The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton talks middle-class roots in pitch to Iowa small business owners

NORWALK, IOWA - APRIL 15: Secretary Hillary Clinton meets with small business owners at Capitol City Fruit for a roundtable discussion in Norwalk, Iowa on Wednesday, April 15, 2015. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

NORWALK, Iowa – You may think of her as the wife of a president or as a globe-trotting diplomat, but Hillary Rodham Clinton wants voters here to see her as the granddaughter of an immigrant factory worker and the daughter of a small businessman who printed fabric for draperies and then went out and sold them.

“A waste-not, want-not kind of a guy,” she said, “and he provided a good living for us.”

At the start of her 2016 presidential campaign, Clinton has offered herself as a champion for everyday Americans – and appearing Wednesday in this Des Moines suburb, she said she wanted to be a champion of small business owners, too. Unwilling to cede this constituency to Republicans, Clinton said she wants to “build the economy of tomorrow, not yesterday.”

Although Clinton said she won’t roll out her specific policy agenda until later in the spring, she used a one-hour roundtable session with a half dozen small business owners to advocate making it easier for entrepreneurs to get loans to start businesses, institute family-friendly policies for employees and lower the costs of prescription drugs. She also forcefully defended President Obama’s signature health care law and called for comprehensive immigration reform so that people who come to the United States to work can do so legally.

[Clinton hits the trail in Iowa, again]

At moments, Clinton sounded like a Republican candidate as she bemoaned the obstacles for America’s small business owners. She cited a World Bank survey ranking the United States 46th in the world in difficulty of starting a small business.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton sat down with small business owners in Iowa as she campaigns for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination on Wednesday. (Video: Reuters)

“We have to be number one again,” Clinton said. “For so many decades it was taken for granted that we would be -- and we were -- but slowly over time it’s become more difficult, more expensive, more red tape, unnecessary regulation that has really put a damper” on economic growth.

For an hour on Wednesday afternoon, Clinton sat at the head of a table in Capital City Fruit, a warehouse that packages tomatoes, watermelons and other produce, asking small business owners about their struggles. A bowling alley owner said it was hard for him to get credit for his business while still paying off his student loans. And digital advertising agency owner complained about her firm’s high taxes – “over 40 percent,” she said.

When Brendan Comito, Capital City Fruit’s chief operating officer, talked about the difficulties of paying for his employees health insurance coverage, Clinton talked at length about health care policy, a passion of hers for decades.

“I am committed to trying to build on what works in the Affordable Care Act,” she said. But, she added, “We have to do a better job of creating a more competitive marketplace,” especially in smaller states like Iowa.

Katie Stocking, owner of the ad agency, Happy Medium, told Clinton it was difficult to find work-life balance for young mothers in her company. “Boy, you are right on my wavelength,” Clinton responded, saying the United States needs national paid leave for new parents.

Clinton also called for comprehensive immigration reform. “We are turning down people who really want to work,” she said. Noting that all of her grandparents immigrated to the United States, Clinton said, “I sit here and I think you’re talking about the second and third generation – that’s me, that’s you. We are saying to all these other people who want the same dreams and the same aspirations, and the willingness to work hard just like our families did, no, we’re not going to make it easy for you, we’re not going make it legal for you.”

Clinton’s event in Norwalk came on the second day of her tour through Iowa, where she has had what are billed as intimate conversations with ordinary citizens. On Wednesday morning, she visited the Tremont Grille in Marshalltown (“Home of Muddy Waters Coffee Co.”), where she greeted the owners and customers and ordered a skim latte.

From Norwalk, Clinton headed to the State Capitol in Des Moines for a private meeting with Democratic state legislators. She is expected to hold additional political meetings here before flying home on Thursday morning.

Tim Tracy, co-chairman of the Carroll County Democratic Party, said he came to the Norwalk event for a chance to see the Clinton campaign in action and to invite her to an event his organization is hosting in July.

Standing outside the packing house before Clinton arrived, the 2008 supporter of Barack Obama said Clinton is doing things right this time.

“Obama seemed to connect better with Democrats here in Iowa last time,” Tracy said. “Hillary came in and did media events, mostly. There was a perception that it was being run as a top-down organization.”

The large and growing Clinton field staff in the state this time appears much more attuned to the way politics works in Iowa, Tracy said. He likes the small events and said he doesn’t mind the very limited access granted even to activists and party officials on this first campaign swing. He was able to pass a paper invitation to a senior campaign staffer but not to the candidate herself.

“Here we sit across from people at the table and size them up,” and can spot a phony right away, Tracy said. “Here we get to cut through the hype and the sound bites, and understand whether they are sincere.”