First lady makes pitch for Biden in Norwich visit

First lady Jill Biden arrives at the Lebanon Municipal Airport in West Lebanon, N.H., enroute to a Norwich, Vt., fundraiser on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. After disembarking, Biden is welcomed by Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

First lady Jill Biden arrives at the Lebanon Municipal Airport in West Lebanon, N.H., enroute to a Norwich, Vt., fundraiser on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. After disembarking, Biden is welcomed by Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

First lady Jill Biden arrives at Granite Air Center in West Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. Biden arrived in the area for a fundraiser in Norwich, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

First lady Jill Biden arrives at Granite Air Center in West Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. Biden arrived in the area for a fundraiser in Norwich, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Karen Ness, stops her vehicle to let protesters pass on their march toward the private home in Norwich, Vt., where First Lady Jill Biden attended a fundraising on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

Karen Ness, stops her vehicle to let protesters pass on their march toward the private home in Norwich, Vt., where First Lady Jill Biden attended a fundraising on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. "We gotta do something," said Ness about the Israeli-Hamas War. "It's genocide." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Sabra Ewing, of Vershire, left, speaks with White River Junction activist Ashley Andreas, right, as she records a streaming video for The Robust Opposition during a protest of First Lady Jill Biden's fundraising visit to Norwich, Vt., on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. Ewing said she was invited by Norwich resident Jane Stetson to the fundraiser at her home, but declined and joined the protest instead.

Sabra Ewing, of Vershire, left, speaks with White River Junction activist Ashley Andreas, right, as she records a streaming video for The Robust Opposition during a protest of First Lady Jill Biden's fundraising visit to Norwich, Vt., on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. Ewing said she was invited by Norwich resident Jane Stetson to the fundraiser at her home, but declined and joined the protest instead. "There's no doubt Trump would be as bad," said Ewing. "If anything, this is about defeating Trump - getting Biden to have a ceasefire, a permanent ceasefire," she said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jill Wilcox, of Sharon, middle, and two other protesters operate a puppet of Joe Biden on the green in Norwich, Vt., as law enforcement departs after a fundraising visit by First Lady Jill Biden to a private home nearby on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. The protest was organized by Upper Valley for Palestine. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jill Wilcox, of Sharon, middle, and two other protesters operate a puppet of Joe Biden on the green in Norwich, Vt., as law enforcement departs after a fundraising visit by First Lady Jill Biden to a private home nearby on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. The protest was organized by Upper Valley for Palestine. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-20-2024 7:04 PM

NORWICH — Dozens of protesters objecting to American military and political support for Israel in its war against Hamas gathered on the edge of the green to catch the attention of first lady Jill Biden as she pulled into Norwich for a private fundraising event on Tuesday.

Demonstrators held a 15-foot-tall puppet rendering of President Joe Biden aloft in the wind — his enlarged, outstretched hands reading “Bombs” and “Bread” — as they chanted their disapproval of the administration’s policy in the Middle Eastern conflict.

“We wanted to roll out the ‘unwelcoming mat,’ ” said Nancy Welch, an organizer of Tuesday’s protest and a member of Upper Valley for Palestine, a group focused on “advancing the fight for a free Palestine right here in our community,” according to its website.

Biden arrived at Lebanon Municipal Airport from Washington around 4:30 p.m. She took a motorcade to the 19th-century colonial Norwich home — valued by the town at $1.9 million — of Bill and Jane Stetson, longtime fundraisers for the Democratic Party. Biden, a community college English professor, was in such a rush to make her pitch to about 100 Upper Valley donors that she came straight from class, she said.

Tickets for the fundraiser started at $1,000, ascending to $25,000 for those who wanted to be listed as a “host,” reads a digital invitation sent out to potential donors from the Biden Victory Fund.

Jane Stetson served as the National Finance Chair for the Democratic National Committee for four years during the Obama Administration.

President Biden, 81, and former president Donald Trump, 77, are neck and neck, according to a national poll from Florida Atlantic University released Tuesday. Each candidate polled with about 44% of the vote.

Former U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, introduced the first lady at Tuesday’s event. Leahy, 83, worked with Biden when they were both “very young members” of the Senate, Leahy said.

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Jill Biden also spoke about the early days of getting to know her future husband. She referred to his late wife, Neilia, who along with their daughter, Naomi, was killed in a 1972 car crash. “Joe made it clear that there was room in his heart for both of us,” she said.

In making a pitch for her husband, she emphasized that he had passed the “boldest climate legislation in American history” and appointed Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. He also guided one of the “the strongest economic recoveries in modern industry,” she said, as well as capped insulin prices and secured lower prescription drug prices for some American seniors.

With the remainder of her 15-minute speech in the Stetson’s living room, she implored donors to consider what would happen if Biden’s bid for reelection failed.

“I want you to remember what it felt like that morning after in 2016,” she said of Trump’s election, drawing a chorus of groans.

“Democracy is on the line,” the first lady said.

She made no mention, however, of the war in the Middle East that drew protesters to Norwich.

“The Biden White House hasn’t heard the voices of the majority of Americans who are appalled by the ongoing slaughter in Gaza and want an immediate and permanent ceasefire,” said Welch, the protest organizer.

More than 31,000 people there have died as Israel continues its bombardment of the Palestinian territory, according to reporting from the Gaza Health Ministry. The war in Gaza was spurred by Hamas’ brutal terrorist attack on Oct. 7, which killed more than 1,000 Israelis and took over 240 hostage.

The protesters Tuesday were seeking the end of U.S. aid to Israel and the restoration of funding to the United Nations agency, known as UNRWA, that provides food, healthcare, shelter and other aid to Palestinians, Welch said. Funding for the group was cut in January, after Israel accused a dozen of the agency’s 13,000 employees in Gaza of being involved in the Oct. 7 attack.

American support for Israel in the war has become a make-or-break issue for some voters. In last month’s Michigan Democratic primary, 100,000 voters cast their ballots as “uncommitted,” withholding their support for the president due to his backing of Israel.

The demonstrators in Norwich marched with drums to a barricade set up on a public road leading to the Stetsons house.

“We tried to just be as loud as possible, because people are trying to get the ear of the White House and the federal government and we’re just not being listened to,” Welch said. “We were going to use our noise and our numbers, making our ruckus to disturb the peace of people probably enjoying lavish appetizers while people in Gaza are starving.”

Inside the Stetson’s home, White River Junction-based Maple Street Catering served mini crab cakes and other hors d’oeuvres. At the fundraiser, the wife of one of the country’s most stalwart progressives vouched for Biden’s husband to the group of donors.

“People think, ‘Oh, he’s older,’ ” said Jane Sanders, wife of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., of the president. “But they don’t realize he’s much more progressive than his predecessors.”

Although President Biden might make his case “more quietly than my husband,” the president nonetheless “means what he says,” Sanders said.

Biden’s campaign and the national Democratic Party raised more than $53 million in February, the president’s fundraising arm announced Sunday. The shared war chest between the two now contains $155 million, up from $130 million at the end of January.

The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee reported just under $40 million in cash on hand around the same time.

While the first lady didn’t remark on the protest up the road, the moody, shoulder season weather on Tuesday caught her attention.

“It’s the first day of spring but I looked out the windows and it’s snowing,” Biden said from the Stetson’s living room. “Someone said to me, ‘That’s just Vermont.’ ”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.