Beau Biden's legacy runs deep in Delaware
The First State continues to grieve the death of former Attorney General Beau Biden Saturday. The 46-year-old son of Vice President Joe Biden leaves behind a wife and two young children and questions of what might have been --- but he also leaves behind a lasting legacy of public service. Delaware Public Media’s James Dawson looks back on Biden’s impact personally and professionally.
Ask people how they feel when they met Beau Biden and you almost hear an echo: people come first.
The answer doesn’t differ much between someone who met Biden once and those who worked with him on a daily basis.
They’ll tell you he took after his father, Vice President Joe Biden; not in just their strikingly similar features, but in the way he interacted with everyone from all sides of the political spectrum and those of different economic means.
“He was affable like his father, but he was also compassionate like his father and I think it went back to their own tragic loss in 1972. They just had a big heart for people who were grieving,” said state Sen. Karen Peterson (D-Stanton), a longtime family friend of the Bidens.
In 1972, Beau Biden was in a car accident that killed his mother and baby sister and almost drove his father to decline the U.S. Senate seat he had won just the month before.
Instead, he was sworn in at Beau and his brother Hunter’s bedside in the hospital, with Peterson nearby.
Beau Biden eventually earned his law degree from Syracuse University in 1994, the same school his mother and father attended.
He then worked for the U.S. Justice Department before turning to private practice in 2002, eventually squeaking out a win to become attorney general in 2006.
Immediately, he helped form the Family Division within the office with the help of deputy attorney general Patricia Dailey Lewis.
“It was so clear, too, from the beginning. This was a man who truly cared about these issues," said Dailey Lewis, who leads the division. "This was not a political point for him because kids don’t vote.”
Together, they carved out new laws regarding child abuse, stiffened penalties for pedophiles and worked to bring the Delaware Victims’ Compensation Assistance Program under the purview of his office.
While on the verge of prosecuting Earl Bradley, one of the most prolific pedophiles in American history, Biden turned down a chance to run for his father’s vacant U.S. Senate seat in a 2010 special election to concentrate on the case.
Bradley was eventually convicted and the General Assembly enacted several reforms to better protect children and revamp internal reporting standards that could’ve tipped off law enforcement of Bradley’s actions sooner.
“Some of the structural changes he made in the government to increase protections for children, to prosecute child predators are important, but maybe even more important is the idea that government is there to serve those who cannot protect themselves,” said Erin Daley, interim dean of Widener University School of Law.
She says that attitude and culture he shaped can help drive future work and potential reforms to benefit Delaware’s most vulnerable.
Over the years, Biden backed several bills to pry open the inner workings of Delaware government after advocates complained of inconsistencies with the application of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
He joined with Peterson to allow those who were denied records requests to appeal that decision from state agencies directly to his office. Before, people had to file suit in a Delaware court.
“That was very crucial. At the time, it was not seen as a big deal, but it was a real monumental change in the way the Freedom of Information Act is enforced in Delaware,” she said.
The two also collaborated on bills to create a uniform FOIA policy for the state, while also making school districts subject to public scrutiny for the first time.
Violent crime in Wilmington was a persistent problem Biden sought to address that remains today, however.
Homicides there spiked in 2014, nearly breaking the record of 29 set in both 2010 and 2011.
The number of shootings also contributed to Delaware’s largest city being ranked among the most violent in the country, according to statistics from the FBI.
Biden took a comprehensive approach to try and target the roots of crime, by literally cleaning up city streets, planting prosecutors in the communities and boarding up vacant homes, recruiting Kathleen Jennings as his State Prosecutor in 2011.
“It’s never not our job and I think Beau has been a pioneer in that effort, believing that you can’t reduce crime just by locking people up, that you have to do it in a way that rebuilds the fabric of a community and gives people hope,” Jennings said.
Some have criticized those programs for not showing results, but she says being proactive in these ways about fighting crime might take time to fully blossom.
“He truly believed that it was going to be a long struggle, but that we needed to get out in the communities. We needed to get to know the people who were asking for our help and listen to them.”
He also butted heads at times with fellow Democrats over his aversion to repealing the death penalty and efforts to reform the state’s habitual offender statute.
Republicans who worked with – or in some cases, against – Biden on policy say they may have disagreed on many things, but it was never taken personally.
"He had a genuine respect for positions we had to take, politically and ideologically and he wouldn't hold a grudge," said state Sen. Brian Pettyjohn (R-Georgetown). "He would sit down and listen to you and honestly give you a chance to explain your position."
Biden struggled with health issues, first experiencing what doctors called a mild stroke in 2010, eventually having a small lesion removed from his brain in 2013.
His senior staff rejects reports that he was not in the office following that surgery, but he made few public appearances and didn’t accept interview requests – something uncharacteristic of the usually extroverted politician who had announced a bid for governor.
“We knew he was not well. A number of us kind of knew that he wasn’t going to be running for governor next year because of his health, but had no idea that it was what it was,” said Peterson, saying Saturday's news left her in shock.
Others interviewed also didn’t know the full extent of Biden’s condition.
Friends and even those who had briefly met him flooded social media immediately after news of his death broke, describing a man they say personified humility, empathy and kindness.
Biden was a longtime member of the Delaware National Guard, which Dailey Lewis says gave him a chance to not be looked at as the son of the state’s most prominent politician.
“He liked that uniform because when people looked, it was hard to see him. He was a member of a team. He loved that. He loved leading the team, certainly, but he loved being a member of a team.”
His death leaves behind a political power vacuum in Delaware that will surely be contested by several within the Democratic Party – privately or publicly – as the race for governor draws closer.
But Biden’s absence from daily life is a more tangible vacuum being felt by hundreds, if not thousands in the First State.