Hillary Clinton's Campaign: The Making of a Machine
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It's before 9 in the morning on a chilly, tree-lined street in South Carolina's capital city, Columbia, and the minivans and cars are converging on a pre-Civil War home owned by Celia Mann, a slave who bought her freedom. There are 48 hours left before the state's Democratic primary election, and "Women for Hillary" are holding a reception before fanning out to five cities to urge women to support Hillary Clinton.
"Those of you who know me know that women's history is my passion," said Anne Lewis, who heads the Clinton campaign's outreach to women. She spoke to three dozen women and a handful of men who lingered around a historic preservation signpost that extolled Celia Mann's accomplishment. "When I read that sign and walk through that house, I think, 'If she can do it, every one of us can do it, too.'"
Those who came were a mix of ordinary and extraordinary women, from local girl scout troop leader Judy Cartwright, who said of Clinton, "She's been to the White House with her husband, and she's going back to the White House," to Ellen Malcolm, who created EMILY's List, which stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast, and has raised millions in campaign cash for pro-choice candidates for years. Motown pop star Mary Wilson of the Supremes was there, as was Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., the second-newest member of the House of Representatives. "I am the same age as Sen. Obama," she said. "I am from a mixed-race family like him. Why would a young African-American woman like me support Sen. Clinton?"
Indeed, that is the question; what is behind the strength of Hillary Clinton's powerful appeal to women and others, including African-Americans, in Saturday's primary? Those assembled for the "All Voices Count" kickoff on Thursday morning had personal and political reasons for not just backing Clinton, but for making her struggle their own. Their reasons were repeated by many elected officials -- from South Carolina and elsewhere -- who were working for Clinton in the state. Together, their presence and voices have created a new and powerful political machine that is invested in expanding the legacy started by America's 42nd president, William Jefferson Clinton.
Some of those at the Krispy Kreme donuts and coffee kickoff just liked Hillary Clinton, and said, echoing the well-known campaign talking point, that she was prepared to lead. "She knows the job that she has to do and the job she is faced with," Cartwright said. "I think she is strong enough to do the job." Cartwright, an African-American, said gender and race had nothing to do with it. "It's who will be best. She's more experienced."
Standing with Cartwright was Fay Shorter, also from Columbia. When asked if she had considered Sen. Barack Obama, she replied with a feisty, "Oh, yes. But I can't do that."
"I was excited when he became a candidate," she explained. "I'm not saying that he is not smart and knowledgeable. But in this day and time, the person with the most knowledge and experience who can best serve this country is Hillary Clinton." When asked what she meant by experience, Shorter replied, "Working with her husband, naturally. But she stands on her own. I can remember when she came to Columbia to work with the Children's Defense Fund many years before Bill was president. She is a leader."
Hillary Clinton's work for children was no mere talking point in this crowd. The women here said that early effort as a young lawyer resonated with them as much as her personal fight to break glass ceilings during her career. Clinton's struggle was their struggle, they said, and no one expressed that sentiment more clearly than Marguerite Willis, an upbeat lawyer who made the rounds saying, "I'm from Florence, married to the mayor down there." Willis, who interrupted her conversation with several "Hello darling, how are you?" greetings, said she and Clinton have faced the same hurdles professionally.
"I am an antitrust lawyer," Willis said. "Hillary Clinton and I are about the same age. We have similar backgrounds. As a woman who has spent many years developing her own career, I relate to her as someone who has put in 35 years of service. I have that camaraderie. Her success is my success. We both struggle with the so-called glass ceilings."
Those were her personal reasons. But she had political reasons as well. "The issues that are most important for South Carolina are bread-and-butter issues that are important to women," Willis said. "In South Carolina, we are undereducated and underemployed. We need jobs. We need better skills. We need better healthcare. And the face of poverty in South Carolina is a single mother in the rural areas, like where Florence is."
But was not Obama, a lawyer who spent several years doing community organizing and voting rights advocacy in Chicago, also an advocate for the poor, Willis was asked. She responded with a raised eyebrow and said, "The difference with Obama and Hillary is Obama did community organizing, but Hillary worked for kids ... Women in this state make 72 cents for every dollar a man earns."
