Hillary Clinton backers try to woo left at Detroit conference

Vice President Joe Biden addressed Democratic activists at Netroots Nation in Detroit on Thursday.
Carlos Osorio/AP
Vice President Joe Biden addressed Democratic activists at Netroots Nation in Detroit on Thursday.

DETROIT — The latest effort by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s backers to win over liberal activists began this week at a snack table in a cavernous conference center. And it wasn’t going well.

“I’m not her biggest fan,” said Kathy Kaufman, a 49-year-old environmental blogger from Chapel Hill, N.C. “She’s a little bit more centrist and corporate than I’m thrilled with.”

Kaufman was eating a caramel brownie paid for by “Ready for Hillary,” a super PAC preparing for Clinton’s potential 2016 candidacy. (Kaufman turned down a “Ready for Hillary” mug.) The free snacks and swag are among several efforts Clinton’s supporters are making to promote her during this week’s annual Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, a gathering of about 3,000 liberal bloggers and activists who have been increasingly influential among the Democratic Party’s base supporters.


Polls show Clinton an overwhelming favorite to win the party’s nomination. Attendees at this conference in Detroit, who run the spectrum from mainstream Democrats and labor groups to Democratic socialists, might not be representative of the public, or even the Democratic Party, at large. But they do hold sway in the party, and it was skepticism on the left in 2008 that opened the door to Barack Obama’s ascendency and could again pose a challenge to Clinton as the next presidential primary season draws nearer. In 2008, liberal critics opposed Clinton’s support for the Iraq war. This year, Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, including six-figure speaking fees she has received from big banks, have prompted questions on the left.

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Clinton, who has tried to avoid overtly political gatherings, declined to attend this year’s Netroots Nation conference in Detroit. Other potential 2016 candidates seem willing to take advantage of the void. Vice President Joe Biden, who announced his appearance only last week, delivered a rousing 45-minute speech Thursday that drew loud cheers and ovations. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts delivered a 17-minute speech full of populist rhetoric, bringing activists to their feet Friday morning.

Biden emphasized his role in pushing gay rights measures and touted the Obama administration’s initiatives such as the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus program to argue that “progressive government did and does have a role in the economic health and well being of the American people.”

“There’s no reason to be in this business unless you know what you believe and you’re willing to risk what you believe,” Biden said.

For Warren’s speech Friday, many in the crowd donned old-fashioned “Warren for President” hats distributed by a group campaigning to draft her to run in 2016. They chanted “Run, Liz, run,” as Warren waved her hands to tamp them down.


“We can whine about it, we can whimper about it, or we can fight back,” Warren said as she laid out opposition to trade deals, big banks, and the power of lobbyists. “I’m fighting.”

Warren has pledged to fill out her Senate term, which runs through 2018. But more recently, she is using the present tense to say she is “not running for president,” appearing to leave some wiggle room should she change her mind. She repeated that phrasing in an interview Thursday when pressed, while still insisting it was a firm denial.

“There is no wiggle room. I am not running for president,” Warren said. “No means no.”

Warren did not directly answer a question about whether perceptions of Wall Street ties would damage Clinton as a potential presidential candidate. “I have made no secret about my concerns about the influence of Wall Street on policies in Washington,” Warren said.

Clinton received some boos when she spoke before the liberal activist convention in 2007, when the convention was known as YearlyKos. She eventually won over much of the crowd, drawing applause, according to news reports.


“I don’t see skepticism,” said Tracy Sefl, a senior adviser to Ready for Hillary. “I see support that is growing. I’m also proud that the Democratic Party isn’t a coronation party. We’re working really hard at what we’re doing.”

‘There is no wiggle room. I am not running for president.’

Few people interviewed here this week sounded hostile to Clinton, but several said they were not enthusiastic, either.

“If Elizabeth Warren ran, I’d be really interested,” said James Melton, a community college spokesman from Detroit who runs a political blog. “I’m not that excited about Hillary. But if she got the nomination, I’d vote for her.”

Though Clinton is not speaking here, her backers are at least trying to make her presence felt. “Ready for Hillary” is a $10,000 sponsor of the conference. A pair of staffers from the super PAC drove a recreational vehicle here, painted red, white, and blue — with the famous picture of the former secretary of state sending a text message on the back. The group, which says it has 2.5 million supporters, planned a party for Friday night. Its Thursday evening seminar explaining the mechanics of its super PAC strategy, which began late because of Biden’s speech, filled less than half of the conference room.

“They have a lot of money, so I’m not surprised they have a big presence,” said Stephanie Taylor, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee .

Even some of Warren’s biggest fans here acknowledge that Clinton might be too polarizing in a general election. Shelley Allen, an activist from Anchorage, Alaska, in her 50s, said that although she would prefer Biden or Warren to run for president, others might find them “a little too left.”

“If it’s Hillary, I’m voting for her,” she added. “She’s a little too Wall Street, a little too corporate. But that’s where you get the money.”

Noah Bierman can be reached at