How Valerie Biden Owens Helped, and Benefited From, Her Brother

SWANSEA, S.C. — Valerie Biden Owens traveled past swamps, harvested fields and parked tractors to a small church, where she stepped off a bus to address voters. She had her talking points memorized.

Just as she had done at every other stop campaigning for her brother, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Ms. Owens invoked the deep personal suffering he endured, and how it infused him with empathy and toughened him against adversity.

She also recounted the role she played in helping him recover after the death of his first wife and daughter in 1972 in a car accident, when she took over as a substitute mother for Mr. Biden’s two sons, Beau and Hunter.

“That was nothing heroic,” she said. “It was exactly what my brother would have done for me. It was called family.”

It was not the only time she would have her older brother’s back. Biden family lore holds that Ms. Owens ran her brother’s campaign for class president 60 years ago, and has been at it ever since. She managed all of his Senate campaigns and his first two presidential races, playing a central role in her brother’s career — as his confidante, closest political adviser and one of his top surrogates on the campaign trail.

Mr. Biden calls her his best friend. “She’s been on my handlebar since she was 3 years old,” he told another South Carolina church gathering.

She has also benefited from her connections to her brother, receiving jobs, appointments and speaking engagements over the years. “I had a better seat at the table because my brother is at the head of the table,” Ms. Owens has said, acknowledging the symbiosis of the relationship.

Her relationship with him reveals the powerful and integral role that family has played in Mr. Biden’s ascent to power.

Those familial connections are newly resonant in the highly charged partisan climate of this political season, as President Trump and Republicans attack Mr. Biden for the overseas business dealings of his son Hunter.

This year is not the first time that Mr. Biden’s family have raised questions. In 2008, a Washington-based good government group took issue with his Senate campaign’s payments to relatives, which included Ms. Owens. In a report, the left-leaning organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said that, while legal, such payments had the potential for abuse.

Other examples include Ms. Owens’s 2016 appointment by former President Barack Obama as alternate representative to the United Nations — a largely ceremonial four-month job that paid about $26,000; her nearly 20-year career as vice president of Joe Slade White & Company, the media consulting firm that previously handled Mr. Biden’s campaign commercials; and her current job as vice chair and a consultant at the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware. The university has declined to disclose her contract.

“The Bidens are a very close family and they always try to help each other,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist who worked in Mr. Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign.

The Biden campaign declined repeated requests to interview Ms. Owens for this article, but provided a statement: “Anyone who meets Valerie can immediately see her innate talent and intrinsic skill,” said Elizabeth Alexander, a campaign spokeswoman. “She and her brother have been an indomitable team since they were children. Some might ask, ‘Would she have been successful but for her brother?’ Others might ask the question in reverse.”

As Ms. Owens ventured from her early career as a schoolteacher to a place in the limelight — campaign, government and private work tied to her brother’s political fortune — she gained a reputation as a driven and passionate advocate, both for her brother and for women.

Over the years, Ms. Owens has honed her speaking skills. She has been retained as a speaker by companies and organizations, including Bank of America and the MGM Resorts Foundation, frequently to talk about women’s empowerment and body language.

As a volunteer, she has traveled extensively with Women’s Campaign International, a State Department- and USAID-funded organization operated by Marjorie Margolies, a former member of Congress who is also Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law. (Ms. Margolies said Ms. Owens was not paid for her appearances.)

In May 2013 — while Mr. Biden was vice president — Ms. Owens was among the speakers at a conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, that the Justice Department later described as an “attempt at foreign influence.”

Participants — including Ms. Owens, several members of Congress and former aides to Mr. Obama — were led to believe that the Caspian Sea gathering was hosted by the Turquoise Council, a Houston-based nonprofit organization.

But behind-the-scenes funding for the all-expenses-paid meeting came from SOCAR, the state-owned oil company, amid an image-burnishing effort by Azerbaijan’s authoritarian leader, Ilham Aliyev.

“It was an example of what many people don’t like about Washington,” said Michael J.G. Cain, a professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who attended. “There was plenty of money around.” A congressional ethics investigation found that participants were lavished with gifts.

Ms. Owens spoke twice at the gathering, where speaking fees ranged from $2,500 to $15,000 for former Obama administration officials, according to a report by The Washington Diplomat, a publication covering the diplomatic community.

Ms. Owens is advertised by several speakers’ bureaus, with one listing her minimum speaking fee at $40,000.

The Biden campaign would not disclose Ms. Owens’ standard speaking fee.

Ms. Owens was with her brother at the Capitol when they got the phone call telling them that his family had been in a car accident.