But there was more to Hillary Clinton's appeal to women than her advocacy for children, the camaraderie of pushing through social barriers and glass ceilings, and even standing with her man while Bill Clinton was president.
Laura Richardson, the new California congresswoman, said the relationships the Clintons have -- fostered through two presidencies and afterwards -- and the ability to use those ties will be needed to repair George W. Bush's destructive legacy. "At this particular time, we need the best-qualified person who is familiar with the country and has a record of delivering," she said. "It will take years to repair this country after this administration. It will take the relationships that she has to heal this country."
Richardson said the Clintons' political ties were extraordinary, and she felt that she, too, could better serve her constituents by working for Hillary Clinton. "Yesterday, I rode in a van with former Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater. I am the second-newest member of Congress. I sit on the Transportation Committee. I asked him how to do things for my district ... She can call on people who are the experts."
And it didn't hurt that Richardson was able to spend casual time with Ellen Malcolm, who runs EMILY's List, which funnels donations to pro-choice candidates. "How are you doing?" Richardson said to Malcolm, who replied, "Fine. But how are you doing? That's what I want to know."
The power base
The Clinton campaign has drawn the support of many Democratic Party insiders and some of the party's best-known personalities, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus. On Thursday, one of the House's best-known members, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and now the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, flew to Columbia to begin two days of campaigning for Clinton in a state where half of the Democratic Party electorate is African-American. He and ex-New York City Mayor David Dinkins, whose flight was delayed, were first to meet with state legislators.
Brookfield Baptist Church is one of Columbia's biggest African-American churches. It is a series of big brick buildings, including a chapel, banquet center, health and wellness center and childcare center. It offers a buffet-style, fried chicken and biscuits lunch that attracts a well-dressed, conservative-looking crowd from the nearby state capitol neighborhood.
The Clinton campaign portrayed the power lunch with the New York politicians as a meeting with legislators. Two of Clinton's biggest backers from the statehouse, Sens. Darrel Jackson and Robert Ford, were among the half-dozen lawmakers who turned out. When Rangel arrived, a reporter from New York asked what he was doing there. "I have no idea," Rangel glibly replied, smiling broadly. "I am campaigning for Hillary Clinton. This is my first stop. I am here to do what they want."
Sen. Jackson said it didn't matter whether Rangel knew what his plans would be. The fact that one of the most powerful politicians in America was putting himself at Clinton's disposal spoke volumes about her candidacy and what it means when Clinton says that she is ready to govern from day one.
"I think that Charles Rangel being here today exemplifies what experience means," he said. "He is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He knows how to get things done in Washington. She doesn't need to cultivate a relationship with Charles Rangel. She has done that ... She picks up the phone and calls him."
That same point was echoed by another African-American state representative, David Mack. But he said that the state's African-American voters faced a very hard choice. "A majority of the black community are for Obama," he said. "It's an emotional decision for people ... I think the polls will be off. A lot of older folks will not say who they will vote for. That's why I feel strongly that it will be a close race. We have been working hard to get the message out to African-Americans that experience matters. It takes skill to get this (a Democratic presidency) off to a fast start. She has a larger resume."
But State Sen. Robert Ford, of Charleston, said he was disgusted by the recent turn of events in the campaign -- where after many months, race emerged as an issue and factor.
"How is it going?" he said, sarcastically, looking disgusted. "Good before they started to play the race card. Now it's about race pride. You can't beat that. Jesse (Jackson) won South Carolina twice, in '84 and '88. No way you can beat that in South Carolina."
"What's happening is people are playing the race card," he said, referring to the media and Obama campaign, while serving himself lunch. "Vote for him because he's black. It was a perfect campaign until a week and a half ago ... People ask me, 'How can you support a white woman over a black man?' It is because she is the best candidate who has ever run for president. She was in the White House for eight years. This is before she was a senator ... but it's about race pride now, and in this state, you can't overcome that."
