Behind Obama, but not with joy

Clinton backers in state still cope with alienation, disappointment


Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

A few weeks ago, Bonnie Chang decided to throw a house party at her home in Bucks County to unite supporters of Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton after the state's bruising, closely fought seven-week primary.

It was not a rip-roaring success.

"The Clinton supporters told me they're going to vote for Obama but they're not going to work for him," said Ms. Chang, a 53-year-old Clinton delegate in the 8th Congressional District who is now busy trying to convince people to volunteer in Mr. Obama's campaign. "They'd say, 'OK, OK, I know he's the nominee, just don't expect me to have a house party for him.'"

As Democrats prepare for their national convention in Denver three weeks hence, Pennsylvania is presenting a mostly positive picture for the presumptive nominee. But while Mr. Obama currently leads Sen. John McCain in Pennsylvania by anywhere from 6 to 9 points, according to most polls, many women delegates who supported Mrs. Clinton in Pennsylvania are still grappling with feelings of disappointment and alienation -- and they say voters are too.

"I just don't think the enthusiasm is there," said Ruth Rudy, a former state legislator and a superdelegate who backed Mrs. Clinton and now supports Mr. Obama. Her home district of Centre County, home to Penn State, went for Mr. Obama, but in the rural areas nearby, disaffection among women -- and men, too -- is deep, bordering on suspicion and even apathy about a candidate they don't know well.

"Some of these people may just not vote," she said. "The women in rural areas, the farm wives, are not necessarily going to be that accepting of a candidate like Sen. Obama. It's not so much about his color, or at least that's not what they're saying. They just don't feel they know him. He does have some more work to do to win them over."

Most state Democratic party officials -- from Gov. Ed Rendell on down -- believe that Mr. Obama will carry Pennsylvania in the November election, and Thursday's Quinnipiac Poll had him leading Sen. John McCain among likely women voters by a 50 to 39 percent margin. Among white women, he is virtually tied in the state with Mr. McCain, whereas in April's Democratic primary, women went for Mrs. Clinton over Mr. Obama by a 14-point margin.

The Obama campaign is making a special effort to reach out to women, said Sean Smith, the campaign's communications director in Pennsylvania. It has hired former Clinton aides and, in town hall meetings and in reports on his Web site, the candidate repeatedly stresses how his economic plans help women.

In Chicago last week, Michelle Obama departed from her prepared speech to speak warmly of Mrs. Clinton, saying "my husband is a better candidate because of her." And on Tuesday, Mr. Obama met privately with a group of women leaders including representatives from the political action committee EMILY's List, which passionately advocated for Mrs. Clinton but now supports Mr. Obama.

"This was the longest primary campaign in the history of the Democratic party," said Ellen Moran, executive director of EMILY's List. "Given the closeness of the outcome, the length of the race and the loyalty supporters felt to their candidates -- when you have that level of investment, yes, you're going to have disappointment when you're on the losing side."

But, she added, "the Obama campaign has taken some very important steps" to heal that divide. "Women, as a voting bloc, hold this election in their hands. We know that a healthy gender gap produces a Democratic president."

It's doubtful anyone in Pennsylvania's 187-member delegation will follow the lead of Debra Bartoshevich, a Wisconsin delegate for Mrs. Clinton, who vowed to vote for John McCain at the Democratic convention. She was promptly kicked out of the delegation.

But among the nearly two dozen women delegates in Pennsylvania interviewed for this story, rebellious feelings hover not far from the surface.

They'll vote for Mrs. Clinton on the first ballot -- unless she tells them not to. They'll continue to push Mr. Obama to select her as his running mate -- a prospect that seems less and less likely these days. And some want to insert language in the party's platform stating that the primary elections "exposed pervasive gender bias in the media."

And please, do not suggest that Mrs. Clinton has ended her campaign.

