For weeks, she and her husband, Willie, had gone back and forth about which candidate to vote for in Tennessee’s Democratic presidential primary, bouncing between the former vice president and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg.
“My heart is telling me one thing, but my mind is telling me another,” Weddle said, as the church choir danced and sang in what seemed to be a soaring dramatic soundtrack to the uncertainty she had felt. But this morning, she was confident in her decision: She would vote for Bloomberg on Tuesday. “As much as I would like to go with Biden, I don’t think he’s the guy that’s going to get enough voters to get that man out of the White House,” she said.
Biden’s crushing victory in South Carolina, fueled by strong African American support, had not changed her mind. “That’s just one state,” Weddle said. “You have to be able to win in all of the others, and I don’t know if he can.”
The ability to mobilize black voters across the South has long been considered the foundation of Biden’s third bid for the presidency — an advantage that he has argued would add to his ability to assemble a diverse coalition to take on Trump in November.
But even after South Carolina, there are signs that his support among black voters is not a sure thing — especially this Tuesday, when Democrats across 14 states and one territory will cast their ballots in what will be the biggest and most important day of the nomination race so far and one that is likely to be a test for whether Biden has resurrected his candidacy.
Though Biden got new endorsements on Sunday, he has lagged behind rivals for months in fundraising and organizing in the Super Tuesday states, prompting some Democrats to question whether he was bothering to compete or just relying on years of political goodwill.
Perhaps nowhere is that dynamic more evident than in Memphis, a majority-black city that is the beating heart of Tennessee’s African American population. Memphis is the seat of Shelby County, the state’s most-populous county with about 940,000 people, more than half of them African American. In Memphis proper, about two-thirds of the population is black, and on the eve of Super Tuesday, many in the community remained divided over Biden’s candidacy, viewing him as a beloved party figure but questioning his ability to win.
His chief rival here is Bloomberg, who has dramatically outspent and out-organized Biden as he looks to Tennessee to rack up his first primary win. While the former mayor has crisscrossed the state in recent weeks, his campaign has focused heavily on Memphis, where his personal foundation has invested millions of dollars in community programs in recent years to help revitalize the city. He’s won the endorsements of Mayor Jim Strickland, who also serves as his national campaign co-chair, and former congressman Harold Ford Sr., the state’s first African American congressman and a political legend here who remains deeply influential.
Ford, who had not publicly endorsed a candidate since 2006, hosted a group of several dozen, mostly black members of the community at his family’s funeral home in Memphis last week — including several ministers from local black churches. “When Harold Ford tells me something, I truly, truly believe it, and he said Mike was our guy,” said Thomas Long, a former Memphis court clerk who was one of the first African Americans elected to citywide office.
Long was among a few hundred people who turned out Friday in midtown Memphis, the heart of the black community, to hear Bloomberg speak at a rock club where the walls were lined with blues posters and a prominent velvet painting of hometown son Elvis Presley. The crowd was about half black and half white, though many of the volunteers working for Bloomberg, including those taking information from voters were African American. Many of the black attendees, like Long, were longtime community leaders.
“Most of my friends are straddling the fence between Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg. They love Biden, but they’ve watched him on the debate stage, and he’s had these kind of canned speeches and kind of looks like he’s stumbling,” Long said. “And Bloomberg isn’t dynamic, but you just feel like he can get things done. You feel like he can actually win and change things.”
But Michael Harris, chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, pushed back on the idea that Bloomberg was making any serious inroads with black voters, arguing that Biden still has strong support in the community even if it is not as visible. To illustrate his point, Harris, who had stepped out of a downtown Memphis restaurant to take a call from a reporter, performed an impromptu man-on-the-street poll, holding his phone up to unidentified people.
“Who are you voting for?” Harris called out.
“Biden!” a woman said.
“Who are you voting for?” Harris said.
“Joe Biden,” a man said.
