As hordes awaited the speech from Senator Rodham Hillary Clinton on Tuesday night, the scene outside Baruch College looked and felt like a graduation. People wrapped around two blocks sounded edgy with anticipation and even slightly wistful at times, but most of all they seemed to express some version of an upbeat note. Many celebrated the chance to welcome their candidate home and rally her onward, while others acknowledged relief that her address might bring concession, and finally end a presidential primary of unprecedented length.
Although Clinton ultimately committed to neither position in her remarks, at least everyone could recognize the historic nature of the evening.
“There’s a lot of speculation that she’s going to drop out, but I don’t know,” said one of two undecided African-American women from Brooklyn standing midway in the line at Lexington and 25th Street. “I’m just here for the ride.”
“It’s a huge night,” added her friend. “It’s a huge year, with a woman and an African American running.”
Farther east on 25th Street, a group of Clinton supporters stirred the diehard and practical emotions that appeared to be the evening’s most popular options.
“I feel really hopeful,” said Denise Mortillaro of Brooklyn. “She’s not gonna bow down to those guys. She’s the girl we want in.”
But Jesse Tamari of Union City, New Jersey, admitted that he sensed surrender.
“It feels like a glorious ending for a wonderful race,” he said. “It feels like it’s close to the end.”
Closer to the entrance at Lexington and 24th Street, where diehards who sought first places in line were more likely to predominate, Terry Dattilio already sounded eager for the general election.
“Of course, I expect that she will concede, although she may not concede tonight,” said the Manhattan resident. She held a remarkably spry 17-year-old Chihuahua dressed in a patriotic cap and sweater that might even impress John McCain.
With luck, some of these people, but perhaps not that dog, would later find themselves inside a basement-level gymnasium far beyond the reach of cell phone reception. There, Clinton’s preternaturally perky staffers ushered in VIP entrants, among them Congressman Anthony Weiner, City Councilmembers Eric Gioia and Melissa Mark Viverito, the Reverend Calvin Butts, and Fred Hochberg, a Clinton fundraiser and dean of Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy.
When asked for his prediction, Queens City Councilman Gioia, a likely Public Advocate contender who campaigned for Clinton in Puerto Rico over the weekend said, “I don’t have any expectation about what she’s going to say. I’m proud of her.”
Meanwhile, away from the VIP floor, a more boisterous bleacher crowd positioned opposite an army of network news cameras began to practice cheers shortly after 8 p.m.
“C-L-I-N-T-O-N! We won’t stop until she wins!”
Eventually, they would be joined by many in the assembled hundreds, who all in all appeared to offer more diversity, particularly in age, than has been attributed to Clinton’s base. Lacking television screens to track results that would show Obama clinching the nomination, people chatted and tapped to music that captured the contradictory moods of the evening. The soundtrack included Ricky Martin’s “The Cup of Life” and The Black Crowes’ “By Your Side.”
Moments before 9:30 p.m., just as Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” was cued another time, Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe emerged at the podium. He primed the crowd with announcement of her victory in South Dakota, reiterations of the contests his candidate had won, and his declaration, contested by the Obama team, that she leads in the popular vote. He introduced her as the “next president of the United States.”
Clinton entered to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” accompanied by former President Bill Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea.
During her 20-minute speech, Clinton referenced party unity and congratulated Obama on the race he had run, but she did not acknowledge him formally as the presumptive nominee. Instead, she devoted time to summarizing her campaign, emphasizing the nearly 18 million people who voted for her, and repeating health care as a policy priority. Speaking frequently in the past tense, the pitch seemed to confirm chatter that she could be angling for a cabinet position in an Obama administration, or even the vice president slot. In fact, it was reported that, earlier in the day, she had told lawmakers that the race was over and that she would consider the number two job.
“This has been a long campaign,” Clinton finally ventured at 16 minutes into her speech, “and I will be making no decisions tonight.” She concluded by saying she plans to seek the guidance of supporters and party leaders in the coming days as she makes her decision, “with the country’s best interests at heart.”
Some of those counselors might include the crush of elected officials, many of them superdelegates, that joined her onstage when she finished. The show of support included New York Governor David Paterson, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-OH), Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and New York City Councilmember Bill DeBlasio.
Asked for her reaction afterwards on the floor, Congresswoman Maloney offered that peculiar blend of unwavering loyalty dashed with hints of reality that was common throughout the evening.
“She hasn’t made a decision,” Maloney said, adding, “Many of us are going to be for her even after she makes a different decision. I’m supporting her, as long as she’s supporting herself.”
Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe, however, remained resolutely defiant when questioned how he could envision a win in the midst of reports that Obama had effectively already won.
“If I worried about what the press said every night,” he countered, “we would have stopped a couple of months ago. Every time they told Hillary Clinton it was over, she continued to win.”
Indeed, some of Clinton’s fiercest supporters appeal to the issue of what precisely constitutes a win in this historic primary.
“The count is unofficial until the Democratic National Committee certifies this nomination,” said a passionate Ronald Weintraub as the gymnasium was emptying around 10 p.m.
Gay activist Jon Winkelman added, “The DNC’s rules are very specific about what defines a win and what does not define a win. What defines a win is getting 50 percent plus one of the total delegates certified in Denver. Before that, you haven’t won.”
And supposing, as appears likely, that Clinton chooses not to take the contest to the convention in August?
“Obama and his supporters should remember a lot of us are keeping our options open,” said Winkelman.
That potentially worrisome signal for the party echoed 10 blocks south at the Food Emporium in Union Square, where in a checkout line at 11:30 p.m. a woman was spotted holding a flag and sign from the Clinton rally. She identified herself as a native of Puerto Rico who now resides in the Bronx.
Asked whether she would vote for Obama, she replied, “ I will not vote for him. I hate him.” Declining to explain why, she deferred to gender and said, “We need a woman president.”
The question now is, will she and millions of others accept a different outcome?