Clinton finds friends among ‘bitter’ folks of Mon Valley

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; by Mackenzie Carpenter; April 20, 2008

CALIFORNIA, Pa. — She was an hour late, but the crowd was more than ready for her.

While “I Was Born in a Small Town” thumped over the speakers, huge cheers greeted Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as she arrived at this college campus on the Monongahela River, capping a day of vigorous nonstop campaigning across the state by bus and plane.

Her voice hoarse but strong, Mrs. Clinton immediately launched into a specific list of proposals: ending the Iraq war “as quickly and responsibly as we can,” providing affordable health care and a $100 million tax cut for the middle class, getting tough on foreign trade, renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, investing in the nation’s infrastructure and combating global warming.

“The idea that we’re more dependent on foreign oil than we were on 9/11 just makes me sick,” she said. “We’re not going to make any changes until the two oil men are out of the White House but as soon as they are, let’s get to work.”

She also spent some time — in a clear pitch to this crowd of students — lamenting the high interest rates accompanying college loans.

“Anyone paying more than 20 percent interest here?” she asked the crowd, a standard part of her speech. When someone shouted out 23.5 percent, she repeated the number and exclaimed, “He’s going to be paying until he dies, this woman said,” adding that she would make sure to reform the system so rates weren’t so onerous.

The New York senator, accompanied by Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Rep. John Murtha, of Johnstown, seemed upbeat, despite polls showing Mr. Obama pulling ahead nationally and, in state surveys, largely undamaged by his remarks characterizing small-town Pennsylvanians as “bitter.”

On to Renzie Park
Later, she traveled further north along the Mon to Renziehausen Park in McKeesport, where an even larger crowd awaited her in the rain.

She told the crowd, which huddled under umbrellas around the red, white and blue bandstand, that she fondly remembered a campaign stop she’d made at the same spot with her husband in 1992.

She cut her stump speech short, telling the crowd she wanted them to “go home and get dry.”

Earlier, in West Chester, Clinton fired some broadsides at the Illinois senator, stressing — as she has repeatedly — her substance over his style. At a West Chester firehouse, she noted that she “didn’t want to just show up and give one of these woop-de-doo speeches, just kind of get everybody whipped up…. I want everybody thinking about what we have to do.”

In her speech at California University, Mrs. Clinton rarely mentioned Mr. Obama, noting only that his health care plan “doesn’t cover everyone,” and that the Illinois senator “is attacking me in a new ad he’s put up.”

While the hall wasn’t completely filled, the mood — and it was, after all, a balmy spring Saturday night on a college campus — was enthusiastic, accompanied by the usual pre-campaign rock anthems of John Mellencamp and U2 (but not, significantly, Bruce Springsteen, who may have been taken off the campaign’s playlist after he announced his support of Mr. Obama earlier this week).

Most in the crowd were students — ordinarily Mr. Obama’s demographic — a fact not lost on Mr. Rendell.

“There’s a rumor out there that all young people are for the other candidate,” growled the governor into the microphone as boos erupted in the hall. “Now I want all the young people here to repeat after me: Madame President!”

Mr. Murtha noted that Mrs. Clinton’s daughter Chelsea was asked if her mother would be as good a president as her father. “And she said, ‘Better,’ because she’s had the experience of being there eight years. Every president made all kinds of mistakes when they came, there’s no experience like being there and seeing the pressure that goes along with it,” added Mr. Murtha.

‘Bitter’? Yes and no
The Mon Valley towns of California and McKeesport were probably some of the communities in Pennsylvania that Mr. Obama was talking about in his now infamous remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser. But people at the rally had decidedly mixed feelings about the Illinois senator’s characterization of them as “bitter,” with some of them not bitter at all.

“Personally, it didn’t bother me,” said Debbie Berkich, 50, who works as a real estate agent in nearby McMurray. “I understand it. Think about where we were seven years ago, even six months ago and where we are now. A year ago you could buy apples for 99 cents and now they’re $1.79 each at the grocery. The middle class and the poor are getting poorer.”

Ms. Berkich likes Mr. Obama, but says she is still a Hillary supporter. “She knows what to expect. He doesn’t. He’s inexperienced.”

She had little sympathy, though, for those who thought Mr. Obama got an unfair shake from ABC’s moderators at the Wednesday debate.

“Everyone’s e-mailing ABC, saying, ‘Poor Obama, they’re picking on him,’ but they were addressing the issues that matter.”

Nonsense, said Fran Zaff, 60, of Elco. “I didn’t like the flag pin question. If he didn’t want to wear a flag pin he doesn’t have to. She didn’t have one on, and I thought the whole thing was kind of ridiculous.”

Still, once more substantive issues were addressed, she said, “Hillary gave extremely good answers. That’s what finally made up my mind, right there.”

Brenda Prigg, 58, of Washington, found that the debate “rehashed a lot of old questions, but Hillary stood her ground. She has backbone.”

Dolores Michaux, of Charleroi, spoke about her brother-in-law’s health insurance premiums jumping from $460 a month to $848. “Something has to be done, she said. “Obama is right about people being frustrated. Something has to be done for the middle American, because we’re just hurting. But I think Hillary is the one to do it.”

Ms. Michaux and Ms. Prigg may be among the “bitter” people Mr. Obama was talking about — a teacher, Ms. Prigg has no health insurance and says she may lose her house because her salary won’t cover the monthly mortgage payments.

But both women said they’re sticking with Mrs. Clinton.

“I felt back in the 1990s when the Clintons were in, I lived pretty good, and now my life is going down the tubes, like everyone else’s,” said Ms. Prigg. “When I met her in Pittsburgh eight years ago, I told her, Hillary, no matter what you run for, anyone who stays with Bill deserves my vote, and she loved it.”

“I feel like I AM Hillary Clinton,” she said. “Strong women are all Hillary Clinton.”

Today, Mrs. Clinton attends “Solutions for Pennsylvania” rallies in Bethlehem, Johnstown and State College.

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