By Ashley Obuljen for

President Joe Biden tonight suggested getting to a $15 per-hour minimum wage over time would still stimulate the economy while easing the burden on small business owners in the Midwest.

“It’s about doing it gradually,” Biden told a CNN town hall at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee in response to a question from audience member Randy Lange, co-owner of Lange Bros. Woodworking in Milwaukee.

Biden continued, “No one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty. But it’s totally legitimate for small business owners to worry about how that changes.”

Biden in his stimulus bill proposed a $15-an-hour minimum wage. But opposition has emerged in Congress.

Tim Eichinger, co-owner of Black Husky Brewing, a Milwaukee operation with nine employees, explained to Biden how the pandemic hurt his small business.

“With the pandemic, our business has gone down about 50 percent,” said Eichinger, who noted his brewery has heavily relied on loans and grants. “The new assistance has been too slow and recently, it’s gotten more restrictive.”

Biden emphasized the need for inspectors general and criticized the Trump administration’s distribution of some Paycheck Protection Program loans.

In answering questions about the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Biden also called for increased inquiries into police brutality and racial injustice, but reiterated his position against defunding the police. According to Biden, more people of color should be in the police force and more money should be invested to improve police work.

Dannie Evans, pastor at the Janesville House of God Church and member of the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities, asked Biden how communities can prevent over-legislating police officers while also training officers to “police with compassion.”

“By number one, not defunding the police,” Biden answered. “We have to put more money in police work so we have legitimate community policing and we’re in a situation where we change the legislation.”

Biden also commented on inequity in drug charges as the Wisconsin Legislature prepares to reject Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to legalize recreational marijuana, suggesting enforcement funds should be reallocated toward rehabilitation.

“No one should go to jail for a drug offense. No one should go to jail for the use of a drug,” Biden said. “They should go to drug rehabilitation.”

Biden’s first official trip as president comes about six months after he stayed in Delaware instead of going to Milwaukee for the 2020 Democratic National Convention due to the spread of coronavirus. Just one month later, then-presidential candidate Biden visited Kenosha following unrest in response to the police shooting of Blake.

“There’s a lot going on in Wisconsin,” Biden said when asked why he was traveling to Milwaukee for the town hall.

While statewide COVID-19 cases are trending downward, more than 550,000 Wisconsinites have been infected with the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.

Despite studies showing low community spread in K-12 schools, Biden said teachers should be a higher priority for vaccinations.

“We should move them up in the hierarchy,” Biden said.

In order to reopen schools safely, Biden said, personal protective equipment must be mandated and classroom sizes need to be cut down, which could increase demand for teachers. When asked by Jessica Salas, a Wisconsin graphic designer and mother, about when children will receive COVID-19 vaccines, Biden reassured the questioner’s 8-year-old daughter, telling her “don’t be scared” of the coronavirus.

Biden’s American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package promising $1,400 per person checks, has been met with opposition from Republicans since it was introduced in January. During the town hall, Biden claimed the bill could help create 7 million jobs in 2021.

“Now’s the time we should be spending,” Biden said. “Now’s the time to go big.”

Upon arrival at General Mitchell International Airport, Biden spoke with U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley.

A small group of Black Lives Matter protestors gathered outside the perimeter of the venue, the Pabst Theater, before the event.

See clips from the event at CNN:

Read the transcript:

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