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Hillary Clinton rally lacks racial diversity, but not enthusiasm

The crowd was largely young; a virtual sea of dark hair. It was also very white.
Supporters arrive early before Democratic 2016 US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes her official launch address on Roosevelt Island in New York, N.Y. on June 13, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Gombert/EPA)
Supporters arrive early before Democratic 2016 US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes her official launch address on Roosevelt Island in New York, N.Y. on June 13, 2015.

Four Freedoms Park in New York’s Roosevelt Island was awash in sunlight Saturday, as a merciful breeze kicked in, looming grey clouds faded away and the sound system set up at the park’s southernmost tip blared repeated rounds of Pharrell, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Hillary Clinton’s first big rally of her 2016 campaign had drawn a large crowd, estimated at 5,500, who were packed into a consolidated area where the bandstand obscured the park’s main feature: a white stone monument to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with his “four freedoms” emblazoned on a bronze plaque. (The island’s other dominant feature, the decrepit and eerie onetime smallpox and typhoid hospital known to islanders as “the ruins”, was well out of camera view.)

The crowd was largely young; a virtual sea of dark hair. It was also very white. From the riser, only small numbers of African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic attendees were readily visible, though the campaign said it was pleased with the level of diversity.

“It was a very diverse crowd; young and old, a mix of races,” said senior campaign spokeswoman Karen Finney, herself a woman of color. “And I was proud of Hillary for talking about the fact that our country is stronger when we are diverse.”

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Indeed, the campaign took pains to put its most diverse foot forward.

Marlon Marshall, the African-American former aide to President Obama who left that post in January and was recently named the Clinton campaign’s director of early states and political engagement, served as the event’s emcee. Brooklyn Drumline, a team of young black steppers and percussionists, performed to enthusiastic applause. Andrea Gonzales, a DREAMer from Houston, Texas, delivered remarks. And California Millennial rock band Echosmith, whose lead singer is a woman, entertained the crowd.

The event had touches of Clinton nostalgia: the crowd roared as former president Bill Clinton took the stage, along with the Clintons’ daughter Chelsea and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky. None of them spoke, though Bill Clinton lingered for more than 20 minutes after the event to shake hands. But it was the modern, almost hipster-modern, touches, that defined the day. The crowd, vigorously waving tiny American flags, cheered loudly for Mrs. Clinton bounded onto the makeshift stage in a bright, cobalt blue pantsuit, to the hit “Brave” by thirtysomething pop star Sara Bareilles. Apparently, the playlist was the result of intense email negotiations between the campaign’s youngest and its more seasoned staffers, translated as the oldsters in their thirties (campaign manager Robby Mook, the first openly gay manager of a U.S. presidential campaign, is 35.)

There were heavy doses of Democratic nostalgia too, with Clinton’s speech drawing heavily from the Four Freedom Park’s and the island’s inspirational namesake, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The speech called on the country to reaffirm the Rooseveltian social compact that says Americans who work hard should be able to make it, and that the rich shouldn’t be the only ones who benefit from economic growth. And Clinton offered, in less than succinct terms and over the course of a nearly 40-minute speech, her own FDR-style quatrain: the “four fights” she says she intends to wage on behalf of everyday Americans; making the economy work for everyone, fighting for families, reforming the political process and keeping the U.S. strong, safe and the leader of the free world.

The nods to international affairs received a considerably less enthusiastic reaction from the crowd, even as Mrs. Clinton pointed to the World Trade Center and the United Nations soaring, just across the water, in the backdrop behind her; and despite a robust attendance by residents of the island, which is heavily populated by international families, many associated with the U.N.

Among them were Serge, 27, and his sister Christie, 17, who hail from Cameroon. “I would like to meet the first woman president of the U.S.,” Serge said, with his sister adding, “I didn’t want to regret not having been here when I look back in the future. If she becomes president I think it will be great to look back on the fact that she came here first.”

Lena, a 43-year-old mother of three from Finland, attended the rally with her two young teenagers. She said Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy resonates with her family in her home country, and called it “absolutely important” for the U.S. to elect a woman as its leader. “It would be a nice change,” she said. “Women are powerful and they perhaps have some new ideas that men don’t.”

Indeed, on stage, Clinton’s strongest applause lines came when she mentioned her plans, and Republicans’ deficits, on issues affecting women, from equal pay to the right to make their own reproductive choices; along with her lines about LGBT rights.

Those themes resonated with Mike and Annie, friends from New York City who recently graduated from college.

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“I think LGBT rights are really important,” said Mike. “And I think you’re going to help or you’re not, and it’s not really a gray area. And she’s the only one out there really talking about that.”

For her part, Annie looked forward to Mrs. Clinton “breaking down barriers for women and keeping us going down the path of a first woman president.”

“I think it’s awesome,” Mike said of Saturday’s event. “Really exciting; my first political rally.” He added that he has long been “a fan of Hillary’s,” though he and Annie were in high school the first time she ran for president. Both voted for President Obama in 2012.

“I think it’s a natural extension,” Mike said. “She worked in his cabinet and she did a great job.”

Both said women’s and LGBT issues were what resonated with their friends, too.

Meanwhile, 28-year-old Stephanie, who said that while she typically votes Democratic, she is “not married to any candidate yet,” gave a nod that Mrs. Clinton has, in her view, “picked great platforms,” particularly economic inequality.

And while the event wasn’t particularly racially diverse, African-American attendees seemed no less enthusiastic, demonstrating how far Clinton has come in closing the books on her contentious primary battle with Barack Obama in 2008.

For 28-year-old Sabrina, Clinton's focus on income inequality is personal. “I came from a poor family with little to no opportunity,” said the young African-American woman who attended the rally with a friend. “And to be able to hear that everyone can get a chance, I’m just excited about what can happen.”

Forty-year-old Andrew, an African-American father of two young sons, who attended the rally with his wife, was excited that he “got to see the next president of the United States.”

“I think she’s gonna win,” a breathless Andrew said, balancing his baby boy on his hip as his older son bounced between him and his wife, clamoring for attention. As for the lack of racial diversity in the crowd, Andrew dismissed it as a random occurrence. “I think maybe that was just what happened today,” he said. “She’s got a very diverse group of supporters.”

Andrew said he supported Obama in 2008, but that this time he has no trouble being excited about Hillary. “This time, he’s not running,” he said, referring to the current president. “And I’m a Democrat.”