I watched Hillary Clinton when she took the stage Wednesday at the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention at the Sheraton Hotel in Center City. Her remarks, while pointed, and often poignant, were not delivered with the fervor of a gifted speaker.
Rather, Clinton speaks in measured tones that are explanatory rather than rousing. Her speeches are more often like classroom lessons than heated pep rallies. But her words are delivered with the quiet confidence of someone who has done the things she speaks about.
Compare her to Bernie Sanders, who was also in town on Wednesday. He drew thousands of young people to an event at Temple University, where he preached political revolution with a gesticulating and passionate speaking style.
The difference in delivery is perhaps the reason that the lesser-known Sanders has been able to mount such a spirited challenge to the frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Sanders has won six of the last seven primaries, and if Clinton is to stop his momentum, she will need support of key constituencies like labor. She knew that on Wednesday, and spoke to the unions in a language they understood.
“It’s time for more businesses to treat workers as assets to be invested in, not costs to be cut,” she said to applause.
As the audience jumped to their feet while waving “Hillary” signs, Clinton launched into a mix of policy and hyperbole designed for the blue collar crowd she knows better than most.
“I’ve proposed specific new incentives for companies to share profits with employees on top of good wages,” she said, “because when corporations do well all the benefits shouldn’t go just to the CEOs and the shareholders. The workers who actually produce those profits ought to be rewarded as well.
“And we’re going to force companies that ship jobs overseas to give back any tax breaks that they receive from local, county, state or federal government.”
It was a line that played on the news of the day. U.S. drug maker Pfizer was on the cusp of an “inversion” deal with Ireland-based Allergen, when the Obama administration unveiled new rules that effectively killed the deal.
“They call it an inversion. I call it a perversion,” Clinton said. “It’s wrong. It’s got to stop. What President Obama announced is a start. And I’m glad Pfizer has given up on its own inversion scheme. But we’ve gotta build on this progress and we really have to slam the door on these abuses. They’re wrong for American workers, but they’re also wrong for the American economy.”
Clinton was peppered with applause as she spoke about standing up to the forces that would harm American workers. But in truth, Clinton seemed more comfortable when she was sitting down.
After the event with the AFL-CIO, I was one of a dozen or so reporters who followed Clinton to Impact Services, a social service agency that provides job training and other supports to help ex-offenders to find work and become self-sufficient.
Impact’s headquarters is just blocks from Kensington and Allegheny, or K&A. The intersection defines a neighborhood that has long been plagued by drugs and prostitution, poverty and crime. It is a place where addiction brings blacks, whites and Latinos together in an awkward dance of misery.
We watched that dance play out as we rode past shuttered stores and drug-addled people beneath Kensington Avenue’s El tracks.
When we arrived at Impact, a group of young black men—teens and twenty-somethings—waited in a basement conference room for Clinton. Each of them had been in trouble before, but they were filling out job applications when Clinton walked in with Mayor Kenney.
The young men smiled nervously as they greeted her, and a few minutes later, they walked upstairs to watch as Clinton sat on a panel with Mayor Kenney, former Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, an employer, a job developer, a program participant named James Ryan, and Impact President Casey O’Donnell.
Clinton asked questions of the panelists, who each talked about the work they were doing to help bring people back from the brink of hopelessness.
For Clinton, the panel allowed her to expound on a message that she is already trying to deliver—that common sense approaches are needed to help our most vulnerable.
But for me, the panel showed a side of Clinton that I believe is more important than her ability to deliver fiery rhetoric. The panel showed that Clinton is adept at listening.
It’s a skill I haven’t seen much during this campaign, but it’s a skill that matters to those who have too often been ignored.
I learned that from 19-year-old David, one of the young men who was filling out job applications when Clinton arrived. He spoke with me after the cameras and lights were shut off, as we were traveling home together on the El.
I asked him what he thought of Clinton’s visit to Impact.
“She told me I was articulate,” he said with a smile. “She told me as long as I could express myself I would make it.”
David, a poet and aspiring model, is indeed an expressive young man.
Clinton picked that up instantly. Not because she is a dynamic speaker, but because she possesses a skill that every real leader must have.
She knows how to listen.
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