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November 18th, 2018

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Hillary's courting blacks comes with a white pricetag

David Weigel & John Wagner

By David Weigel & John Wagner

Published Feb. 24, 2016

DULUTH, Minn. -- Jennifer Schultz didn't realize how popular Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont had become here until she didn't endorse him. In late January, when Sanders brought his presidential campaign to Duluth, Schultz, a Democratic state representative, wrote a quick Facebook post welcoming him to northern Minnesota. Welcoming, not endorsing. Just being nice.

That wasn't how her constituents read it.

"It was shared like 8,000 times," said Schultz. "I was amazed by that -- by thank-yous rolling in, for something I didn't even say!"

That, and the subsequent rally of 6,000 cheering voters, convinced Schultz that Sanders had already started to conquer Minnesota. "It seems like Bernie's doing better than Hillary here," she said. "I think Trump and Bernie are both doing well, because you've got a lot of people who are low-income and feel left behind."

The flipside of Hillary Clinton's triumph with black voters in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday was her weakness among whites. For the third time, she lost an electorate that had backed her strongly in 2008. Although Clinton is building toward an expected win in South Carolina this weekend, her weakness with white voters could reappear three days later, on Super Tuesday, when the contest moves to 11 states that include Minnesota. Even more states come after that with large populations of union members and those who lack college degrees.

Clinton's strategy in the March 1 contests is to win landslides among black voters in the South. But there are no Southern primaries after March 15. Before the race gets to Clinton's New York, it runs through Idaho, Utah, Alaska, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Her campaign will not be caught sleeping in Minnesota -- but that may not be enough to surmount Sanders' advantage there. She drew hard lessons from 2008, when Obama won the caucuses in a landslide. She sent a full-time state director to Minnesota in the summer of 2015 and opened four offices; she booked TV time in advance of March 1.

If there was a place where Clinton's message of building on the Obama legacy might click, might make converts, it was surely Minnesota, where unemployment had sunk below 4 percent, and health care coverage had reached 95 percent. It was surely Duluth and the Iron Range, with its critical mass of white, working-class voters holding union cards.

But that doesn't appear to be what's happening. Instead, many voters are skeptical of just how good the Obama years have been for them. And they are disappointed in what they see as Clinton's less ambitious ideas of what is actually possible.

"I don't want to say anything negative about Hillary Clinton, because she's not a bad candidate," said Sharla Gardner, a former Duluth city councilor now running for the state Senate who backed Clinton at first. "But she's not the best candidate. She doesn't start from a place of can-do. Her campaign is 'No, we, can't,' and that attitude is actually harming the working poor. It's forcing the working poor to buy insurance policies they can't afford, because the deductibles are so high."

Sanders' buzzer-beating loss in Nevada revealed the limitations of his appeal, notably among minorities, who chose Clinton by an overwhelming margin of 76 percent to 22 percent, according to entrance polling reported by CNN. And it's unclear how much more momentum a Clinton win in South Carolina will give her heading into Super Tuesday.

But Minnesota's rapid transformation into a battleground echoes the other thing that happened in Nevada: White voters there went for Sanders by two points; white voters who lacked college degrees went for him by eight points. Working-class voters who seemed friendly to Clinton are now seen as locked in for Sanders. Jeff Weaver, Sanders' campaign manager, now describes Minnesota as the place where the candidate will start winning the industrial Midwest.

"We've gone from possibility to probability," said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who represents Minneapolis and is just one of two federal legislators to endorse Sanders. "We've gone from, 'We hope, we pray, maybe, maybe' to 'Hey, we can do this.' I mean, there were a lot of people who believed in everything Bernie was saying but didn't believe he could win. Now, he's neck-and-neck in national polls."

In Minnesota, like Nevada, the late-building Sanders campaign now has more campaign offices than Clinton -- six -- and is more visible on television.

"Bernie's really popular up in the range, super popular," said Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., who came out of retirement in 2012 to win the district that includes Duluth and the Iron Range. "He projects an authenticity that resonates with the people who've grown up there."

