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William Stricklin harbors a special affinity for Hillary Clinton. The Arkansas native and Harlem resident goes so far as to credit Clinton with his life. Were it not for educational reforms she instituted as Arkansas's first lady in the late 1970s and early '80s, he would never have attended college and found his way to New York City, where he has felt more at home than at his family's Hatfield hog farm.
So when Clinton became New York's junior senator in 2000, Stricklin, a progressive Democratic activist, considered it "so perfect." He explains, "I thought, 'She helped me years ago and I can help her.' And now this . . . "
By "this," he means the Iraq waror more precisely, Clinton's position on the Iraq war. Stricklin, who heads the Village Independent Democrats, cannot forget her stancenot the way the senator voted in 2002 to give President Bush authority to invade Iraq, nor the way she has refused to back down from her vote ever since. Says Stricklin of the politician who once inspired him, "She is on the wrong side."
Conventional wisdom has it that Hillary Clinton enjoys a solid lock on her liberal base, and here in New York her star power often translates into a free pass. But a surprising number of the state's progressives have become disaffected with their senator these days. Frustrated with the hard-right climate on Capitol Hill, people are upset with what they regard as Clinton's cautious, middle-of-the-road style. They don't like her restraint on such big lefty issues as civil liberties and abortion rights. And they certainly don't like her position on the warindeed, angry activists have taken to hounding her whenever they can. To wit: the dozens of Code Pinkers protesting last week outside Crobar, in Chelsea, where her husband Bill headlined a fundraiser for her 2006 re-election bid.
Steven Skyles-Mulligan, the president of the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, one of the more progressive clubs in town, says his members' unhappiness with Clinton has been brewing for years. "It's like the old adage, 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it.' A lot of people have that attitude," he explains. "There is a sense that people don't have to sit back and take it anymore."
And they don't. Not after last week, when not one but two anti-war candidates emerged to take on Clinton in the Democratic primary next year. For the senator, that means the trouble has just doubled. No sooner had word spread of the freshly announced challengersSteve Greenfield, of New Paltz, and Jonathan Tasini, of Manhattanthan they found an audience.
Last Tuesday, peace activists who'd just heard about Tasini's candidacy showed up at his kickoff at a Union Square hotel, offering him a hand. They listened raptly as he launched into a speech on his candidacy and its "centerpiece"the war. Standing before a blue bannerTASINI! VOTE FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE INthe labor activist read from a six-page prepared text. When he said he's entering the U.S. Senate race to "give voice" to New Yorkers who oppose the war, the 30 or so crowd members cheered. When he said Clinton "must be held accountable" for supporting it, they shouted. And when he described her as "out of touch with the values of New Yorkers," they gave him an ovation.
A similar scene played out on December 5, just a day earlier, when Greenfield made his candidacy official on the Columbia University campus. Himself an alumnus, Greenfield, a musician, took the podium before a half-dozen or so students and a retired professor, offering his own passionate remarks. He called himself the Senate candidate of choice for "peace activists, progressives, and all Democrats" and vowed to "fight aggressively to bring our troops home."
When he finished, the professor sang his praises. "I want to congratulate you for stepping forward," he said, and for giving Clinton a needed challenge. "I'm ashamed Columbia didn't support you more fully. So I'd like to make up for it," he added.
And with that, he wrote Greenfield a check.
If the anti-war candidates have touched a nerve, it's one they understand. For while these guys seem to have materialized, suddenly and simultaneously, on the political scene, they've been sowing the seeds of their candidacies for months, gauging the vibe in the Democratic grassroots, pondering the logistics of insurgent campaigns.
"It's not like I'm emerging out of a vacuum and landing here saying, 'I'll just hit the ground running,' " Greenfield says.
For him, the idea of running started in February at a New Paltz anti-war rally he'd helped organize. Nearly 1,000 people turned out to hear Representative Maurice Hinchey, a legendary New York progressive, deliver a fiery speech opposing the Iraq war. The crowd went wild. When Hinchey left the podium, Greenfield recalls, "I said, 'You should run against Hillary.' " His response? "No." Not one Democratic politician Greenfield approached that day had any desire to take on the senator.
"I was crestfallen," Greenfield says. "Here we are at this anti-war rally and we're going to support a pro-war senator."
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