“This is so nostalgic,” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 declared upon entering the Yale Child Study Center on Monday morning.
Clinton’s reminiscence was not unexpected — Monday’s roundtable discussion with women at the Child Study Center did, after all, mark the first time she has come to Yale since announcing her campaign for president last January. But it also amounted to Yale’s first appearance on the 2008 presidential race stage — a stark contrast to past contests that have featured, as in 2004, three Eli frontrunners and dueling members of Skull and Bones.
The senator, whose pit stop in New Haven was added to her schedule just days before — according to Ward 13 Alderman Alex Rhodeen, “frankly, it was thrown together at the last minute” — chocked up during the visit, earning national headlines throughout the day and setting the blogosphere buzzing.
“I said I would not tear up. Already, we’re not on that path,” Clinton chuckled, wiping tears from her eyes after receiving a sentimental introduction from Penn Rhodeen, Alex Rhodeen’s father and her former boss at the Child Study Center, where she worked while in law school. But Clinton soon collected herself and quickly proceeded to discuss her plans for establishing universal health care and revitalizing America’s middle class with panel members.
Clinton also described her start at Yale Law School in 1969 — where she met her husband, Bill Clinton LAW ’73 — saying that she showed up “in a beat-up car with a mattress roped to the top.” Upon arriving at the Law School, Clinton said, she took an interest in children’s issues and decided to become a volunteer at the Yale Child Study Center. During her time at the Center, she worked to raise awareness about child abuse, the incarceration of minors and public-school funding for children with special needs.
The roundtable discussion — held one day before voters in Connecticut and the residents of 23 other states participate in presidential primaries and caucuses — featured Clinton and 11 Connecticut women.
As two toddlers doodled with crayons at a petite table a few feet from Clinton’s chair, Clinton spoke with the other participants about healthcare reform and children’s issues. In the background, scribbled blue and pink hand-drawn posters shouted “Kids for Hillary” and “My Mom Says Hillary.”
Also packed into the room were about 200 spectators, mostly Clinton supporters and members of the press. Pamela Ossorio, an employee at the Yale Eye Center, whispered almost conspiratorially about how she “really, really want[s] to have a woman president.”
During the discussion, Clinton listened to the personal stories of the panelists, many of whom described tales of economic hardship as the result of debilitating medical bills and unsatisfactory health insurance.
“The federal government has actively contributed to making life harder for so many hardworking Americans,” Clinton told the women on the panel. “All problems of health care will be solved or lessened with universal health care.”
That line prompted a warm response from those in attendance. But although the audience burst into applause twice during the course of the morning’s event, the atmosphere during most of the conversation was subdued.
Connecticut State Sen. and panel member Gayle Slossberg gently rocked her knees as her young daughter napped in her lap. A few members of the audience sitting directly behind Clinton followed the little girl’s lead, their chins bobbing on their chests at several points during the discussion.
The panel featured several prominent state politicians but few New Haven natives or Yale officials. The mayors of Stamford and Bridgeport came, as well as Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73.
Students observing the discussion left impressed by Clinton’s statements, they said, especially by what they called her concrete proposals for social and economic reform. And several students said they were also surprised by how “nice” Clinton seemed in person, compared to the harsher images of her portrayed by the media.
“I liked seeing that there’s a human side to her,” Andrew Kurzrok ’11 said.
Of the Yalies who attended, however, few said they were certain they would vote for Clinton today.
Porter Braswell ’11 said he attended in order to improve his grasp on Clinton’s policy positions. Although having a black president would be “tremendous to see,” Braswell said, he was certain that “either one [of the Democratic candidates] would do a great job.”
Yale College Council President Rebecca Taber ’08, one of the about a dozen Yalies in attendance — and the first woman to serve as YCC president in seven years — said she found it exciting to be in such an intimate setting with Clinton. But nothing Clinton said was markedly different from her public statements in recent months, Taber said, and attending the discussion “in no way pushed [Taber] in one way or another.”
As an undergraduate at Wellesley in the late 1960s, Clinton served as president of her College Government Association.
Braswell said many of his friends did not know about Clinton’s visit until after she had left. Robert King, a child psychology professor at the Child Study Center, said he did not learn until last weekend that Clinton would be there Monday.
Rhodeen, the alderman, said the event was not initially on Clinton’s schedule, but in the days leading up to the primary, Clinton felt she needed to stop in Connecticut once more to shore up support in the state, where she has been sliding in recent polls.
If there had been more time, the campaign could have arranged for a bigger venue and more advertisement, Rhodeen said, but he was still receiving details about Clinton’s stop Sunday night. Rhodeen said it was important to Clinton to stop somewhere where she could hold a forum on issues that matter most to her — namely, families and children.
After the event, Clinton departed New Haven for a campaign stop in Massachusetts before returning to New York last night to host a televised “national town hall meeting.”