket.”

“I hope he stays in, because I want Trump to win anyway. If (Biden) does stay, I don’t think he’s got a chance,” said Mark Vincent, 69.

Vincent continued, “But if they bring in Kamala Harris, which is the potential, that’d be fine too because her popularity is about the same as Biden’s – tanked.

“I think people are tired of what’s going on in this country. I don’t see how anybody could vote for Biden.”

Only one word came to 30-year-old local business owner Ellie Karamehic’s mind to describe Biden’s perceived decline in sharpness: sad.

“I was alarmed at (Biden’s) cognitive function, it was more sad than anything,” Karamehic said. “I found him to be unfit. I think he should take a step back and enjoy his remaining years with his family.”

Dave Michaud, who has been a Democratic committee officer for six years, isn’t sure whether Biden should drop out.

“I have mixed emotions about it,” Michaud said.

He also felt it would be too late to change anything, but if Biden were to drop out, his two favorite replacements would be U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of California or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“I’m getting long in the tooth myself, and I think it’d be better if we had a younger person in there. But, you know, I think that horse has left the gate,” Michaud said.

For many Americans playing the lesser-of-two-evils game, the right choice for president may only be becoming more confusing.

“However, you feel about the two candidates themselves,” Clayton said, “what you’re really voting for is a set of policies and a set of values. I think the two parties differ markedly right now. So that’s what I would encourage voters to think about, rather than the particular person, because the presidency is really an institution.

“It’s an institution that has lots of people around it, and its power is based upon its ability to muster support in Congress and state legislatures and elsewhere in our government.”

Spokesman-Review interns Hazel Guieb, Sofia Hessler, Claire Lyle, Marton Mezei, Olive Pete, Troy Slack and Caroline Saint James contributed to this report.