About the time when Hillary Clinton says she and her husband were “dead broke,” before they made millions off speeches and when the foundation now under scrutiny was in its infancy, there was the race that launched Clinton in her own right — the New York Senate race.
Sixteen years ago, before her first failed and bitter presidential run and then the thousands of miles traveled as secretary of state, Clinton — still in the White House as first lady — made an audacious gamble.
Legendary Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York was retiring. Clinton had never lived in the Empire State and had few ties to the political system, but heck, if she could make it there….
With her name recognition in a left-leaning state, she stood a pretty good shot of emerging from the Democratic primary, or potentially even clearing the field.
With a year left in her husband Bill Clinton’s second term in the White House, Clinton officially announced her candidacy. Think about that for a second: Clinton doing what she did, timing-wise, would be the equivalent of Michelle Obama launching a Senate run nine months from now.
“I may be new to the neighborhood,” Clinton told a crowd of 2,000, “but I’m not new to your concerns.”
Clinton embarked on a 62-county listening tour, focusing on rural Upstate New York. She hoped to win over skeptical, Republican-leaning voters, who could be key to victory, especially in a race against Republican New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose strength was in the city, not the country.
Fearing a Giuliani run, New York Democrats cleared the way for Clinton.
“I pledge to you that I will work my heart out every day in this campaign to become your next senator,” Clinton said in her May 16 acceptance speech (below) in Albany, N.Y.
Her message sounded a lot like today, focusing on family work-life issues, education, health care, abortion rights, even calling for women to get “equal pay for equal work” and advocating for rural broadband.
She saved some of her strongest words for the gun lobby, which she said was wrong for warning that her husband wanted to take away guns in the run up to signing the Brady bill in 1993. (The bill instituted background checks and waiting periods for handguns.)
“Taking the assault weapons off the street and passing the Brady bill kept 500,000 fugitives, felons, and stalkers from buying the guns that could have killed and maimed even more New Yorkers and Americans,” Clinton thundered.
In a remarkable moment, she also thanked “Vice President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton.” Bill waved to the crowd and stood for a standing ovation after these lines from his wife: “I am delighted that the president is here this evening and I am so grateful for his support. I would not be standing here tonight were it not for Bill and were it not for all he has done for me. And I could not be prouder as an American and as a New Yorker to have a president who has meant so much to our country. We are a better country than we were in 1992.”
All signs had pointed to an epic showdown between Clinton and Giuliani. But three days after Clinton’s acceptance speech, Giuliani’s dropped out. His candidacy imploded amid front-page tabloid revelations of an affair just as he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Six months before the general election, Republicans were grasping for a candidate. Stepping into the void was Rick Lazio, the Long Island congressman. But his aggressive tactics and tone in a debate with Clinton — moderated by the late Tim Russert — is still being studied as an example of how not to debate a female candidate.
Here’s (a very young) Jon Stewart in his early days as Daily Show host, wrapping the debate:
Clinton capitalized on it. A week after the debate, she rallied Democratic women in a Manhattan hotel ballroom and dismissed Lazio as a bully.
“There is a big difference between raising your voice and raising up the quality of education in our schools,” Clinton said. “There is a big difference between pointing your finger and reaching out your hand to improve the quality of life for the people who need health and good jobs.”
In her closing ad, sitting on a couch in a living room, Clinton acknowledged the improbability of her run.
“When I started this campaign, I’m not sure I knew quite what to expect,” she said, “and you probably didn’t either.”
In the end, Clinton dispatched of Lazio in a 12-point win, laying the groundwork for all that would come next.