"She has suspendedher campaign, and that is a distinction with a difference," says Michele Bortner, a delegate from York who proudly notes that she was Mrs. Clinton's highest vote-getter in the 19th Congressional District.

While Ms. Bortner will be working energetically for Mr. Obama, she nonetheless notes that Mrs. Clinton's campaign "is not over. She didn't end it. I have not heard from her or the campaign that it is over, and you could interpret that in a lot of different ways. You never know."

Carol Fiorucci, the 68-year-old Register of Wills in Beaver County, says she'd not only vote for Mrs. Clinton on the first ballot "if we are able to do that," she'd strongly support any party platform that condemns gender bias against Mrs. Clinton, whose story, she noted, "was my story.

"I've been in politics a long time, and it's a good old boys club, no doubt about that, but she was an inspiration,'' Ms. Fiorucci said. "This has been the most personal of any of the campaigns I've ever been in, and it was a big disappointment when she lost."

"I saw the handwriting on the wall as soon as the media started to beat the hell out of her," added Jean Milko, vice chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic party. "I'll do what I have to do," she sighed, "but for a lot of people I'm talking to, it's up in the air."

Mrs. Clinton's strongest demographic included older, less-educated, blue-collar women. But Mrs. Rudy, the Centre County superdelegate, recalled attending a candidate's function recently "when the talk drifted to the campaign and the women I sat with, professional, college-educated women, were saying the one chance in their lifetime to see a woman president had passed."

Not every delegate has picked up on that sentiment. Eileen Connelly, executive director of the Service Employees International Union, Pennsylvania State Council, who is running the political outreach program and was an early backer of Mr. Obama, says she hasn't encountered much resentment among women.

"Our internal polls show he has the most difficulty with women over 65 and white men," she said, "and frankly, it confuses me that some people are still debating whether a woman should be the nominee. It's over, I say, and Obama is their best choice."

Indeed, "my hunch is that in the fall it won't be women per se but blue-collar workers who will be more of a problem for Obama for a variety of reasons," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, who is currently conducting polling on the issue.

Opposition to Mr. Obama, he believes, comes less from the notion that "it's 'her time, a woman's time,' than it was about some of the themes raised by Clinton during the primary" -- including the controversy over Mr. Obama's fiery former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and Mr. Obama's comments that small town voters in Pennsylvania are "bitter" and cling to guns and religion.

"For the voters who fell into the category of the Bitter-gate comment, overall, that's a bigger problem than winning back college-educated women," Mr. Madonna said.

In the meantime, Obama supporters are doing what they can to heal hurt feelings -- without pushing too hard.

Cheryl Bohn, a State College resident and a Clinton delegate from the 5th Congressional District who's helping the Obama campaign, says she's been on the phone to so-called "super Democrats" -- those who have voted in the past four elections -- and "there are some hard cases," she said.

"I usually say something pretty trite, like, 'Oh, disagreement is the Democratic way,' but you can't cut through that kind of anger very easily and have a rational conversation with someone in that mode, so I just say, 'Call us down at Obama headquarters if you have any questions.'

"But seriously, are these people going to really jump ship and vote for John McCain? I really doubt it."

Others are more impatient -- like Gov. Rendell, Mrs. Clinton's most high-profile backer. At this year's annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Federation of Democratic Women, which came shortly after Mrs. Clinton bowed out of the race, "he told the us we had 10 days to get over it. Well, women aren't over it," said Ms. Bortner, the delegate from York.

"I will tell you that women are far angrier than I expected. It actually surprises me that women have resisted moving on for as long as they have, but I think they just feel that in their lifetime they will never see this kind of momentum for this kind of candidate again."

Then she paused.

"I worry," she added. "I just thought it would work itself out."


Correction/Clarification: (Published Aug. 6, 2008) Eileen Connelly is executive director of the Service Employees International Union, Pennsylvania State Council. This story as originally published Aug. 3, 2008 about women delegates for Hillary Clinton misidentified her.

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here