Joe Biden's buddy in Ames: How friendship bloomed between the president-elect and Iowan with Down syndrome
Joe Biden has been pen pals with Paul Heddens, an Iowan with Down syndrome, for more than a decade. Des Moines Register
When a friend invited Lisa Heddens to meet then-senator Joe Biden in 2007, she loaded her son Paul into the car and drove over. This is Iowa, so when you hear a candidate is in town, you just go, Lisa says, adding a little shrug.
Paul, who has Down syndrome, would usually bring along a toy or game to occupy him while his mother listened to platforms and policies, but, this time, Paul was drawn to the speaker. He made his way to the senator after the event, reaching out to give him a big hug as Biden leaned down to chat.
“Joe Biden just took the time to just listen to him,” Lisa said of the interaction. “Paul’s speech sometimes can be a little bit challenging, and he was patient with him.”
Biden “genuinely wanted to know what Paul had to say,” Lisa said.
As the caucus cycle marched on and Lisa loaded up her son for more events, Paul would regularly ask if he was going to see “my buddy Joe Biden,” wondering if he’d get another hug, another chat. Over time, a friendship developed, sustained through the vice president’s years in Washington, D.C., and his time on the campaign trail with letters, quick meetings and little gifts.
And now, after prolonged vote counting and declaration of a winner, Paul's buddy Joe Biden will become Paul's buddy the next president of the United States.
“It’s exciting!” Lisa said. “Do I think that he will, you know, remember me or remember us? Well, I don't know. He's got millions of people to remember.”
“But for years he's made us feel that we were important,” she added.
Biden’s ability to connect personally with voters, often sharing deep stories of grief, has always been a strength. During the last caucus cycle, the former vice president’s supporters told the Register that the relationships they formed with him transcended politics.
For Lisa — a Story County supervisor and former state representative — that’s certainly true.
“I think a lot of the folks that were running this last time had a lot of great credentials and I could have easily supported any one of them,” she said. “But, it was this longstanding relationship, the care and concern that he showed for my family, my son, that made me think this is somebody I want to make sure is leading our country.”
An unexpected path to friendship
Wearing a big Iowa State University sweatshirt, moccasins and jeans, Lisa settled into her couch for a long election night. She was on the ballot for supervisor and didn’t expect to hear the results of her race until after midnight. The apple pie that Sara Lee helped her bake, she says with a laugh, cooled on her stove. A slice later would fuel her while she waited.
As a child growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, Lisa wanted to be an educator, specifically one who taught kids with autism. Neither she nor her family were especially political, so public office just wasn't on her radar, she said.
After having her daughter Makenzie, now 30, Lisa gave birth to Paul, now 26, and became a quick study of red tape and regulation, filing tons of paperwork and jumping through hoops to ensure her son got the services he deserved.
“The disability world is just a whole different world of acronyms, and just a lot of navigating through a difficult ‘system’ to ensure that Paul had the opportunities that my daughter also had,” Lisa said.
She decided she could either throw up her hands or get to work making the opaque clearer — and Lisa isn’t the type to sit back. After a few years of being deeply involved in advocacy, a question kept surfacing in the back of Lisa’s mind: Could she run for office?
She told a friend of her interest, and after a Health and Human Services budget hearing in 2001, Lisa met a few Democratic leaders in the Iowa House. The rest is, as they say, history. She won her first race in 2002 and held her seat for 17 years before accepting an appointment to be supervisor.
Being a legislator in Iowa generally also means becoming involved in the caucus process, and Lisa took that responsibility seriously. In 2007, she came out early for Biden, whose goals and values have always dovetailed with hers, she said.
Throughout that summer, when Biden called Lisa to talk about the race, he’d always ask to talk with “the big guy” — his nickname for Paul.
“That just really warmed my heart,” Lisa said. He recognized “me and my abilities and my work that I was focusing on, but also wanted to make sure to remember that connection with Paul.”
