For all the years I’ve lived in California, suddenly our primary isn’t just a beauty contest at the end of a race that’s already decided. Having missed most of the rallies in San Francisco, and frankly not wanting to hassle with the parking and not having time to take the train, I made a spur of the moment decision to drive an hour south to a Hillary appearance. It was the perfect decision. There is nothing like hearing your candidate of choice speak live. There is a whole other depth of understanding to hear them speak in an area outside your usual demographics. So I left the leafy suburbs of San Jose and headed to the dusty ag town of Salinas.
I’d RSVP’d as requested and showed up just as the doors were opening. But it was quickly clear, I was probably not going to get in the venue. The line stretched through the campus of Hartnell College and down two city blocks. But after an hour’s drive, I thought I’d stick it out. Turns out the wait was more illuminating than the speech.
Of course, most of my readers know, I’m all for Hillary. I’ve been a fan of hers for years. But it can be disheartening to be her fan. There is the depth of this woman’s accomplishments stretching back to her days at Wellesley (yay, Seven Sisters) and her solid record of ACTUALLY GETTING SHIT DONE THAT CHANGES LIVES both in the private sector and her public offices. Yet the drip drip drip of the media narrative that “people don’t trust her”, “she’s not honest”, “she’s not a real Liberal”. Then there is the blame that gets thrown at her for things other people do. She’s castigated for Bill’s infidelity — like she encouraged that? And, of course, the Crime Bill. Which Bill signed into law, which was wildly popular among both Republicans and Democrats and which Bernie fricken Sanders VOTED FOR and she didn’t (she held no elective office.) If you know her policies and you don’t like her policies, I respect that. But if you don’t know a thing about her and you don’t want to vote for her for some vague reason that would be better suited to deciding which American Idol to back, I’m dangerously close to slapping you. One of my relatives, who espouses every policy that Hillary stands for and fights for and has made real accomplishments on, told me, “Well, I’m not sure I can vote for her because I’m an Empath. And I just don’t see a lot of emotion in her. She doesn’t show me she cares.” Slap! She shows in a life’s body of work and accomplishment in just the areas you say you care about. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration — from her work with the Children’s Defense Fund, with fighting for Children’s Healthcare, her tireless advocacy to get recognition for Gulf War Syndrome as an illness, her fight for health benefits and support for ill 9/11 first responders — to say that Hillary Clinton has improved millions of lives. But she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. She’s not all emo and weepy. As if women in leadership roles have ever had that option. I’ve spent my whole working life — and I’m considerably younger than she is — fighting against the stereotype that women are too emotional to make good businesspeople, leaders, employers, whatever.
Anyway, to give away the end, I never got in that venue after three hours in line. But they set up speakers in the parking lot and I listened to her speech with the new friends I’d made during the last few hours. Here’s where I really learned something new about Hillary. And I thought I knew everything about Hillary.
It’s popular to point to the crazed Grateful Dead like crowds of screaming young people who go to Bernie rallies as proof that Hillary can’t “energize the voters”. So I’ll tell you what the “energy” was like at the Hillary Salinas event. First of all, the crowd. There were a lot of brown faces — this was Salinas after all, one of the salad bowls of America. But there were also some White and Black faces. Most interestingly, there were a wide spread of ages, and an even mix between men and women. Just with eyeballing, I wouldn’t say any one demographic dominated. Although I didn’t see a lot of very young White men. They were standing across from the line in the park with all the Bernie signs. But in our line, I saw Veterans in their VFW jackets, older campesinos, White suburban women with their husbands, college kids and lots and lots of abuelas. Of course, given the population dynamics in Salinas, it would be natural for there to be a sizeable Hispanic crowd. But I was impressed at how many older women I saw, in traditional dress, who appeared to have brought their granddaughters along to translate for them. The particular group I waited and chatted with included five older Hispanic woman (all English speaking) a female professor at the college, a young White mother and me. It didn’t take us long to start talking about Hillary and why we were there. All of us were fans, except for the young mother who said she was leaning that way, but still hadn’t made up her mind.
We quickly started talking about what we liked about Hillary. All of us talked policy and specific accomplishments. I’m used to being the only one in the room who seems to know about Hillary’s achievements. I wasn’t here. And I did something I don’t do often enough. I shut up and listened. Especially to the abuelas. One of the Hispanic women, who was sporting a woven shawl and one of those jaunty bowlers Peruvian women wear, reminded me that Hillary in one of her first jobs, worked on Senator Walter Mondale’s Subcommittee on Migratory Labor where she researched migrant workers’ — especially Hispanic — problems in housing, sanitation, health and education. “And she’s been fighting for us ever since.” “How did you know that?”, I asked, “You have to really dig to find out that information. Nobody knows about the things Hillary has done.” “Telemundo”, she shrugged. Clearly Spanish language TV is more serious about covering the issues and the candidates than mainstream TV.
Then this woman and three other of the English speaking abuelas started talking passionately about other issues: the Dream Act, their fears that their grandchildren would be discriminated against or not get good educations, undocumented relatives who might be sent away from their families, worry that an atmosphere of hate is being stirred up against them. These women had skin in the game like I could never imagine. They weren’t just picking a favorite candidate, they were picking the candidate they thought could stand between them and disaster for their families. This was sobering to me. I dearly want to finally see a woman President. I think America would be destroyed if Trump were elected. If Bernie, by some magic, got in, I think he’d be spectacularly ineffective. But in reality, I’d probably weather most of it. These women might not and their families would not emerge unscathed. A sobering lesson that politics isn’t just a horse race. It’s people’s lives. Sometimes life or death.
Then the woman with the bowler peered up at the line snaking into the building. “I don’t think we will make it into the hall. But I’m glad we’re here. I wanted to be here for Hillary.” The other women nodded and agreed they were glad they were “here for her”. The affection was palpable. They didn’t just see Hillary as a politician who espoused policies that were critical to their families. They really liked her. In a girlfriend sort of way. In a “she’s had my back, so I’ll have hers” way.
Ms. Bowler Hat turned to me and said, “You know, I’m so proud of her. So very proud.”
As we moved up to the where the loud speakers were set up, I started observing the crowd beyond my little group. Yes there was an energy here. And yes, it was very different from the Mardi Gras atmosphere at a Bernie rally. It wasn’t flashy or showy or loud. Very few of us had signs although many had buttons. The overall atmosphere, I’d have to say, was respect. And people had come, not just for an event, but to listen, really listen, to what Hillary had to say.
I’ve heard Hillary speak before, but never in the context of a political race. I expected the typical rouse up the crowd rhetoric and she gave us a little of it, repeating her “woman card, deal me in” lines. But within minutes, her tone changed. In low modulated tones, she started speaking directly to the crowd in a voice not much louder than if the two of us were alone in a room. The huge crowd was completely silent, listening intently. Much of her speech was about issues that would most directly affect Salinas — and she was up to speed on many of the political topics that are of greatest interest around here. The crowd was completely hushed. Many with hands folded listening as if we were talking face to face. There were nods and polite murmurs, but people were hanging on every word.
Then the Bernie crowd rushed into the parking lot waving their signs and screaming “Hillary resign”. A dozen abuelas turned to shush them and shoo them away. The Bernie crowd backed right up to the edge of the parking lot. You don’t fuck with abuelas.
Hillary finished her speech. We all shook hands and said goodbye. Ms. Bowler hat said to me, “Let’s wait and watch her get into her car. I want to wave to her. I want her to know we are here for her.” Then she grinned. “She’s my chica.”
Yes, she is.