Bill Clinton Rallies at AFT for Hillary, Urges NYC Voter Turnout


As the Democratic Primary raged on into April, former President Bill Clinton addressed the United Federation of Teachers at their headquarters at 52 Broadway. While Secretary Clinton's opponent Senator Sanders led a rally in the Bronx on March 31, Clinton's husband looked to help knock Sanders out of the race on home turf in Manhattan. In July, the leadership of the UFT endorsed Clinton, and with the New York Primary weeks away, her campaign seeks to increase turnout by employing the grassroots arm of the union. Randi Weingarten, former President of the UFT, introduced Mr. Clinton to the crowd of supporters and union members, urging them to get behind the Clinton campaign.

Acknowledging the surprisingly close Democratic contest and the presence of Sanders supporters among the UFT, Weingarten said, “Bernie, he’s a good guy,” and was then interrupted by a crowd member who completed the sentiment: “But he won’t win!”

“Hillary has gotten things done. She’s had our backs," said Weingarten. 

It is this political pragmatism that has led the labor unions, longtime opponents of the free-trade supporting Clintons, to become the bedrock of the Clinton grassroots effort in New York.

When Mr. Clinton took the stage, he delivered his speech with the off-the-cuff but facts-laden style that has become characteristic of his speeches over the last 40 years, free from notes or teleprompter. Mr. Clinton presented his case for his wife's candidacy to the backdrop of the recent Supreme Court case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which on a 4-4 tie maintained protections for public sector unions.

“This Supreme Court decision should also give you pause, [for] on this hangs the future of the labor movement,” Clinton said, emphasizing that the protections maintained by the vote could disappear should a Republican take the White House and appoint a conservative, anti-labor justice.

The former President of the United States clung fast to the idea of hope throughout his presentation.

“We should be positive about the future," Clinton said.  

In reference to President Obama’s last State of the Union, Mr. Clinton cited important assets of the American labor base.

“We have 90% of people with health insurance …, the best science and technology base, and the best system of education,” said Clinton. "We've just got to make it affordable.”

With his speech, Mr. Clinton continued using the campaign’s strategy that has thus far put his wife’s campaign in a near insurmountable lead over Senator Sanders. He repeatedly tied his wife’s campaign to a continuation of the Obama administration, defending the Affordable Care Act, recent efforts by the White House to pass gun regulations and much of the entire Obama legacy. The Clinton campaign, banking on Obama’s continued popularity among minorities, are hoping that riding on the President’s coattails will be key to boosting turnout among marginal voters.

Mr. Clinton also avoided direct attacks on Senator Sanders. Rather than criticizing Senator Sanders’ plan for free college, Mr. Clinton explained how his wife’s plan for making college more affordable was more practical, and that any other more ambitious plan, a thinly veiled reference to Sanders, would simply be rejected and defunded by Republican state legislatures. Mr. Clinton also continued to paint his wife as a “change maker” who can actually accomplish her goals. In another thinly veiled attack on the Vermont Senator, he explained how both the Vermont Governor and Senior Senator, Peter Shumlin and Patrick Leahy, endorsed Clinton rather than their fellow Green Mountain state colleague.

The speech was a virtual microcosm of the Democratic contest at large. By framing this election as continuing the progress started under President Obama, Mr. Clinton provided an optimistic message, repeatedly saying on a variety of issues that “we are just this close.” This contrasted with Senator Sanders’ calls for a “political revolution” to overhaul the entire political and financial systems. With Mr. Clinton’s choice to emphasize his wife’s experience, and flood his speech with data, the implicit choice presented was one of head over heart, or as Secretary Clinton had previously said, “prose over poetry.”

Throughout his speech, Mr. Clinton repeatedly reminded listeners of the importance of voter turnout, recalling that a lack of turnout in New York hurt his wife’s chances in winning the nomination back in 2008. With the urgency in his voice, and his packed schedule on Thursday that took him across every corner of New York City, meeting with party and labor leaders, Mr. Clinton is not acting like the husband of a candidate in an overwhelming lead in her bid to win the Democratic nomination. That is, perhaps, because, of all people, no one knows better than Mr. Clinton how quickly fortunes can change in politics, and how frontrunners can find themselves fighting for their political life. He has seen, after all, his wife collapse from front runner to runnerup in 2008, and saw in his own career how he beat better known Democrats and a popular incumbent in his own long shot bid for the White House in 1992. That is perhaps why, for Mr. Clinton, winning this campaign is still “just this close.”