For months, the unofficial street team for Sanders was Twin Ports for Change, activists working in both Duluth and the Wisconsin border town of Superior. The group was run by Mike Kuitu, a 59-year old retired operating engineer, who'd gather activists together in the bar above the Duluth AFL-CIO hall.

"We tend to be born with a little bit of glass in our guts around here," said Kuitu, by way of explaining the Sanders appeal. Northern Minnesota is one of the last holdouts of labor liberal politics, he added.

If everything had gone Clinton's way, those voters would have seen her as the next step in a change campaign that was clearly working.

"Duluth in some ways is the epitome of the accomplishments of the Obama years," said Joel Sipress, a city councilor. "This city, which was hit hard in the 1990s, has finally find its bearings. That's all great and there's optimism, but half the workers here don't have paid sick leave. A lot of us were sort of resigned at Hillary being the candidate -- not thrilled, but accepting."

The disconnect was evident at the previous week's Democratic Farmer Labor Party dinner, down in St. Paul, where every major statewide office-holder grabbed a microphone to endorse Clinton. Gov. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., a workman-like politician who served one Senate term alongside Clinton, asked Democrats to consider all the incremental changes they'd made because they settled for him. Gay marriage. Universal pre-K.

"I wish you could see the Hillary Clinton that I know," said Dayton. "I wish how you could see how she has fought again and again. Then I remember how some people thought I wasn't progressive enough when I ran for governor in 2010. In fact, some of them even locked me out of the state convention - literally, locked me out of the convention hall! Fortunately, we united together that fall. Otherwise a Republican governor would have been elected and signed all those bills that I vetoed."

This is the argument for continuing the Obama years, which assumes that they were successful -- and which, for some, is a leap. At a Thursday gathering of Sanders supporters, they shared story after story about how the safety net that they were supposed to be so grateful for had proven too unwieldy and costly.

Sally Jackson, a 41-year old postal worker, shared her regret that she'd jumped into the job market without an advanced degree, and now had a co-pay "too expensive to use." Tom Furman, 47, had taken another path and earned an MBA -- which, he said with a rueful laugh, he had $100,000 left of debt to pay off.

"The insurance industry decided that they had to start whipping their profit horse ever since Hillary was tasked to reform this in 1993," explained Larry Sillanpa, 67, the editor of the local Labor World newspaper. "To some extent, perhaps they've done that to discredit the Affordable Care Act."

At the gathering, there was a pervading sense of distrust in Clinton -- that, in the words of 22-year old Kate Dayton, she would say anything. "She's calling for breaking up the big banks, and her top five donors are big banks," Dayton instead.

If that sinks in -- and there are indications it already has -- Minnesota will not be Clinton's only problem state. But it's also possible that Clinton's strong showing in Nevada -- and expected victory in South Carolina -- will reverse that tide.

Last week, Clinton's reinforcements gathered at a union office in Duluth to ramp up and fight back. Eight volunteers made the journey in, and got pep talks and call sheets. Zack Filopovich, 25, Duluth's city council president, grabbed a phone for himself and bemoaned how voters seemed to respond to concrete problems with fantastical hopes.

"At each level of government, it's like a different mentality that people have," said Filopovich. "In city government, there are things in peoples' backyard - the streetlights, the garbage. When you move up the ladder to a big nationwide campaign, you sort of lose that tangibility. Free this, free that, free this - you start to lose the tangibility and think, 'Oh, I want that!' It's a problem."

Katie Humphrey, the staffer running the call session, flipped through a series of displays about how to talk to voters. Republicans could be struck from the list. It was not advised to argue it out with dedicated Sanders supporters. One volunteer expressed concern about a line they were suggested to tell the people they called -- something about how Minnesota's race was going to be close. Was that really true?

"The polls have indicated that the race is very close," Humphrey said. "We know the Sanders campaign is focusing on Minnesota."

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