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Former senator Carol Moseley Braun is back on the campaign trail, stumping for Joe Biden

Carol Moseley Braun, center right, the former senator from Illinois, takes photos with attendees at an event in Las Vegas while campaigning for former vice president Joe Biden. (Bridget Bennett/For The Washington Post)

It's a balmy Saturday in January on the College of Southern Nevada's North Las Vegas campus. Inside the student lounge, a lively political summit is underway. Fliers about climate change, gender justice and jobs are scattered across tables. Pamphlets tout presidential candidates. An oversize American flag is draped above the makeshift stage.

Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress, a progressive advocacy group, introduces a special guest. “She’s fabulous,” Magnus gushes. “She’s a pioneer on so many things.”

After a few more platitudes, the lady of the hour strides to the podium. Wearing a dark blue suit and mid-heel leather boots, Carol Moseley Braun — the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Senate and later U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa — looks traditional in the manner of old-school politicians. And she has come to this desert metropolis of palm trees and casinos to ask Nevada voters to bet on another old-guard pol, former vice president Joe Biden.

The audience applauds enthusiastically. “I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King,” she says, sharing a story about a demonstration the late civil rights leader led through a Chicago park in 1966 when she was an 18-year-old student. An angry white mob shouted slurs and hurled rocks and bottles. The preacher was hit in the head. “King stumbled and fell to one knee,” Moseley Braun tells the crowd. “He calmly rose with a beatific look on his face.” She also paraphrases a quote from King about “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.” Biden’s candidacy, she says, “is a model for King’s call to consciousness.”

The political conference is among several stops for Moseley Braun during Vegas’s annual King Week festivities as she stumps for the former vice president. In the days to come, these appearances will, retroactively, take on added significance: Pundits will argue that Biden needs decisive wins here and in South Carolina to make up for lackluster performances in Iowa and New Hampshire.

For Moseley Braun, campaigning for Biden means stepping back into an arena she had left behind. “This is the first time I’ve campaigned for another candidate in 20 years,” the former senator from Illinois tells me in an interview the following morning. These days, the divorcée and proud grandmother of twin toddlers practices law, sits on community boards and is active in her church. Now, some of that is on hold as she stumps in early states like Nevada and anticipates traveling the country leading up to November’s election. At one point in our conversation, she invokes Al Pacino’s character from “The Godfather” movies who couldn’t escape the family’s criminal enterprise. “This is my Michael Corleone moment,” she says with a chuckle. “It is pulling me back. So here I am.”

Her bond with Biden developed nearly three decades ago in the Senate, where she often felt ostracized. “He sought me out and took me under his wing. He so believed that my voice mattered.” She remembers Biden’s persistence in recruiting her for the Senate Judiciary Committee, when he was chairman. “I was skeptical. He insisted on driving to my house. I had just moved in and it was a mess. I couldn’t find anything. But I had a frozen cherry pie in the freezer. I threw it in the oven. ... We wound up sitting on boxes. We ate the cherry pie. And he convinced me to go on the committee.”

Over the course of his career, she says, Biden has been a leader on civil rights. He fought efforts to defund historically black colleges and universities and opposed a 1993 amendment allowing the United Daughters of the Confederacy to renew the patent on a Confederate flag insignia. (News accounts at the time, though, were more likely to cite an impassioned floor speech by Moseley Braun as a factor in its defeat.)

“Joe,” she says, “stood up to the NRA,” helping to ensure passage of the Brady Bill, which mandated federal background checks, and the ban on assault weapons that was part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Biden also co-authored another key part of that bill, the Violence Against Women Act, she points out. He has, however, faced scrutiny over the crime measure, which critics argue helped fuel mass incarceration that devastated black and brown communities. Asked about it, Moseley Braun is thoughtful. “Hindsight is always 20/20. The fact is, it was Bill Clinton’s legislation. … And Joe was the floor manager for that. I think he did a yeoman’s job. ... Were there some things about the crime bill that were not so nice? Yes,” she says. “I take my share in ownership of it. I’m sure Joe takes” — she paused, searching for words. “He’s admitted and apologized for parts of it.”

There was very little downtime in Vegas. Before the summit, Moseley Braun had made an early-morning radio station appearance. That evening, she offered brief remarks at the 2020 MLK Scholarship Banquet at the Orleans Hotel & Casino. The gala also drew actor and activist Danny Glover, a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), plus reps for former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). The next day, Moseley Braun addressed worshipers at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, a congregation in North Las Vegas.

While she was not immediately recognized everywhere she went, once people identified Moseley Braun, they reacted with excitement and respect. More than a few times, folks gathered around to shake her hand. And multiple selfies were snapped.

She hopes similar enthusiasm will be extended to Biden, who led in national polls for months but failed to ignite excitement among primary voters in the debates. During one in November, Moseley Braun was even the subject of a Biden gaffe, when he cited her support and referred to her as the “only African American woman ever elected to the Senate.”

“The other one is here,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) countered, laughing. Biden quickly replied: “I said the first.”

Moseley Braun calls such criticism “nitpicking.” Biden, she believes, “is made for this moment.” “He has spent a lifetime working in government as a force for good and has made a difference for millions of people who would have been left behind,” she says. “He really has a genuine kindness to him that I think is missing in our politics. That’s why I’m out on the campaign trail for him now.”

Donna M. Owens is a writer in Baltimore.

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