After a special call on his birthday, Biden sent Paul a big Sports Illustrated book about basketball, his favorite sport, for Christmas. On the inside, he left an inscription.
“I hope this book makes you happy when you read it — as happy as you make me feel when I see you. You are a wonderful boy, Paul. Merry, merry Christmas. Your friend, Joe.”
Later, when Obama and Biden won the 2008 election, Paul sent the vice president a letter saying he missed him and hoped he could stop by the next time he was in Iowa.
“I miss you too,” Biden wrote back. “When (I) get to be VP, you must have mom take you to my new house in D.C. I love you Paul.”
The moments of Biden’s small kindness roll out of Lisa: There was the time that Biden gave Paul a tour of Air Force Two, gifting him an official emblem pin that Paul still keeps in his room. And the time that Biden called as soon as he learned Paul had been diagnosed with H1N1, inquiring about her son’s health and his treatments.
Or the time this last caucus cycle when Lisa went to hear Biden speak near Iowa State and the now-former vice president immediately asked about “the big guy.” Paul was at work, but they could Facetime him, she offered.
“He stopped his staff and said, ‘I need to take a couple minutes,’ and we called Paul," Lisa remembered.
Afterward, Paul’s group home staff told Lisa he was jumping up and down saying, “I got to speak to my buddy Joe Biden! I got to speak to my buddy Joe Biden!”
But, her fondest memory is when Biden lost the Iowa caucuses in 2008. After Biden took the stage and dropped out of the race, the Heddens family found their way to the senator to offer condolences. Paul grabbed his friend for one of their trademark big hugs.
As Biden moved along to speak to other supporters, Paul followed him, grabbing his waist for a hug every time he stopped to talk.
“He wasn't somebody who was just like, ‘Oh, gosh, get this kid away from me,’” she said. “He just kind of moved along, acknowledging that he was still there, but still interacting with everyone else as well.”
Biden’s long-term Iowa relationships
During the Iowa caucuses, local politicians and advocates often spoke about the times Biden reached out to them during personal difficulties. On his first official stop in Iowa as a 2020 candidate, state Sen. Pam Jochum read from a letter Biden wrote her after hearing of her daughter’s death.
“Jill and I were heartbroken to learn of the tragic passing of your beloved daughter, Sarah,” Jochum read. “You and I share the unfortunate bond of having lost a child and understanding the grief that comes with such a tragedy. For us, some days are harder than others, but our beautiful memories of our kids will always be with us.”
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack also talked about Biden pulling aside his son Jess just to ask how he was coping with his 6-year-old daughter’s death.
Over and over, supporters told Register reporters that Biden had this innate ability to listen, to make you feel special and that he truly cares about you and your family. And on social media, voters have shared phone messages or notes Biden left them, offering hope in moments of tragedy.
“He can be that person that can comfort our nation and bring us together,” Debra Hixon, the wife of a Parkland shooting victim, said in a video ad that went viral of Biden hugging her developmentally disabled son, telling him that he will be OK.
Simply put, Biden never became "unreachable," Lisa said. And his understanding that no public position is larger than the people served is something she holds dear as a local supervisor.
Paul has been voting since he was 18, but cast his ballot absentee for the first time this year due to the pandemic. On Tuesday evening, listing off all the people he picked — Teresa (Greenfield), J.D. (Scholten), Paul (Fitzgerald) — Paul says he picked Biden because he supports "Obamacare," spelling out the word, O-B-A-M-A-C-A-R-E, to make sure I understood.
“Did you vote for me?” Lisa asks.
“Yes,” he says, taking a bite of his chicken strip. (Lisa ended up winning her race just before midnight Tuesday.)
If his buddy Joe Biden does win, Paul’s hoping for a family trip to D.C., he says.
And, of course, for a great big hug.
Register political reporter Stephen Gruber-Miller contributed to this report.
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She's a parallel parking master acquainting herself with gravel roads. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.