While Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders wrestled in the mud in New York State, two of their highest-profile surrogates swooped into New Haven for a passionate forum of their own — that ended with a kumbaya moment.
The campaigns participated in the forum Thursday night at Betsy Ross School’s century-old restored former St. Peter’s parish hall on Kimberly Avenue.
The Sanders campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination flew in one of its top surrogates, former Ohio State Sen. Nina Turner, to make the candidate’s case at the forum, which was organized by the Democratic Town Committee.
While both campaign promoted and participated in the planning for the meeting, the hall was filled ... with Bernie Sanders placards, Bernie Sanders buttons, Bernie Sanders shirts.
Needless to say, Turner had a friendly audience to whip up. And whip it up, this daughter of an evangelist single mother did.
“He rolls the way I roll,” Turner declared of Sanders. “Righteous indignation!”
“If we can invest in prisons, we can invest in young people in the United States!” she cried out.
Turner did not mention Hillary Clinton or criticize her. Her focus was on Sanders.
She referred to Sanders’ arrest as a University of Chicago undergraduate while chained to a fellow protester who happened to be black. “He is the only presidential candidate,” she said, “who was arrested and went to jail fighting for civil rights!”
She noted that Sanders took heat in 1988 when he was a lonely white elected official (at the time mayor of Burlington, Vermont) to endorse African-American candidate Jesse Jackson’s Democratic presidential primary bid.
“if we can go to the moon, we can have universal health care. If we can abolish slavery, we can have universal health care!” Turner insisted, referring to Sanders’ call for a single-payer health system, which opponent Hillary Clinton has dubbed unrealistic.
Turner spoke of how her grandmother taught her that people need three important “bones”: a wishbone for hopes and prayers; a jawbone for “the courage to speak truth to power”; and most of all a backbone to persist amid great odds.
Her point: Bernie Sanders has those bones.
“We are being tested,” Turner concluded to the crowd of political activists, which by that point was a Sunday morning congregation. “We may never have this opportunity again ... to have a candidate like Bernie Sanders who lives his principles!”
The crowd, which had heartily rewarded each applause line during Turner’s remarks, rose up in a boisterous standing ovation.
That was the act Hillary Clinton’s surrogate, Texas U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, had to follow.
She gave it her best.
She tried a couple of Hillary Clinton’s popular anti-Sanders digs: criticizing him (without naming him) for voting against an immigration reform bill. (Sanders and some leading Latino groups objected to for promoting what they called slavery-like working conditions.)
Clinton usually gets a rise from her supporters on that one.
Not a pair of hands clapped in the room Thursday night. Not even pairs belonging to the scattered, low-profile Clinton supporters present.
Lee tried the latest Clinton campaign attack line that has resonated in Connecticut and New York this week: criticizing Sanders (though again not naming him) for not supporting a bill to lift a ban on liability for gun manufacturers in mass shootings like the Newton manufacturers.
“What possible opposition can anyone with a heart have” to that bill? Lee asked rhetorically.
In a rejoinder to Turner’s concluding remarks, she added that Hillary Clinton has the “backbone” to support that bill. Unlike you-know-who.
Overall, though, Lee did not attack Sanders. She instead focused on the case for Clinton: How a true “revolution” would be to “elect a woman” as president. How Clinton has fought hard for civil rights and for children her entire career. How it make sense to combine high ideals with pragmatism and experience — “a revolution with a plan” led by “a changemaker with a plan.”
She noted how Clinton — who has won overwhelming black support in the Democratic presidential primaries —has been endorsed by the mothers of prominent victims of racially-charged homicides like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. “They saw her heart,” Lee said.
Lee did succeed with one applause line: She asked New Haven State Sen. Martin Looney (who has remained neutral so far in the presidential race) to stand up so she could thank him for getting pro-immigration reform legislation passed. People clapped.
Though she didn’t otherwise have applause or even audible assent to propel her, Lee, a member of the first Yale undergraduate class to accept women, summoned visible passion combined with a clear command of national issues. She didn’t have the crowd. But nor did she provoke a dissenting word or hostility from amid the sea of Bernitude. The mood was — dare one say in 2016 campaign-trail America? — civil.
Lee concluded with a pitch for party harmony, for waging a forceful debate on issues while remaining united to defeat the Republican candidate in November.
Then came the kumbaya moment.
Before the 80 or so people scattered out into the night, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro called both Lee and Turner back to the front of the hall. DeLauro, an early Clinton supporter, has served as a surrogate for her in New Hampshire. She also had a harmonious working relationship with Sanders when Sanders served in the U.S. House of Representatives; in a book about his experience in Washington, Sanders singled out DeLauro as one of Congress’s top fighters for progressive causes.
“We have had tonight two remarkable women. ... two of the finest in the country,” DeLauro said, politely shooing the forum moderator, Democratic Town Chair Vincent Mauro, Jr., out of the distaff optics.
“As Democrats, we should never walk away from what we believe in,” she said.
DeLauro argued that unlike the Republican presidential candidates, the Democratic candidates have mostly stayed focused on issues, real issues, and had a healthy debate that strengthens the party and the country.
Rep. Lee was asked afterwards what strategy she had in mind when she saw that she was preaching to the unconverted and unconvertible.
“My goal was to shine a light on Sen. Clinton, but to do it without hostility,” she replied. “To be tough on the issues, not on each other.”
“We’re not enemies,” Lee said. “We have a great campaign. We will be unified,” she said. Lee said she will vote for Sanders in November if he emerges as the party’s nominee.
Nina Turner was asked if she’ll vote for Hillary Clinton if Clinton emerges as the nominee.
“I’m not going to deal with that right now,” Turner responded. “I’m supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders right now. I haven’t had a chance to think about anyone else right now.”