By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008
PHILADELPHIA -- Slow R&B music played as the after-work crowd trickled into Warmdaddy's, a South Philadelphia restaurant and jazz club where the hostess wears a square button with Sen. Barack Obama's smiling face and two Obama '08 placards hang from the window.
Support for the senator from Illinois may be in doubt in other parts of Pennsylvania, but Warmdaddy's is a stronghold for Obama supporters in a city he is expected to win in Tuesday's Democratic primary. And in recent weeks, as Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) has pushed the notion that Obama is "out of touch" with working-class voters, the goodwill the restaurant's African American clientele had for her has dropped sharply.
When Clinton again raised the issue at Wednesday's televised debate, Zoe Ashby, who has worked at the club for 14 years, had had enough. Ashby, 54, said she tried hard not to get upset by what she saw as more direct attacks by Clinton on Obama, but a few times she felt her face get hot.
"The campaign has gotten far too personal," she said. "I'm not angry [at Clinton], but I am disappointed. The least little thing he says, they will take it out of context."
Ashby said that she once thought highly of Clinton, but that she would now only reluctantly support the senator if she defeats Obama and wins the nomination.
"I think what is most important to her is Hillary, not the party," Ashby said. "If it was the reverse, with her leading Obama in pledged delegates, people would be saying he needs to step down. There would be more pressure to bring the party together. Why do you think it is like this?"
Vernita Colclough, 37, and her husband Wade, 41, sat at a booth in Warmdaddy's, each eating shrimp and grits. They, too, have grown tired of rehashing Obama's observation that small-town voters have grown "bitter," as well as questions about his patriotism and church affiliation. But this is Philadelphia, home of rough-and-tumble machine politics. In a close contest, you can expect mud-slinging, Wade Colclough said.
"I think a lot of folks are forgetting that politics is a contact sport and this is a heated challenge," he said. "What I hear from [Clinton] is either a scare commercial or some type of sound bite. That's old politics."
Vernita Colclough initially backed Clinton before being convinced of Obama's electability. Colclough said she worries whether "these petty little things, regardless of who the nominee is, will come back in November."
Clinton's problems with African Americans began during the South Carolina primary. After she remarked that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. needed the help of President Lyndon Johnson to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, it sparked an uproar among black voters. Former president Bill Clinton exacerbated the problem when he pointed out after Obama's double-digit victory that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had won the state in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency, a comparison that some Obama supporters called racially divisive.
The result has been a sharp drop-off in Clinton's popularity among black Democrats. The percentage holding strongly favorable views of her has fallen from 55 percent after the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8 to 24 percent, according to polling by The Washington Post and ABC News.
When Bill Clinton visited Philadelphia last month to stump for his wife before the city's Democratic leaders, State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, an Obama supporter, said he told the former president he was concerned about the tone of the campaign and did not want to see racial subtleties seep into the Pennsylvania race. Yet, the story line of the campaign here has been focused on who can win over white working-class voters -- who understands them and who doesn't, he said.
"This thing about honky-tonk America, drinking a beer and shooting guns, is just patronizing to people in small towns and in big cities, where we also feel forgotten about," Williams said. "I don't think it's good for the country. I don't think it's good for the Democratic Party, and it's not good for African Americans, who have been loyal supporters of the Democratic Party. Whether people like it or not, these scars will remain after the Democratic primary is over."
West Philadelphia ward leader Carol Campbell said some constituents have told her "they could never support [Clinton]. They think she went too far. I've heard a lot of them say that if she would stoop to this to win the nomination, what would she do as president?"
Still, a dozen black voters interviewed at Warmdaddy's and Diane & Tom's Café, a soul-food restaurant in the city's Germantown area, said they would vote for her in November if she is the nominee, even though they are Obama supporters.
"I think the love that people used to have for the Clintons -- both Bill and Hillary -- that's tarnished significantly in the last couple of months, [but we] understand these are political campaigns," said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, who is backing Obama. "The Democratic Party has a history of having these fights and figuring out a way to come together, but it will take a lot of work."
Clinton, who has the support of Philadelphia's first-term mayor, Michael A. Nutter, has been careful not to step on any more toes here. At a party dinner this week attended primary by black politicians, she spoke glowingly about the chance both candidates have to make history.
Polling director Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.