By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008
DUNCANSVILLE, Pa. -- Five family members gathered last Thursday afternoon in their living room, shades drawn, to remember. They sat in big, cushioned chairs and shared stories to fight their sadness. There was the time Hillary asked them for money, and they cobbled together about $50 even though they couldn't spare it. Or the time Hillary encouraged them to walk door to-door around the neighborhood, and they overcame shyness and spent the afternoon laughing with new friends.
"She touched a lot of people," said Theresa Gropelli, 43, who spoke in the room with her husband, her parents and her sister. "I only wish she had stayed around longer."
Their wake-like ceremony for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign involved all the usual stages of grief, from denial to depression and from anger to acceptance. Like thousands of other Clinton supporters across the country last week, they mourned the political passing of a woman who so inspired them that she felt less like a distant politician than a dear friend.
As always at wakes, the talk turned quickly to memories. Never before politically active, Gropelli and her sister, Kathy Bem, knocked on doors, made phone calls and sent donations during Clinton's campaign. They stayed up late to monitor primary results. They spent an afternoon mingling with supporters at a local campaign rally. Like many other women, they engaged in politics more than they ever imagined possible.
"I never could have done this for any other candidate," said Bem, 44. "Hillary was so prepared to be president. She knew everything, she had the experience, and she was just such a fighter. It became a personal attachment for me. For the first time, it was like we were rooting for one of us."
Whom voters such as Bem root for now will help determine the next president. By the end of the prolonged and sometimes divisive Democratic primaries, more than a quarter of Clinton voters said they would vote for Republican John McCain against Democrat Barack Obama, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center conducted just before the final votes were cast.
McCain's campaign said last week that it will target Clinton backers, thinking they have more in common with him than with Obama.
Gropelli and Bem won't be among them. They listened to Clinton's withdrawal speech Saturday, and her message confirmed the sisters' intuitions. They will vote for Obama, although they're not sure about campaigning for him. Their family members will vote for Obama, too.
"Hillary made it real clear what we have to do as Democrats," Bem said. "She came across really strong on that, and I trust her. We have to move from one candidate to the other."
On the day Clinton announced her candidacy in January 2007, Gropelli vowed to unite her family behind the senator from New York. A nursing professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Gropelli already had heard her students gossiping excitedly about Obama. "I knew there was no time to waste," she said. "So I started lobbying all of my relatives."
Her family consisted mainly of Democrats, but more so in theory than in practice. The Bems and Gropellis followed politics sometimes, and they usually voted. But three generations had settled, and stayed, in the hills of Pennsylvania for the peace and quiet, for the distance from the problems faced by Washington politicians.
Only, as Clinton launched her campaign early last year, the Gropelli family had more to complain about than ever before.
The cost of gas had rendered Theresa Gropelli's one-hour drive to work nearly unaffordable. Husband Dave Gropelli struggled to secure contracts as a drywaller because of the housing slump. Her 70-year-old mother and father, Helen and Donald Bem, had doubled the size of their food garden -- "from a hobby to a necessity," Donald liked to say -- because of escalating grocery prices. Drug violence had become so endemic in Kathy Bem's downtown Altoona neighborhood that she rarely left the house after dark.
One by one, as the campaign season intensified, they turned to Clinton.
"It's already overdue for a woman to get the job, because we need someone with a new perspective," Helen Bem said.
"She knew her stuff, so I never doubted she could do it," Donald Bem said.
"She was so confident, it made you feel like nothing could go wrong under her watch," Kathy Bem said.
The more Kathy followed the campaign, the more attached she felt. Sometimes, while watching clips on the evening news or listening to Clinton give an interview, she recognized pieces of herself in the candidate -- a strong, self-assured woman determined to compete in a realm traditionally reserved for men.
A while back, Kathy had accepted a job as a bread deliverer. The only woman among dozens of men who held the job in the Altoona region, she woke up six days a week at 3 a.m., loaded her truck with heavy trays and spent her morning wheeling bread carts around Altoona. Co-workers bet she wouldn't last seven months.
"They told me," she said, "that a woman would never make it in this kind of demanding, physical work."
Two years later, she's still delivering. Earlier this year, she picked up a second job to pay off some debt. After she spends eight hours lugging bread trays, she takes a two-hour nap before supervising the day-care center at a fancy health club. It was there, watching during her breaks on a television installed in the women's bathroom, that Kathy regularly tracked news from Clinton's campaign.
"I can't even explain it," Kathy said. "But it's like we were going through it together, and I really had a lot at stake."
As she remembered the connection in her sister's living room, Kathy shook her head.
"It's so sad," she said. "I still can't figure out exactly what went wrong."
As the impromptu wake progressed Thursday, all five family members marveled at how quickly Clinton's campaign had derailed: One month a euphoric high after a 10-point win in the Pennsylvania primary, the next a devastating blow after a bad loss in North Carolina and a narrow win in Indiana.
Surrounded by vestiges of Clinton's campaign -- yard signs and old magazines that they would one day throw out -- the two sisters assigned blame for her derailment. Young people had flocked to Obama. Commentators had demeaned Clinton's opinions and appearance because of her gender. Obama had run an "almost perfect" campaign.
Kathy still hopes Clinton might make a political comeback -- maybe for the vice presidency, or another run in four or eight years.
"I'm not ready to say it's over forever," she said.
"I know. It's too depressing," Theresa said. "The thing that scares me is that I'm not sure there's going to be another woman anytime soon. It could be 30 years, 50 years -- maybe not even in my lifetime. That's a problem. That's why we're going to be thinking about Hillary for a long time."