Biden brings up Charlottesville on the campaign trail, but has been a stranger to the city

Residents still reeling from a white supremacist rally wonder where the former VP has been.
Image: Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle and chant at counter protesters at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 11, 2017.
Neo-Nazis, "alt-right" members and white supremacists confront counterprotesters at a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2017.Samuel Corum / Anadolu / Getty Images file

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By Deepa Shivaram

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Joe Biden's first two words in his campaign launch video last April were "Charlottesville, Virginia," as he invoked the racial violence that shocked the country two years ago and seemed to shape his thinking on how to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020.

Biden stumped in Virginia last weekend ahead of its legislative elections on Tuesday, mentioning the city and how it propelled him to seek the White House, but he didn't set foot in Charlottesville while he was in the state.

In fact, in the almost seven months since he launched his campaign, the former vice president hasn't been to Charlottesville — leading some residents to question how authentic his message really is.

The city of 48,000, home to the University of Virginia, became embroiled in violence in August 2017 when the planned removal of Confederate statues sparked a "Unite the Right" rally led by white nationalists bearing tiki torches. Clashes between that group and a large gathering of counterprotesters led to the killing of Heather Heyer, by a white nationalist who drove his car into the crowd.

Charlottesville now stands as a totem for many Democratic contenders warning of worsening race relations if Trump is re-elected. But no candidate has invoked Charlottesville more than Biden.

"When those folks came out of the fields carrying those torches, chanting the anti-Semitic bile and their veins bulging, accompanied by the Ku Klux Klan, with such ugliness … I never thought I'd see something like that again in my life. That's when I decided," the former vice president told supporters at a fundraiser in August.

To be sure, other candidates who invoke Charlottesville haven't visited, either. California Sen. Kamala Harris talks about Charlottesville, she says, to acknowledge that "racism is real in our country," while Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar mentions the city to criticize Trump's response, in which the president said there were "very fine people on both sides."

The only Democratic contender to visit Charlottesville so far has been Beto O'Rourke, the former Texas congressman who quit the race last week.

Quinton Harrell, a business leader and Charlottesville resident, attended a black leaders roundtable with O'Rourke, and he told NBC News that even if Biden were to visit Charlottesville, it's already too late.

Invoking Charlottesville to talk about white supremacy and racism "must be what he thinks connects with people," Harrell said of Biden. "But until I see him, I don't have a point of reference to say that's authentic."

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Ashley Bell, a downtown Charlottesville business manager, put it this way: "If you’re going to talk about it as much as he does, it would be nice for him to actually come and see the city. It's a great place, and that's how it should be represented."

The Biden campaign declined to comment and referred questions to Michael Signer, who was Charlottesville's mayor during the August 2017 events and still serves on the city council. He praised Biden's response.

"What I found so powerful and so refreshing about Biden's comments was he was talking about exactly what happened and why it was so dangerous for the country," Signer told NBC News. "That to me was what was so powerful about his analysis and his call to action. It was about what Charlottesville represented."

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a close friend of Biden's who considered a presidential run himself, told NBC News that he and Biden had spent "three to four hours" talking about the events in Charlottesville as they discussed their possible candidacies.

McAuliffe, who wrote a book about Charlottesville but ultimately decided not to seek the presidency, hinted that those conversations may have led to Biden's repeated references to Charlottesville.

"I’m not going to say I’m the one who got him to do it, but we spent a lot of time" talking about Charlottesville, McAuliffe said.

Leaders in Charlottesville have worked on improving the city's reputation since 2017, and say the way the candidates have been talking about the city actually sets it, and its small businesses, back.

"From a small-business perspective, it is incredibly unhelpful," Elizabeth Cromwell, CEO of the Charlottesville Chamber of Commerce, told NBC News. "We are working really hard on building tourism and retail, and a lot of small businesses have suffered significantly since those events. … Every time someone uses the word Charlottesville in a negative way, it's a kick to the people living here."

Cromwell, who was hired shortly after the Unite the Right rally, said the rebuilding process after the initial shock of the events had a late start. How Charlottesville is being perceived on a national level remains a concern, she said.

Waki Wynn, a counterprotestor who drove away from the clash just moments before Heyer was killed, said the events of that day didn't change how he saw his hometown; he’d seen racism all his life. But Wynn, a real estate agent and the athletic director at the Peabody School here, said he knew it had defined how the rest of the country thinks about Charlottesville.

"When you used to tell people you're from Charlottesville, they'd ask, 'Oh, Charlotte, North Carolina?' and now they know it as the place where Nazis came to town," Wynn said,

Many residents say that moving forward as a community has been a struggle.

Charlene Green, who runs the Charlottesville Department of Human Rights, has increased the amount of time she's spent working on outreach and education on the racial and ethnic history of Charlottesville. She's also worked on launching "Unity Days," which included 80 events over the summer focusing on rebuilding community and educating residents on the inequality and racism that still exists in town.

"Some people are offended when Charlottesville is used as a means of promoting a political campaign or a book, or if there's some sort of gain, especially financially, off of the tragedy that has occurred here, especially not having come here to work through some of that pain and wounds that still exist for the city," Green said.

Having political leaders actually show up to Charlottesville, Green said, would be a measurement of how much they care.

"How are you showing me that you care about me? One of those ways people can do that is going to those places. … Care can be shown in different ways. And one of those ways is showing up," Green said.

On Sunday, Biden campaigned with McAuliffe and fundraised for Virginia legislative candidates in Loudoun County, a Washington, D.C., exurb, and the former vice president mentioned Charlottesville in his remarks, saying that his reaction to what happened there drove him to seek the presidency.

All 140 seats in the state Legislature are up, offering Democrats a critical opportunity to become the majority party in both chambers, with a Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, in office for another two years.

"We have a huge opportunity this year," McAuliffe said. "We can change two chambers."

Other 2020 candidates have already passed through Virginia to help with fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts, including Harris, Klobuchar, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.

Vice President Mike Pence visited Charlottesville and Louisa County on Saturday.

Mike Memoli contributed.