The original President Clinton bounded into Virginia on Wednesday to stump for his wife, who
is fighting a much closer than expected Democratic primary battle against Bernie Sanders six days before Super Tuesday.
“We need to win Virginia! We need every vote in Virginia!” Bill Clinton said to a thrilled crowd at the Hippodrome Theater in Richmond’s Jackson-Ward neighborhood, once knows as the “Harlem of the South.”
The venue, and the mostly African American crowd, was a reminder of how important the black vote is expected to be for Hillary Clinton in Virginia and other Southern states that hold their primaries Tuesday.
Bill Clinton touched on many issues important to African American communities, including police brutality, criminal justice reform and voting rights. He also reminded the faithful of his and his wife’s long history with the commonwealth, a key swing state in the general election whose governor, Terry McAuliffe (D), is a close friend and political ally.
The latest polls show Sanders has closed to within 12 points of Hillary Clinton in Virginia, which was supposed to be an easy win for her. McAuliffe and virtually every other member of the state’s Democratic political elite have been campaigning for her in recent weeks.
Before the former president spoke, Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones (D), who is African American, told the crowd that he has been proud to call President Obama “Brother President” for the past several years. “I can’t wait until November to be able to say ‘Sister President,’ ” he said.
Earlier in the day, Bill Clinton appeared at a sweltering recreation center in Alexandria that was packed with more than 300 fervent Hillary Clinton supporters, several of whom acknowledged in interviews that their friends seem more entranced by Sanders.
“I think a lot more people my age are inclined to vote for Bernie,” said Caroline Treschitta, 18, who volunteers for the Clinton campaign.
“Yeah, free college!” said Tess Harkin, 18. “But a lot of people who have already been involved in the political process are for Hillary.”
The former president touted Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments as first lady in the 1990s, a U.S. senator in the early 2000s and secretary of state in Obama’s first term. Along the way, he reminded the crowd of his time in the White House.
“I came to T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria the day after the Columbine shooting because I knew there were kids all over America terrified and I wanted them to see their president talking to children about this,” he said.
Reminding voters of the strong economy during his time in office, Clinton said his wife has a plan to revive better times for workers who haven’t had raises even though their productivity is rising and their companies are making more money.
“You can’t deny how successful everybody was when he was in office,” said Pamela Chance of Alexandria. “He’s one of my favorite presidents.”
Others spoke pragmatically of this year’s Democratic race, which has become a tight battle between the Democratic establishment that supports her and younger, more disaffected party members who are backing the senator from Vermont.
“Bernie has the fire in the stomach, but he’s not realistic,” said Linda DeLeon, who volunteered for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.
Kathy Kogut said she remains undecided about whom to vote for Tuesday, although she said she is certain she will vote Democratic. (There is no party registration in Virginia, and voters can opt to participate in either the Democratic or the Republican primary.)
“My perfect candidate would be a mix of the two,” Kogut said. “My 24-year-old daughter is a big Bernie fan. I lean more toward her, because I don’t think he can get it done.”
Bill Clinton’s 45-minute speech at the Durant Center touched on key Democratic themes, such as equal pay, family-leave assistance, immigration reform and help with college costs.
He also reminded his audience of the vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia and noted that there could be other openings on the court during the next president’s term.
“We’ve got to have a judge on the Supreme Court who wants to expand the right to vote, not contract the right to vote,” he said. “I think we need somebody who will stand her ground on the Supreme Court.”
Portnoy reported from Richmond.