Eye on 2016, Clintons Rebuild Bond with Blacks

Amy Chozick and Jonathan Martin, New York Times, December 1, 2013

Inside Bright Hope Baptist Church, the luminaries of Philadelphia’s black political world gathered for the funeral of former Representative William H. Gray III in July. Dozens of politicians—city, state and federal—packed the pews as former President Bill Clinton offered a stirring eulogy, quoting Scripture and proudly telling the crowd that he was once described as “the only white man in America who knew all the verses to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ ”

But it was the presence and behavior of Hillary Rodham Clinton that most intrigued former Gov. Edward G. Rendell: During a quiet moment, Mrs. Clinton leaned over to the governor and pressed him for details about the backgrounds, and the influence, of the assembled black leaders.

Since Mrs. Clinton left the secretary of state post in February, she and her husband have sought to soothe and strengthen their relationship with African-Americans, the constituency that was most scarred during her first bid for the presidency. Five years after remarks by Mr. Clinton about Barack Obama deeply strained the Clintons’ bond with African-Americans, the former first family is setting out to ensure that there is no replay of such trouble in 2016.

Mrs. Clinton used two of her most high-profile speeches, including one before a black sorority convention, to address minority voting rights—an explosive issue among African-Americans since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in June. A month after Mr. Gray’s funeral, Mrs. Clinton and her husband both asked to speak at the service for Bill Lynch, a black political strategist who is credited with the election of David N. Dinkins as mayor of New York, and stayed for well over two hours in a crowd full of well-connected mourners. And there have been constant personal gestures, especially by the former president.

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This task has taken on new urgency given the Democratic Party’s push to the left, away from the centrist politics with which the Clintons are identified. Strong support from black voters could serve as a bulwark for Mrs. Clinton against a liberal primary challenge should she decide to run for president in 2016. {snip}

Her appearance before the sisters of Delta Sigma Theta in July, which she opened by offering condolences to the family of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was killed in Florida last year, and her voting rights address to the American Bar Association in August drew significant attention among black leaders.

“That speech that she gave regarding voting suppression was very, very significant and meaningful,” said Representative James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress. Mr. Clyburn, who clashed sharply with Mr. Clinton in 2008, said Mrs. Clinton was “now in a very good place with the African-American community.”

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The Clintons appear to be taking nothing for granted. Mr. Clinton did not just attend the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on the National Mall in August, but also showed up at Arlington Cemetery in June to honor Medgar Evers on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. In May, Mr. Clinton was the commencement speaker at Howard University in Washington, posing for pictures with all who asked and sitting on stage next to one of the school’s best-known graduates, L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor from Virginia, a longtime friend and rival of Mr. Clinton’s.

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Mr. Clinton has a rich, if occasionally fraught, history with African-Americans. He was a New South governor and a progressive on race who would eventually be called “the first black president” by the author Toni Morrison. But he infuriated blacks in 2008 when, after Mr. Obama won a big South Carolina primary victory, he seemed to dismiss the achievement by reminding the press that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had won the state twice and calling Mr. Obama’s antiwar position “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

Many African-Americans took Mr. Clinton’s fairy tale comment to mean that Mr. Obama’s candidacy itself was a hopeless fantasy.

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For other black leaders, Mr. Clinton’s showstopping speech at last year’s Democratic convention was equally important.

“The defining moment for me was both when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state and Bill Clinton’s tremendous speech on behalf of President Obama,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat who backed Mr. Obama in 2008. “Those both occurred when a lot of people in the community were paying close attention.”

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