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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."
Around the same time, Tasini was grappling with the same realization. Several people he describes as "very strongly opposed to the war" were casting about for a candidate. They suggested he run. A former union president, he's good on the stump. He didn't take the idea too seriouslyat first. But then, he thought about how his friends and colleagues view the war. "I know what people are feeling," he says.
That's not all these guys thought about. They considered what they'd need to build a credible campaign and where they'd find foot soldiersthe way they might enlist supporters across the state to donate time and money from, say, the Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean camps. And they considered what other folks had to say.
"I didn't discourage him," says Michael Sussman, a former Orange County Demo-cratic Committee member, of Greenfield. Sussman counts himself "one of those lib- erals disaffected with Hillary Clinton," especially over the war. He wants someoneanyoneto stand up and hold the senator accountable. "Someone has to say to Clinton, 'You haven't represented us,' " he explains. "I see that as Steve's endeavor and I support it."
Jeff Cohen, the founder of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, who lives in Wood- stock, sounds a similar note. When Tasini consulted him about a Senate bid, he relays, "I got excited. I am excited." Cohen worked for the 2003 Kucinich for President outfit, and he has always believed progressives' support for Clinton is thin. But with the Bush II era, they've grown more "radicalized," he says, and more disappointed with Clinton.
"The base is fed up with Democrats who echo Bush rhetoric about staying the course in Iraq," he explains, adding, "I think Jonathan's campaign will be supercharged."
At this early stage, at least, the anti-war challengers are gaining some momentum. News of the candidacies was picked up by the mainstream press and has circulated over peace listservs and liberal blogs. Just days into the campaigns, both men have begun trolling for support among activists, visiting peace groups and attending club functions. Already, Greenfield has logged hundreds of miles crisscrossing the state. And Tasini starts an upstate campaign swing this week.
The candidates have their share of distinctions, of course (see sidebar). But their central message sounds the same: The war must end now; the troops must be brought home; the billions of dollars pouring into Iraq must go to solving domestic problems with health care, Social Security, and poor job growth.
It's a campaign message made for the state's energized anti-war activists, many of whom are already on board. Manna Jo Greene of Rosendale, who traveled to Iraq in 2003 on a well-publicized peace vigil, plans to volunteer for Greenfield's bid. "It's long overdue that Hillary's constituents have an alternative and let her know that positions she's taken have not reflected the majority of her constituents," she says.
Carol Husten of Brooklyn, a new Tasini backer and one of 18 grandmothers recently arrested in Times Square for protesting the war, puts it more ominously: "This is just what we needed. . . . Hillary had better be prepared."
Clinton does seem to be trying. When asked about her two anti-war challengers last week at an upstate event, the senator replied simply, "I have no argument with anyone who wants to run for any office." And her campaign declined to comment for the Voice. But the senator has been talking more about the war these days.
Jonathan Tasini is a labor activist
photo: Steven Sunshine
Last month, she sent a well-circulated, 1,600-word e-mail to her constituents, offering her strongest words yet. She defended her vote to authorize force, although she made plain that President Bush had misled her with "false assurances, faulty evidence, and mismanagement." She even called for a plan to begin withdrawing troops next year.
Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant, sees the senator's e-mail as "the beginning of a shift" in her hawkish war stance and expects her to become more visibly critical of the Bush administration. The anti-war candidates, he notes, can actually help Clinton as she moves into that role. "They will give her a chance to cement her position on the left and allow her to re- emphasize her criticisms," he says.
To hear the political analysts, progressive Democrats aren't about to abandon their popular senator for Greenfield, Tasini, or any anti-war candidate. After all, only the anti-war left has begun rising up against Clinton. Most other factions have given Clinton cover. Says one observer with ties to various progressive circles, "I bet you won't get people who are part of the political machinery talking critically about Clinton. Hillary has the left in her corner no matter what."
Maybe so. But a surprising number of progressives who don't identify with the anti-war movement are at least listening. Get-out-the-vote powerhouses like the Village Independent Democrats, the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, and Democracy for NYC all expect to vet the challengers and consider the alternatives. For Clinton, they insist, getting their endorsements won't be a walk in the park. Says Skyles-Mulligan, of the Chelsea club, "Senator Clinton is out of touch. She has a vulnerability that she needs to fix."
Whether that vulnerability translates into votes for Greenfield or Tasini is another matter. And not even disgruntled liberals believe the opponents will end up unseating Clinton. The anti-war underdogs don't have the senator's mighther $14 million, and counting, war chest; her worldwide name recognition; her popularity in the state. And neither holds any illusion that the New York State Democratic Committee will give him its blessing. They expect to get their names on the ballot through electoral fiat, gathering 15,000 signatures from New York Democrats from 15 districts statewide by July.
Yet even a long shot can play an important role in advancing the progressive movement, says Charles Lenchner of White Plains, who helped found the Progressive Democrats of America. As he sees it, any anti-war challenger to Clinton who can get himself on the September primary ballot and get people to vote for him wins. That would mean he had mobilized hundreds of thousands of people across the state, leaving behind a more robust network.
"We want to engender a feet-in-the-streets campaign to build up the Democratic Party," Lenchner says.
Even the candidates see their efforts as a test for progressives. Now they will have a choice, someone who better reflects their views. Says Greenfield, "If this is what you believe and if this is what you say is important to you, don't elect Hillary Clinton."
Tasini puts it a different way: "The challenge is to get past the haze and celebrity and ask voters what they believe in. If given a choice, do they choose Republican lite?"
No one is bracing for that test more than Stricklin, of the Village Democrats. On the one hand, there are what he terms his "personal loyalties" to Clinton. On the other, his ideals. A challenge to Clinton from the left, he says, "means there will be a struggle for our club with the endorsement." He adds, "It will be a dogfight like we've never seen and I dread it like a beating."