HENDERSON, N.C. — Helen Bell-Hansley says that when Bernie Sanders got knocked down, stepping off the campaign trail to recover from a heart attack, he seemed to come back stronger. And she respects that.
“That’s Bernie for you,” Bell-Hansley says of the Vermont senator. “He’s still here, and he’s coming out hard.”
It’s a chilly day in late February, a few days before Super Tuesday, when Bell-Hansley, a 54-year-old medical technologist who has lived in Henderson for 20 years, will head to the polls to vote in the Democratic primary. A few months ago, Bell-Hansley was all-in for former vice president Joe Biden. She loved the work he’d done with President Obama, and was eager for more of the same. But while she’s not particularly interested in watching the numerous debates herself, her father, who’s hard-of-hearing, always has them blaring at home — and it’s hard not to notice that Biden often gets “bullied.” If Biden stumbles in debates with Sanders and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, she says, what will happen when he goes up against President Trump?
Henderson is exactly the kind of place that Biden always planned to win. It’s a small, rural town near the Virginia border with a median household income of approximately $30,000, where 64 percent of residents are black, one of the highest percentages of any town in the state. Recent polls, however, suggest that Biden’s support among black voters is slipping.
In the march toward Super Tuesday, and Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, Biden has been doubling down on efforts to woo southern black women, in particular, pledging at the latest debate to appoint the first black woman to the Supreme Court, and name-dropping prominent black women — Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), former first lady Michelle Obama and former Democratic candidate for Georgia governor Stacey Abrams — as potential vice presidential picks. But interviews with 10 black female voters in Henderson — stopped on their way in or out of the local Dollar General — suggest Biden’s efforts might not be working. Eight women said they are planning to or leaning toward voting for Sanders, with several women saying they’d recently switched their support over from Biden.
None of them named Biden as their top choice.
In this town, says 26-year-old Kasey Evans, it’s hard to get people to care about politics.
“We’re a little teeny tiny town, and African Americans probably just feel like there’s not much we can benefit from,” says Evans, who’s in college, studying medical billing and coding. “You’ll hear a lot of people say, ‘Well it doesn’t really affect me.’”
It’s hard to feel any other way, Evans says, when presidential candidates never come to town, even though North Carolina is a battleground state, where candidates spend a lot of time. You’ll hear about their rallies in Raleigh and Durham, she says, both about 45 minutes away. But in the 26 years she’s lived in Henderson, Evans can’t remember a time when a national political figure ever stopped by.
“I call Henderson hell sometimes, because it’s forgotten about,” says Bell-Hansley. “Nobody wants to go to hell, you know what I’m saying? Living here it’s like we’re forgotten people.”
For a while, people here were solidly behind Biden, says Shirley Ball, 66, a retired probation and parole officer. But that was mostly because of his connection to Obama, she says, who is wildly popular among most black voters in Henderson. Now that people have done their “homework,” she suspects Henderson residents are realizing there was a lot the Obama-Biden administration didn’t do for communities like theirs. Like Bell-Hansley, Ball started out as a Biden supporter. But with a few days left until the primary, she says, “Now I’m looking at Bernie Sanders.”
Other women say they’re disappointed with how Biden has been coming across on the national stage.
“Biden is a good vice president but I don’t think he could be the president,” says Bianca Peace, 30, who’s watched a few of the recent debates. “Because he’s not a leader. I don’t see that he leads. He’s a good follower.”
Since the campaigns kicked off last year, Evans says, she’s been torn between Biden and Sanders. She’s still undecided, but if she had to pick a candidate right now, she says, she’d go for Sanders.
“It just seems like he’s really for everybody,” Evans says.
Tamika Aulty, 23, was born and raised in Henderson, and now goes to college in Raleigh. She’s been a Sanders supporter since he ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016, becoming even more committed to his candidacy this time around because of his pledge to eliminate student debt.
“I’m only an undergrad and I’m already in $50,000 of debt. And I plan on continuing through to my master’s, so it’s only going to keep piling up,” Aulty says. She’s getting her degree in human services, working toward a career in the mental health field.
Her mother, Cheryl Pauling, likes Sanders, too. “Because I have two kids in school,” she says.
Bell-Hansley appreciates Sanders’s consistency, especially on civil rights.
“I like the fact that Bernie has been around forever,” she says. “He didn’t just stand by when most of the black people were getting water sprayed on them. He was right there with them.”
She trusts that he’ll prioritize health care, especially for poor people and people of color. Bell-Hansley has cancer, and relies on her Medicaid plan to pay for the expensive chemotherapy treatments. If Trump gets elected again, she says, she worries he’ll cut the programs that keep her alive.
Lately, though, Bell-Hansley has also been tempted by another candidate.
“I’m starting to like the dude from New York. What’s his name?”
She’s seen Bloomberg on the news, and she likes his message. If he could do all those good things for New York, she says, maybe he could do something similar for the whole country. She knows about his role in New York’s “stop-and-frisk” policing policy, which gave officers the power to stop and question any person on the street, disproportionately targeting African Americans — but she’s not too worried about that.
“I think Trump is scared of him,” she says. “That’s what I hear them on the news saying.”
Ball, on the other hand, is reluctant to even talk about Bloomberg, appalled by his history with stop-and-frisk. Bloomberg’s campaign seems to be working hard to win over African American voters, she says, circulating photos of Bloomberg “standing with black people.” (Bloomberg’s campaign has been courting prominent black leaders, and specifically targeting predominantly African American media markets.)
Ball hopes Henderson residents won’t be swayed.
“As for me,” she says, “I will not even put that man’s name in my mouth.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included additional quotes from Bell-Hansley that have been removed.