Using his signature blend of wonky policy explanations and anecdotal personal stories, former President Bill Clinton fired up hundreds of supporters at an Evanston synagogue Tuesday morning, to stump for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ahead of next week’s Illinois primary election.
Throughout his roughly 45-minute speech, Clinton highlighted a message of focusing on “inclusive” economic, social and political issues, finding common ground with political enemies to further the progress made under President Barack Obama.
Clinton touched on a litany of issues from financial regulation and the Supreme Court to clean energy, student loans and criminal justice reform, defending Obama’s tenure in front of a crowd of roughly 700.
Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and Weinberg senior Kevin Cheng spoke before the former president. While Cheng, co-president of NU Students for Hillary, hit her Democratic primary opponent Senator Bernie Sanders on gun control and health care, Clinton mostly focused on stories and anecdotes from his 30 years on the campaign trail to portray his wife as a pragmatic policymaker who is the most qualified candidate to enter the White House.
“She’s the best change-maker I have ever known,” he said.
He also cited her experience working across the aisle with Republicans during her tenure in the Senate as valuable training for bridging today’s partisan divide.
“She didn’t do anything in Washington that didn’t have some Republican support,” Clinton said. “She’ll be the grownup in every room.”
On the topic of criminal justice reform, he answered critics of his controversial Crime Bill, arguing that longer sentences were forced into the bill to end a Republican filibuster. But he then moved to discussing prominent modern issues including police reform, decreased sentencing and rehabilitation for those leaving prison. Finding the right balance of reforming local police and maintaining strong law enforcement would be key to making progress, Clinton said.
“We need more police walking the streets instead of riding around in military vehicles,” he said.
Roughly 700 people filled the social hall at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, according to organizers. Doors closed as the event reached capacity about half an hour before its scheduled start time, with about 200 others filing into an overflow room next door.
As he waited in line to get in, Weinberg freshman Mack Burns said he was excited to see the former president speak during a primary campaign that few thought would be this close.
“I’m from New York, and no one really bothers to come talk there,” he said, “so this is pretty cool for me.”
In addition to remarks from Tisdahl and Cheng, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who represents Evanston in Congress, expressed her support for Hillary. Schakowsky touched on Clinton’s local connection from growing up in the Chicago suburbs, as well as her broad coalition of support, which includes “young people too.” She also cited Clinton’s foreign policy chops and her experience working on the Iranian nuclear deal as a key difference between her and Sanders.
Cheng focused his remarks on portraying Clinton as best suited for students and younger citizens, with the best ability to create jobs and further progress on same-sex marriage and other social issues.
“Hillary is a fighter for students,” he said.
Bill Clinton shared anecdotes of his wife’s work assisting children and families with legal and educational issues, painting her as a fighter ready to tackle inequalities and break down barriers to economic and social success.
The former president spoke on many issues related to voting rights, including Republican efforts to gerrymander districts as well as the “one-person, one-vote” case currently before the Supreme Court, which could severely change the balance of voting power across the country. He also criticized the 2010 Citizens United decision and its impact on campaign spending, even as his wife’s campaign has relied on a Super PAC for hundreds of millions of dollars in support for advertising and field efforts on her behalf.
“They hung a ‘for sale’ sign on the door of our democracy,” he said. “We need to take it down.”
Clinton generated perhaps the loudest applause during his speech as he addressed student loans, subtly attacking Sanders by arguing that free college tuition would result in increased inflation. Hillary Clinton’s plan to refinance student loans and even waive student debt after working in public service would be more pragmatic and better solve the issue plaguing millions of students, he said.
Clinton largely ignored the Republican primary, discussing it only briefly before comparing the chaotic race to “sixth-graders having a fight at recess.”
Instead, he spoke with a largely optimistic tone on the progress already made under Obama and how Clinton is best suited to continue such economic and social progress.
Just before leaving the stage to a rousing ovation over a Bon Jovi anthem, the former president responded to Schakowsky’s description of Hillary Clinton as “the most qualified candidate since George Washington.”
“I don't know if that's quite true,” he said, “but it's pretty close.”