Of all the storied stops along Hillary Clinton’s political path — New Haven, Little Rock, Washington, D.C., New York — New Bedford didn’t get much air time until this week.
Then, there it was, the city where Clinton worked 43 years ago, claiming the spotlight in her acceptance speech as the Democratic nominee for president. Her stint in New Bedford may have been brief — less than a year, in fact — but it made the perfect setting for the narrative her campaign was shaping, of a woman who has been fighting for children all her life.
“So I went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, going door-to-door in New Bedford, Mass., on behalf of children with disabilities who were denied the chance to go to school,” Clinton told the crowd at the convention in Philadelphia. “I remember meeting a young girl in a wheelchair on the small back porch of her house. She told me how badly she wanted to go to school — it just didn’t seem possible in those days.”
The shoutout came as a surprise to New Bedford’s Mayor Jon Mitchell, who was attending the convention but not expecting the nod.
“I personally cheered louder than when Malcolm Butler intercepted the pass at the Super Bowl,” said Mitchell.
The mayor, who has been helping the Clinton campaign, attended the convention as a guest, along with his 15-year-old daughter. “It was a great moment,” he said. “To have a shoutout at a historic speech like that at a time when New Bedford is rapidly resurging makes everybody in our city feel really proud.”
Clinton was fresh out of law school in 1973 and living in Cambridge while working in New Bedford as a 25-year-old legal advocate for the Children’s Defense Fund. With a Portuguese translator, she interviewed families in some of the poorest areas of the city, exploring the circumstances that were keeping children out of school, despite compulsory attendance laws.
With more than 50 other staffers, Clinton contributed to the very first report of the Children’s Defense Fund, which had been founded just a year earlier. That report, called Children Out of School in America, found that schools were denying responsibility for educating children with disabilities “on the grounds that these children are different, might hurt others, would not benefit from regular school, and would tax the already stretched resources and patience of teachers and administrators.”
The classrooms that were available for children with learning disabilities were getting disproportionate numbers of black students, for seemingly no reason. The report tells the story of a 10-year-old black boy in New Bedford who was taken out of his regular class and shifted into special education; the investigators learned his IQ was misstated, though he had never been tested; he had, however, been dubbed a “problem student.”
“It was important work,” said Mitchell. “The problem of disabled children not being welcomed in school is hardly unique to New Bedford back then.”
Three years later, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which guaranteed a free public education to every child with a disability.
By that time, Clinton had already moved to Washington to work with the House Judiciary Committee, which was drawing up articles of impeachment for President Richard Nixon.
Clinton’s ties to the Children’s Defense Fund continued for years, as she served on its board. But her relationship with its founder — a woman often described as her mentor, Marian Wright Edelman — was severely strained after her husband, President Bill Clinton, enacted a welfare reform package that Edelman loudly protested.
The former president also caused problems for his wife in her Democratic primary race in New Bedford. Bill Clinton appeared at a polling place, shouting through a bullhorn and trying to turn out the vote for his wife. The event, which Mitchell also attended, caused such a commotion that critics claimed he was getting too close to the polling places and violating state election law.
“It was the talk of the town for a couple of days,” said Mitchell.
Clinton still won New Bedford in the March primary, beating Vermont US Senator Bernie Sanders by 10 points. Eight years ago, she defeated Barack Obama there by 43 points.Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.