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From the archives | Jan. 22, 2008

A defining time of advocacy: Clinton draws on New Bedford lessons

Bill Do Carmo worked with Hillary Clinton when she did survey work for the Children's Defense Fund after graduating from law school, was seen at his home in 2008.
Bill Do Carmo worked with Hillary Clinton when she did survey work for the Children's Defense Fund after graduating from law school, was seen at his home in 2008.Robert E. Klein for The Boston Globe

This story is from the Boston Globe archives. It was originally published on Jan. 22, 2008.

NEW BEDFORD - Carting a 77-part questionnaire on a clipboard, a 25-year-old lawyer named Hillary Rodham made her way through the poorest neighborhoods of this ailing industrial city, three-decker by three-decker. Knocking on every third door, sitting in cramped living rooms, she and a Portuguese translator asked startled, often wary parents whether they had any children who didn’t go to school.

Every 10th house or so, she found such a child. They included the children of Portuguese and Cape Verdean immigrants who quit or flunked out because no one helped them learn English, a 10-year-old boy who had been classified as retarded despite passing his regular classes, and a little girl in a wheelchair who languished on her family’s back porch because she had no way to get to school.

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Clinton’s brief experience in 1973 living in Cambridge and working for the Children’s Defense Fund, including in New Bedford, was until recently a forgotten chapter of a famous life, earning just a few paragraphs in her autobiography. But on the campaign trail, she has dusted off the anecdote and made it a crucial bulwark in her case for the presidency: proof that she has been working for change, and helping children and families, for 35 years.

“I knew then that I wanted to spend my career being a voice for children,” she told students in November at her alma mater, Wellesley College, “children particularly who had been left behind, children who drew the short straw in life.”

And indeed, in 1973 Clinton had a hand in some of the most cutting-edge legal advocacy of the time, being done from the fund’s stately Victorian headquarters on Cambridge Street in Harvard Square. Yet she did the work for less than nine months before taking a job in Washington, as aide to the congressional committee examining Richard Nixon’s impeachment. From there she moved to Arkansas, where she joined a private law firm.

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Clinton remained involved with children’s issues throughout her career. She chaired the fund’s board for years, pursued education reform as first lady of Arkansas, and fought in the White House for health insurance for low-income children. Yet never again has it been the primary pursuit in her life to advocate on behalf of forgotten children.

“It was sort of disappointing to me that she left that fight,” said Daniel Yohalem, a friend who worked on the fund for more than a decade. “I think she thought - it’s complicated. I think [the Nixon impeachment inquiry] brought her closer to a sense of power, because the Watergate Committee was doing something unprecedented.”

Yohalem believes that Clinton was passionately devoted to doing good in the world. And he wonders what she could have accomplished had she stayed at the fund.

“It seems to me that after she left CDF, and before she became a senator in New York, she wasn’t able to work on children’s and civil rights issues in the same way,” he said.

The fund was founded, and is still run, by the charismatic and demanding Marian Wright Edelman, the first black woman admitted to the bar in Mississippi. Clinton worked for Edelman during two summers in law school at Yale, where she took an extra year in order to work at Yale-New Haven hospital studying how to deal with suspected child abuse.

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After graduation, she moved to Cambridge. She rented the top floor of a house and lived by herself for the first time. Her boyfriend, Bill Clinton, was in Arkansas, teaching and considering a run for office. Hillary wrote in “Living History” that she was lonely and spending much of her salary on phone calls to Bill, but was unsure whether she should marry him.

Meanwhile, she got a taste of some very unconventional legal work. Edelman believed lawyers needed to pound the pavement to understand the problems they hoped to fix, according to interviews with a half dozen of Hillary Clinton’s former colleagues.

On the campaign trail, Clinton focuses on the least-edgy aspect of what she did, cataloguing discrimination against children who were disabled. Much of what the fund did, though, was to advocate for victims who were less than picture-perfect: teenage mothers, minority youths who had been expelled for disciplinary infractions, and juvenile delinquents.

In her book, Clinton briefly describes traveling to South Carolina to interview 14- and 15-year-olds who were being housed with adult criminals. Several of her colleagues recalled finding boys who had been raped in jail. The organization took at least one case to court.

The project that brought Clinton to New Bedford eventually became a much-publicized report, “Children Out of School in America.” With volunteers as well as its own staff, the fund spoke to 6,500 families across the country, concluding that 2 million school-age children were being excluded from public school because of segregation, special needs, or poverty.

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New Bedford was hurting, as it still is today. Clinton and her colleagues arrived only three years after serious rioting left parts of the city in tatters. The dropout rate was among the highest in the nation; the fund’s report said that in the poorest section of the city, three-quarters of 16- and 17-year-olds of Portuguese descent were out of school.

Some city officials were indifferent because each dropout was “just another set of hands on the assembly line,” recalled longtime local activist Lee Charlton, whom the researchers consulted at the time.

Although the fund interviewed dozens of community leaders and school officials, few remember Clinton and her colleagues 35 years later. Because New Bedford was so troubled, outsiders were always coming to study them.

Bill do Carmo, then head of the local NAACP, does recall meeting Clinton.

“She was quite the young lady,” do Carmo said. “Sometimes you come across people who have that aura around them.”

Yohalem, too, went from door to door in New Bedford. He recalls that families, many of whom had lived under dictatorship in Portugal, were often suspicious when the young lawyers showed up but usually warmed to them. The saddest part, he said, was that many parents didn’t dare hope for anything better.

“Knocking on doors was revelatory and heartbreaking,” Clinton wrote in her book.

“Children Out of School in America” helped make the case for the 1975 federal Education for All Handicapped Children law, a fact that Hillary and Bill Clinton trumpet in their campaign appearances. But the organization was just one of many pushing for change.

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Hillary Clinton’s fellow staffers describe working around the clock, feverishly studying laws and regulations, writing book chapters and legal briefs.

When Clinton left, she was missed. According to Gil Venable, another lawyer, “She had a talent that I would say was a notch higher than the rest of us.”


Globe correspondent Amy Farnsworth contributed to this report.