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Jacquelyn Brittany’s viral elevator moment made her the star of a populist DNC fairy tale

Joe Biden capitalized on his viral elevator encounter with Brittany all the way to the DNC.

A screenshot of Jacquelyn Brittany endorsing former Vice President Joe Biden during the virtual Democratic National Convention on August 18, 2020.
DNCC via Twitter
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Jacquelyn Brittany was an unlikely choice to provide the first formal nomination of former Vice President Joe Biden for president. But the modest security guard’s presence during the the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday evening became a showcase moment — and allowed the Democratic Party to effectively present its favorite populist narrative about itself.

Jacquelyn Brittany, 31 — who has requested to be identified by only her first and middle names — appeared in a short but compelling video in which she nominated Biden to the ticket. And her appearance as a Black woman in a shirt and tie subtly delivered a message that Biden has been trying to capitalize on since the beginning of his campaign: that he is truly a man of all the people, and thus an effective counter to Trump’s exclusionary brand of populism.

Packed into Jacquelyn’s 40-second video was a dramatic metaphor: The idea of an elevator as both an equalizer — a place where common and powerful people meet and congregate — and, well, as an elevator of the common person. “I take powerful people up on my elevator all the time,” she said. “Me? I just go back to the lobby.”

Except not this time — Biden, positioned as a shrewd uniter of classes, was taking Jacquelyn all the way to the top with him.

Jacquelyn’s trajectory ultimately played out like a classic fairy tale — beginning, as such stories do, with a chance encounter. As a security guard for the New York Times, she frequently escorts prominent guests through the elevators. In January, Joe Biden visited the building, and was lucky enough to find himself in Jacquelyn’s elevator bank. During the ride, a film crew for the TV show The Weekly, a joint production between the Times and FX, captured a wide-eyed Jacquelyn telling Biden, “I love you. ... You’re like my favorite.”

The moment, followed by a selfie with the former vice president, went viral after Biden pronounced himself “honored” to have met Jacquelyn.

Spotlighting Jacquelyn allowed the Democratic Party to send a powerful message

What’s perhaps far more telling than the moment itself, however, was the way Biden has incorporated it into his campaign. He’d been meeting that day with the Times’s editorial board, and though he didn’t get the paper’s endorsement, he seized the opportunity to promote the meeting of minds in the elevator. Ten days later, at a campaign stump in Waukee, Iowa, he specifically framed Jacquelyn’s on-camera moment as worth the trip to the Times. According to the Washington Post, he told the crowd, “I got something better” than the Times’s endorsement: “I got to meet Jacquelyn.”

The statement, with its ring of both populism and anti-intellectualism, might have backfired in a different political climate, one where he wasn’t positioning himself against an anti-intellectual sitting president. But instead, it propelled Jacquelyn into Tuesday night’s spotlight. It was all part of the natural progression of the fairy tale: the star-struck fan getting to befriend and journey with Biden all the way to the White House. “I never thought I would be in a position to do this,” she told the Post. “I never thought I was worthy enough to do this.”

Yet Jacquelyn was one of the most talked-about faces of the evening. Her endorsement received positive response across social media, with many people seeing it — and the DNC’s roll call more broadly — as a symbol of the Democratic Party’s ability to unite people across the political and socioeconomic spectrum, and as a powerful reminder of the people policies of all parties effect.

But though Jacquelyn’s DNC appearance might have felt like a fabled Cinderella moment, it was also the culmination of Biden’s recognition of the opportunity Jacquelyn presented him. Biden has struggled before, often amid harsh criticism, to present himself as a populist candidate, and though he won the Democratic primary on the back of Black support, he had difficulty during many of those contests with making inroads with young Black voters — some of whom may see themselves in Jacquelyn.

Despite what the moment may have brought Biden, Jacquelyn’s video clearly showed the world that she had chosen him; and in it, she movingly articulated why. Many have now just as clearly embraced Jacquelyn — and for the moment, through her, embraced the complicated populist story of the Democratic Party itself.

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