In one of her first, major public appearances after leaving the State Department, Hillary Clinton spoke at the Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s national centennial celebration last summer, an event that drew tens of thousands of college-educated African American women to Washington.
In her remarks, Clinton dropped names like Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Dorothy Height, women that she had known through the years, as she recalled the history of the civil rights movement and prominent Deltas who had a hand in shaping that history.
“Delta means change, but it also means progress and justice and integrity and faith and family and community,” she said, laying out the values of an organization that boasts some 200,000 members. “I know that because over the years I’ve had the privilege to learn from quite a few Delta women who embodied those values.”
What was clear from that speech is that Clinton has deep ties to a certain class and generation of black women. But as supporters try to create a successful draft Hillary movement, the question is whether she can broaden her appeal to include a younger and more working class group of black women, who were crucial to President Obama’s rise.
For a time in the 2008 primary race, Clinton held an advantage over Obama among black voters. And that gap had everything to do with Clinton’s strong support among black women. According to a 2007 CNN poll, black women supported Clinton over Obama, 68 percent to 25 percent, whereas black men were evenly split between the two candidates.
But that was a bitter primary — when Bill Clinton alienated many black voters by likening Obama’s win in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson’s win a decade earlier, suggesting essentially that it was a race-based fluke — and two general elections ago.
“I think most of that bitterness is gone, but there still might be some there, so it is important for them to reach out to women, who are not a monolith, specifically women of color,” said Daniella Gibbs Léger, who worked in the Obama White House and is now at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. “And it’s important to acknowledge those differences and acknowledge that a certain set of issues has a different level of importance to African-American women.”
To that end, Clinton supporters are launching a concerted effort to identify black supporters now, specifically black women, who would be key to Clinton’s efforts should she decide to run.
Pegged to Black History Month, Ready for Hillary, an outside spending group that wants to swell its database of names, raise money and start organizing for a potential campaign, recently launched an effort to target black voters and has a number of events on the calendar to specifically reach black women. On Monday evening, the Super Pac hosted a roundtable event for prominent, politically connected black women in Washington to lay out their plans and to get feedback and advice on their efforts.
On Wednesday evening reality TV star Omarosa Manigault and Jeff Johnson, a political commentator, hosted an event in Baltimore. Also on the agenda, an event with Noel Jones, a pentecostal minister who starred in the TV reality show, Preachers of L.A. On Thursday, South Carolina state representative and lieutenant governor candidate, Bakari Sellers, hosted a low dollar ($20.16) Ready for Hillary event.
This weekend, the group will set up a table at the Bronner Bros. International Hair show in Atlanta, an event that draws tens of thousands of hair industry professionals from across the South for networking and competing.
“Black women are the highest performing voters for the Democratic party,” said Quentin James, who is heading up the strategy for Ready for Hillary. “Some people say: ‘You have them, don’t focus on that area.’ But we want to engage them now and drive up the margins….some of the black women in the South, say, ‘We are supporters of Hillary, but how do we support Obama in the next 2 years.’”
Connecting Clinton to Obama on specific issues like voting rights is part of the messaging, with an overall goal of rebuilding and replicating Obama’s approach to black voters, which was highly targeted and culturally resonant.
In 2008, an image of Obama sitting in a barber’s chair, clad in a smock and getting his hair cut, was iconic and a staple of barber shops across the country. And black businesses (and homes) across the country still feature prominent photos of Obama and the first family.
For Clinton, there isn’t an easy parallel or that same sense of cultural connection. Her husband had a strong cultural affinity with African Americans, so much so that some dubbed Bill Clinton the first black president. In 2007, in Selma, Hillary Clinton famously and awfully mimicked a Southern drawl from the pulpit of a black church while reciting a line from a gospel hymn.
To some, her approach seemed condescending and smacked of trying too hard, a challenge that likely remains.
“I think going to the hair show is kind of a dumb idea. If you want to educate stylists and barbers, that might be the logic, but this has to be done artfully, if it isn’t it could be a problem,” Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University said. “I get why they would want to enlist these folks, they are opinion leaders and they hold court all day, but it will have to happen organically.”
Clinton backers are looking to rack up as many early endorsements from black elected officials, particularly Congressional Black Caucus members. Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin is part of the early efforts, which she said are partly word of mouth and networking. She acknowledged that one challenge is expanding that network to include and engage a younger generation that isn’t necessarily connected to establishment political leaders.
“How does one generation bridge to another, that’s the question that all of us have. I’m 68. How do you connect with a new generation that gets their news a different way, doesn’t remember Selma, integration of schools, or Aretha Franklin for that matter or Etta James,” Franklin said. “You work at it, you use the technology and you use the means that they use, you use the format they use, more informal, decentralized, that’s one of the ways.”
At Monday’s roundtable event, which was on background so guests could be candid, one major issue raised among the roughly 20 women on hand, was acknowledging that for black women, feminism has often been about the problems of white women, and that in branding and messaging efforts it’s important to specifically address women of color.
One suggestion: Highlighting Clinton’s inner circle, which includes top advisers and confidantes, Maggie Williams, Cheryl Mills and Minyon Moore, all of whom are black. Also, specifically talking about “black women” rather than more general groupings like “unmarried women” and emphasizing the roles that black women have played in deciding elections.
“There has to be a recognition that race matters,” Gillespie said.