Bernie Sanders, the Brooklyn son, and Hillary Clinton, the former New York senator, brought their campaigns to New York City over the weekend. As polls show Sanders making gains on Clinton’s sizable lead in New York, and with a whopping 291 delegates at stake, the two candidates were campaigning intensely ahead of the April 19 primary. On Saturday Sanders took his campaign on a four-event blitz throughout the city, while Clinton held a rally geared explicitly toward Latinos.
Both campaigns had put to rest their most bitter battle-du-jour to date, this one around who was and wasn’t qualified to be president. But the campaigns didn’t go easy on each other either.
Sanders’s day started in Washington Heights in the ballroom of United Palace. By the time the rally got under way at 10 am the hall was two-thirds full, with about 1,000 in attendance. The actor Kal Penn jokingly introduced himself as Bobby Jindal and warmed up the crowd before Senator Sanders and his wife, Jane, came to the stage. With the aid of concert-hall acoustics, a booming microphone, and the calm of a seated, early-morning crowd, Sanders gave his stump speech at a normal speaking volume, weaving in an attack on Clinton, who this week stood next to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as he signed a $15 minimum-wage bill into law for the state. Clinton only supports a $12 federal minimum wage, Sanders noted; he didn’t mention that she does support states that increase their minimum wages on their own.
In Washington Heights, Sanders got a strong reception when he contrasted his record with Clinton’s. He ticked off familiar critiques: her vote for the Iraq war, her Super PAC support, her friendship with Henry Kissinger, and her six-figure speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. Sanders launched into the bit of physical comedy he’s honed at multiple campaign events and on late-night shows, miming for the crowd the release of speeches he’s given to Goldman Sachs. He winds up like he’s pulling a folder from his suit jacket, then throws empty air at the crowd.
White Sanders supporters—among them many senior citizens and new parents with young children—outnumbered the people of color, despite the fact that it is a historically Latino neighborhood. Toddlers turned the aisles of the historic concert hall into a playground, punctuating Sanders’s speech with their wails and whines.
“[Corporations] are taking the money we need to fix our problems,” said Mohammad Ali, 67. Ali, who was born in Bangladesh (“but it wasn’t Bangladesh yet, it was Pakistan then”), said he taught special ed in a Queens elementary school for seventeen years before retiring. He’d supported Bill Clinton in the past and Obama in 2008, and still remembered that Hillary Clinton had supported the teachers’ union when she was senator, but he liked Sanders better because he trusted him more. “We can spend $3 trillion killing people in Iraq, but it only takes $1 trillion to feed children in America,” Ali said, paraphrasing a line from Sanders’s speech.
Carla Cruz, 23, said she was drawn to Sanders because “everything he says sounds like a solution.” A Dominicana from the Bronx, she said her vote for Sanders in the April 19 primary would be the first time she’d participate in a presidential election. She felt most passionately about “getting money out of the political process.”
She brought to the Washington Heights rally a homemade sign that read Latinos con Bernie, with illustrations of the flags of various Latin American countries dancing around the text, reflecting just a small range of New York City’s Latino diversity: the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela. “Our voices are very muffled compared to everyone else who’s talking,” Cruz said of US Latinos.
An hour and a half later, every seat was filled in the hall at Gould Memorial Library at Bronx Community College. (One of them was taken by Cruz, who hadn’t gotten her fill yet of Sanders.) The racial demographics were much different at the Bronx Community College event. Many in the hall were Bronx Community College students who broke out in chants while they waited for Sanders. “BCC! Feel the Bern!” they shouted. Bronx Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda didn’t let the turnout go unacknowledged. He remarked when he came to the stage: “I keep hearing how Bernie Sanders is only supported by white men. I see so many beautiful people from all walks of life,” Sepulveda said.
Sanders, launching into the same stump speech he’d given just minutes earlier, ended up having to move more slowly toward the portion of his remarks that focused explicitly on people of color, because the crowd so desperately wanted to hear his proposals. “How is it that in minority communities people can’t get affordable housing? How does it happen that the school buildings are falling apart and we’re not attracting the quality teachers that our kids deserve?” The crowd, reacting to his calls for immigration reform, police reform, closing the black-white youth employment gap, cheered for every line. And when Sanders said, “We’re going to invest in young people and education, not jails and incarceration,” the crowd gave him a standing ovation for many seconds. He didn’t get that reaction in Washington Heights.
Marian Stewart Titus, 59 and a professor in the English department at BCC, and her sister, Judith Stewart-Dodd, 74, both of the Bronx, said they had been on the fence about Sanders. The sisters are Jamaican, and liked Bill Clinton in the 1990s and were “die-hard Obama supporters” in 2008 and 2012.