“See? I think it would be a mistake to confuse the crowding of the marketing arena with support,” Harris said, referring to the torrent of ads the former New York mayor has aired on local television in recent weeks. “Bloomberg is flooding the market, but that doesn’t always translate into support. It’s still a battle.”
A battle that, on the weekend before Super Tuesday, was playing out in the pews of the city’s historic black churches, which play an outsize role in getting the community out to vote.
On Mississippi Boulevard, in the heart of Midtown, the surrounding residential neighborhoods were dotted with “Mike 2020” campaign signs. But church members were more divided. “When you talk to people here, you will find all kinds of support: Bernie, Elizabeth Warren, Biden, Bloomberg,” Weddle said. “It sometimes gets fierce, but we are a church family, and that’s the way it goes. People are encouraged to get involved and to have their own opinions.”
Just as Weddle was certain that Bloomberg was the candidate to beat Trump, Glenn Sessoms, a retired FedEx executive, was equally convinced that Biden was the man — a fact proved by his decisive South Carolina victory the night before. “He is the only person who has the experience and who can actually win and bring back some sanity into the White House,” Sessoms said. Asked about Bloomberg, he shook his head. “I just can’t see it,” he said of the former mayor winning over black voters.
Moments later, it was clear why. Taking the pulpit, J. Lawrence Turner, the church’s senior pastor, led the congregation in a brief song of praise and worship ahead of his sermon that morning, in which he urged the flock to “keep praying no matter what.”
He said he would speak to the upcoming elections at the end of his remarks — though he sprinkled some presidential politics into his sermon by citing Warren and her efforts to speak out about former attorney general Jeff Sessions’s civil rights record on the Senate floor during his nomination process. “Senator Warren teaches us that one cannot and should not be silent when wrong is on the throne,” Turner said. “She persisted … as we all should persist.”
At the end of his sermon, Turner stepped out from the pulpit and looked across his church, where several hundred people were packed into the pews. He asked them to make sure to vote on Tuesday, if they hadn’t already, and to not take their vote “for granted.”
“We want the right candidate to be on the ballot in November,” he said, pausing slightly. “You’ve got to be careful. Just because a candidate doesn’t ask you for any money doesn’t mean all the sudden you line up with them.”
Turner paused again, as murmurs broke out across the church and congregants, some with raised eyebrows, exchanged glances. “Talking about [how] you atone. You’re sorry for what you did when you were a leader somewhere else. You destroyed the lives of people. If you’re going to atone for it, let’s talk about some restorative justice and getting some of those folks out who your policies put in,” he said, as some in the church shouted “Yes!” and clapped in agreement. “But that’s a whole other story. I am not trying to tell you who you need to vote for or who not to vote for. I am just talking about what I’m talking about. And so go out and vote on Super Tuesday.”
In the back, people continued to exchange glances. No one could remember Turner being so blunt about a politician before, even if he hadn’t named him. Weddle offered an awkward smile. The pastor’s comments were reflective of the same conversations she’d had in recent weeks with friends about Bloomberg’s embrace of “stop and frisk,” a policing tactic that disproportionately targeted blacks and Latinos in New York. She’d been torn about it, so much that she’d called friends in that city who are black to talk about it. “They said it made the city safer … and they are for him,” she said. “To me, everybody has problems, no one is perfect, and everything else he’s done and can do outweighs that for me. Plus, he can beat Trump.”
Soon her husband, Willie, approached, from the front of the church, where he spent the service singing in the choir. Weddle explained that they had been divided as a couple on whom to vote for on Tuesday: She was for Bloomberg, and he had been leaning toward Biden. But he shook his head.
“I’ve loved Biden for years, but I’m going to go with Mike,” he said. “If Mike wasn’t running, I’d probably be a Biden supporter. But I just think Mike can win.”
Weddle looked astonished. “You’re for Mike?” she said. “What about what the pastor said?”
He shrugged. “In the end, we are all going to be for whoever the nominee is, no matter who it is,” he said.
He grabbed his wife’s hand. It was time to go to brunch.