The 42nd president
Of course, there is no more powerful or persuasive surrogate speaker for Hillary Clinton than her husband, the country's 42nd president. On Thursday, as candidate Clinton was on one side of this small, mostly rural state delivering a major speech on the economy, Bill Clinton had four campaign stops, including speaking in Walterboro, a town of 5,500 people whose population was evenly split between whites and minorities, including a small number of Latinos.
Walterboro is small-town America. Like a lot of struggling communities, the largest employer in town is the regional medical center and school system. There is some local manufacturing, but outside the town's antebellum downtown -- where large oak trees with hanging Spanish Moss shade white, wood-framed houses with large porches -- the strip malls contain too many check-cashing businesses, a sign that many area residents are too poor to have their own bank accounts.
Clinton spoke in an old high school auditorium. The audience was three-quarters white and filled with people who mostly were middle-aged or older. A nurse who works at the regional medical center heard about the visit earlier in the day and picked up her daughter from childcare and came over. She said not too many people were free to leave their jobs at 3 p.m. to hear a former president.
Still, Clinton was undeterred and unstoppable. He was introduced by McKinley Washington, the African-American ex-congressman. "It is my honor to not introduce to you, but to present to you one of the greatest presidents we have ever known," he said, in a deep baritone. Clinton then took the stage in front of a large American flag and thanked Washington, wished the mayor, who was ill, well, and greeted a retired Army general, Navy admiral and under secretary of the Army in the front row. He then launched into an hourlong talk and 30-minute question-and-answer session that extolled the accomplishments of his administration, criticized the Bush administration, and suggested that Hillary Clinton would continue and expand his policies. "This has been an immensely rewarding campaign season for me, because I have been spending time saying what is on my mind and why Hillary should be president," he told the crowd.
If Barack Obama's speeches are talks of a new leadership style, a new tone in governing and a sensitivity to the under-represented in America, Bill Clinton delivered a campaign version of a State of the Union speech, declaring what Hillary would do about the economy, energy independence, job creation, healthcare reform, banking reform, immigration reform, and foreign policy -- and saying how she would pay for it all.
"Of all these people running, Hillary has the most aggressive plan," he said, speaking on the banking and credit crisis. "If every American had electronic medical records, it would save $80 billion a year. That's 80 percent of the cost right there," he said speaking of her plan to provide healthcare and stabilize the costs to all Americans.
"She will create millions and millions of jobs by creating energy-efficient jobs," he said, saying his wife supported a green energy public works project akin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, where the government put millions of people to work rebuilding America in the 1930s. "In the last decade, only 5 million were jobs created in U.S.," Clinton said. "That is nothing."
Bill Clinton also said candidate Clinton has a better record of working with Republicans than the other candidates, which means she will be able to get things done. "One of the next things the next president must do is have Republican support in the Senate," he said. "By far, she has the best record of working with Republicans. Your Sen. Lindsay Graham, she has worked with him to get body armor for soldiers in Iraq, to get more healthcare for veterans."
Perhaps 300 people attended the Walterboro campaign stop. When it was over, scores of attendees went to shake his hand. But among the African-Americans interviewed after the event, half were persuaded to vote for Clinton -- and half were leaning to Obama.
"She's the only candidate running," said William Mourse, a retiree. "There is more at stake than ethnic pride. This election is a great decision for the country. For me, it is an easy decision ... She is sincere. I feel it ... She will accomplish things if there's a good Congress behind her."
But Mahaliah Campbell, from nearby Summerville, was not persuaded. Speaking of Obama, she said, "I think he is what we need for change in the country right now. It has nothing to do with the Clintons. It has nothing to do with race. We need a fresh start. I think he is the better candidate this time."
No matter what happens in Saturday's primary -- where the season's unreliable polls are predicting an Obama victory -- the Clinton campaign machine will live to fight another day in many other states. Obama is not merely running against another senator, or many current and former elected officials, or an ex-president, he is running against the deepest and best-organized Democratic campaign in years. And when Hillary Clinton says she has the experience to govern from day one, there are an inordinate number of public officials who want to join her on that January day in 2009, and they are vigorously campaigning for her in states like South Carolina.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and co-author of What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election , with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).