“I wasn’t a Sanders supporter originally but after I came here I realized I’m going to have to vote for him on the 19th. There’s no BS with Bernie,” Titus said. “Initially I just didn’t know who he was. But seeing the success he’s had in various primaries and learning more about him I realized I need to give him more of my time.“
She knows that Sanders doesn’t have the same kind of trust among voters of color that Clinton does, but appreciates that Sanders has made a concerted effort to deal with his knowledge and relationship gaps with black and immigrant voters. “I have always wondered why African-American voters are so devoted to the Clintons, and I think the adoration the Clintons enjoy is not deserved,” said Titus.
Sanders continued on with his New York City campaign spree in Long Island City and then to the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Three hours later and a dozen miles away in Sunset Park, a crowd of several hundred packed into The Landing Cafe, a new food-hall development in the formerly waterfront manufacturing warehouses in Industry City, for an event the Hillary Clinton campaign billed as a “Latino organizing event.”
Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a lecturer at Columbia University and a Stanford and Princeton graduate who happens to be a DREAMer from the Dominican Republic, was the first to take the mic, giving remarks in support of Clinton in English and then Spanish for the attendees, where white people seemed to be at least as numerous as other people of color. Padilla is the star of Clinton’s first New York Spanish-language television ad, which the campaign released this week. In the ad and onstage Saturday evening Padilla praised Clinton’s compassion for immigrants, including him. Clinton helped secure a visa for Padilla after he’d finished his studies abroad so that he could return to the United States.
Among the other openers were New York Representative Nydia Velazquez, whose district includes Sunset Park, and the Puerto Rican singer Toby Love. Love sang several of his hits, including a Spanish cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” and urged the crowd to back Clinton on April 19.
“I say this as a Nuyorican, and an American,” Love said in between songs. “We need a leader who will always have our backs, am I right? She stood by Latinos, she fought for immigration reform.… She was with us.” The crowd cheered, and Love, an entertaining singer, put on a great short set complete with backup dancers. It was not clear that many in attendance knew who he was beforehand, though.
“She’s very consistent, and she’s very experienced—she’s the most experienced candidate in the race right now,” said Vanessa Londono, 32, a Clinton supporter. Londono, who is Colombian, said immigration meant the most to her personally. Londono came out when her friend Judi Stroh, 34, who said, “[Clinton] has the most experience of any candidate literally ever in the history of the world.”
“I’ve loved Hillary for forever because she’s been out there since the ’70s getting shit done,” Stroh said. She appreciated Clinton’s work on expanding healthcare access and said that she’s dating a Bernie supporter right now who calls Clinton a liar, and Stroh tells him, “Well, I get crap happens, but she gets shit done,” Stroh said. “And, well, she’s a politician,” Londono said, her attempt to soften the accusation.
Rigo Lara, 26 and a Sunset Park resident, came not as a Clinton supporter but as a curious member of the community. “I come here with some skepticism and seeing clearly the demographics, this is not a majority Latino crowd,” Lara said. Lara, an artist who’s involved with Sunset Park activists who work on development and gentrification issues, said he was also troubled by the location of the Clinton event, inside a newly remodeled food hall that caters to those who want boutique food experiences on original wood floors. “It seems a very strange location, because this is the site of what has become an increasing trend of developers, a certain class of New Yorkers, to move into predominantly immigrant neighborhoods and disrupt what is in Sunset Park a historically working-class waterfront,” he said. “She could have gone to one of the many churches in Sunset Park, which have equal or more capacity than this, and had a totally different turnout.”
Lara said that, while he’s a registered Democrat, he wasn’t particularly enthused about either Clinton or Sanders. But he still planned to vote.
Once Clinton got to the stage, the crowd full of rapturous Hillary supporters cheered her every line. Clinton, working through her own stump speech, included several witty lines about the gender and racial pay gaps which affect women and women of color in particular. “I don’t think women going up to the cashier at the supermarket are told, ‘Oh you’re a white woman, you only have to pay 78 cents on the dollar. You’re an African-American woman, you only have to pay 68 cents on the dollar, or you’re a Latina woman you only have to pay 58 cents on the dollar,’ because that’s ridiculous.”
“There is no gender discount, right?” Clinton said. Clinton also mentioned her support for Padilla, the Ivy League professor who’d grown up undocumented, and reminded the crowd that she’d supported the DREAM Act when it was first introduced while she was senator.
“I want to tell you, my very first experience with Latinos,” Clinton said on Saturday. “It’s hard to believe, but back in the day, I grew up in Chicago, it was surrounded by farm fields.” Migrant workers from Mexico who followed the harvests would pass through Chicago, and when Clinton’s church asked if anyone wanted to babysit children while their parents worked the fields, Clinton volunteered. She was 11. Clinton told the story in great detail, explaining that the experience taught her that Latinos were just like her. The story, while sweet, didn’t come across as particularly enriching.