Grief-stricken, Mr. Biden thought about relinquishing his Senate seat. His sister would help convince him to stay.

“Val was the critical anchor who helped Joe decide he was going to remain in the Senate, and to decide he was going to go on with life,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, who has known the Biden family for years.

So Ms. Owens took on yet another critical assignment — stand-in mother for Mr. Biden’s two surviving sons. She quit her job as a teacher to stay home with the boys full time. Mr. Biden has called his sister “the cornerstone that allowed me to sustain and then rebuild my family.”

“We moved in with Joe,” Mr. Saunders, Ms. Owens’s first husband, recalled recently. “The commitment at that time was making sure the boys were OK and making sure that Joe was able to fulfill his responsibilities.”

Mr. Saunders subsequently got a big appointment — director of the Delaware Economic Development Office. He credits it to his connection to Mr. Biden.

“That’s how life works,” Mr. Saunders said. “I know my chances were a lot better being his brother-in-law. That’s the only advantage that ever worked for me.”

Ms. Owens remarried in 1975, and her second husband, John T. Owens, a lawyer and businessman, also moved in with Mr. Biden.

Two years later, Ms. Owens and her family moved out of her brother’s home. Mr. Biden had remarried.

Mr. Biden has emphasized his ability to work “across the aisle” with Republicans. That was the case in 1998 when a call came in to then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s office at City Hall: Mr. Biden wanted Mr. Giuliani to hire his niece, Missy Owens — Valerie’s daughter — for a midlevel job in the administration. Mr. Giuliani complied without complaint, four people familiar with the request said.

Missy Owens, now 43, began working on Mr. Giuliani’s legislative affairs team in June 1998, and remained until August of 1999. The mayor’s senior staff thought highly of her political skills, said several of her former colleagues who spoke anonymously because they were discussing private assessments.

She now works as a senior executive with Coca-Cola in Washington and counts herself among the extended friends-and-family group who informally advises her uncle. Shortly after the Obama-Biden team took over in Washington in 2009, Missy Owens and her sister, Casey, both landed federal jobs, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

Missy Owens became deputy chief of staff at the Energy Department in 2009, remaining with the federal government for three years. Casey Owens joined the Treasury Department as special assistant to the senior coordinator for China, also in 2009, and left the government in 2011. Casey Owens, now known as Casey Castello, works in Starbucks management in Seattle.

Ms. Alexander, the spokeswoman for the Biden campaign, said both women brought “impeccable academic and professional credentials” to their government jobs.

In 2008, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released a report, “A Family Affair” that analyzed payments by members of Congress to their relatives. The group ranked Mr. Biden among the “top five senators paying the most money in salaries or fees to family members.” Mr. Biden’s 2002 campaign paid Ms. Owens $51,286 in salary and made $3,618 in payments to her daughter Casey. His leadership PAC also paid $38,974 to Hunter Biden’s firm for legal fees in 2005 and 2006.

Mr. Biden’s campaign said Hunter Biden’s firm worked on the account but he was not involved and received no payments from it.

By that time, Ms. Owens has said, she had been hired by Joe Slade White & Company, which she joined in 1997. She left her job at the company to run her brother’s campaigns, she has said.

Joe Slade White, founder of the media consulting firm, recalled that he was first contacted by Ms. Owens in 1995 during the run-up to Mr. Biden’s fifth Senate race. Worried that his constituents had forgotten what he stood for, Mr. Biden wanted fresh commercials.

Mr. White not only landed the Biden account, but he was also so impressed with Ms. Owens that he hired her.

She remained with the company until Mr. White dissolved it in 2016, but said she took a leave during Mr. Biden’s Senate campaigns as well as his 2008 run for the Democratic nomination, when his campaign paid the firm about $1.6 million.

Much of that money was passed through to broadcasting outlets and not retained by Joe Slade White & Company. Mr. White acknowledged that his arrangement with Ms. Owens was somewhat unusual in the industry, saying he was not aware of any top politician who had a relative working for the candidate’s media consulting firm.

But he added, “I absolutely know, Joe Biden never got us any campaigns,” Mr. White said.

On the campaign trail, Ms. Owens often recalled how her brother empowered her as a young girl.

“In our family, it made perfect sense that I was going to be his campaign manager,” Ms. Owens told a group in Allendale County in South Carolina, recalling their childhood in Delaware. “He took me with him his whole life. I opened my eyes and he was there. He said, ‘Come on, Val, we’ve got places to go, things to do and people to see, so let’s go.’ And I was his perpetual sidekick.”

Glenn Thrush contributed reporting.

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