First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton spent her Labor Day holiday yesterday on the telephone, trying to soothe damaged feelings among New York Hispanic leaders upset about her opposition to a clemency offer her husband extended to 16 members of a Puerto Rican terrorist group.
Her announcement on Saturday that President Clinton should revoke his clemency offer caused a backlash of ill feeling among Hispanic leaders in the Empire State on Sunday, a reaction that plainly worried the first lady and her aides as she plans to seek a U.S. Senate seat in her newly adopted state next year. Yesterday, aides said Hillary Clinton was trying to calm the waters before they became any choppier.
"Hillary Clinton knows there are people who feel very strongly about this issue," said Howard Wolfson, the spokesman for her 2000 exploratory committee. "She respects their point of view, and she was reaching out to them today."
A test of whether she has succeeded in putting the issue to rest, or at least in containing its damage, will come today. About 15 to 20 Latino elected officials plan to gather in Manhattan to have a "strategy session" about the clemency controversy and the first lady's response to it, according to the spokesman for one of the more prominent of those leaders, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.
"I think they want to get everybody on the same page," said the spokesman, Clint Roswell.
Aides to Hillary Clinton did not say who she called during her day--at Camp David in the morning and the White House in the afternoon. Sources said one of those on her list was Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a Bronx Democrat who was among the loudest voices denouncing the first lady's clemency position. He told the New York Times that her statement had killed enthusiasm for her campaign in the heavily Democratic Hispanic community.
Other Hispanic activists have suggested that Serrano's harsh comments were not representative, and that one purpose of today's meeting is to show that Latino leaders, while disappointed with Hillary Clinton's handling of the issue, are not prepared to abandon her over it.
Plainly, however, the issue has been an education for the first lady and her team--on both the politics-as-contact-sport that is routine in New York, and on the unprecedented perils of running for office as the spouse of a sitting president.
For Hillary Clinton, the clemency issue was, until a few weeks ago, an obscurity--exactly what it was for everyone but a committed group of Hispanic and human rights activists. The 16 Puerto Ricans in question have not been directly linked to violent acts, but were members of a group known as FALN, or Armed Forces of National Liberation, that was responsible for bombings in the 1970s and 1980s. They have not accepted the terms of Clinton's clemency offer, which includes requirements that they renounce violence and accept limits on meetings with other convicted felons. The Orlando Sentinel reported from San Juan, however, that two of the prisoners--sisters Alicia and Ida Luz Rodriguez--will agree to the clemency offer today.
Hillary Clinton's advisers have insisted that, through little doing of their own, they have reaped the worst from all sides on the issue. When President Clinton offered clemency, over the opposition of law enforcement officials, many commentators suggested that the move was to help Hillary Clinton curry favor with Hispanic voters in New York. She and aides have said that that was never the case, and that she played no role in the decision.
But she began to be hurt by it even so, as prominent New York politicians, including Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles E. Schumer, both Democrats, responded with either criticism or skeptical questions. Her likely Republican opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, also was critical, as were police groups. Her efforts to distance herself created the awkward--but likely to be more common--situation of Hillary Clinton being at odds with her husband, and left an impression of an emerging campaign not yet fully nimble in anticipating and responding to controversies.
President Clinton has set a deadline of Friday for the convicted Puerto Ricans to accept the terms of his clemency offer.