“She is no stranger here,” said Calvin Butts, the Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where a “homecoming” rally was held for Hillary Clinton on Saturday.
In a very specific way, at least, the origins of Clinton’s Senate career can be traced back to the 125th Street offices of Charlie Rangel, who, Clinton lore has it, was the first person to suggest she run for office. Rangel is also credited with finding Bill Clinton his uptown headquarters.
On the rainy Saturday afternoon, Rangel sat on one side of the church’s marble altar and Bill and Hillary sat on the other.
“He loves being home,” Clinton said of Rangel when it was her turn to talk.
“It’s great getting off that plane and being able to come back to Harlem. Isn’t it, Charlie?”
The audience was thrilled to have Rangel and Hillary on the same stage.
(So, apparently, was the Republican National Committee. As Clinton spoke at the podium about building a better future for America’s children, a statement was sent out to reporters about the “Rangel/Clinton” tax hikes.)
The program started with remarks from local elected officials. When the Clintons arrived, the church’s choir, standing in crimson and gold robes in the stained-glass lighted balcony above them, sang Happy Birthday to the senator, now 60. Then, reflecting the air of triumph surrounding the Clinton campaign more than two months before the first vote is cast, the choir immediately transitioned into a song with the chorus “Victory is mine.”
Volunteers in the upper tiers held handmade signs with messages like “Harlem for Hillary.” A supporter waved a placard that said, “A Clinton White House is the Right House.”
The audience of parishioners and New York elected officials chanted “Hill-a-ry” and applauded euphorically from the pews at the sight of Bill Clinton.
Taking the podium, Rangel, in a dress shirt opened at the collar, spoke of Hillary as the candidate who could give the country a second chance.
“The nightmare is just about over,” he said of the Bush administration. He then sought to reinforce the Clinton’s uptown credentials: “Where else do you have a former president who has an office just down the block?” The line prompted loud and sustained applause. Rangel also declared that Hillary was “married to one of the greatest presidents our nation has ever seen.”
Bill Clinton, dressed in gray pants and a blue blazer, spoke next, pitching his wife as the only candidate ready to do the job.
“She is the only member of the armed services committee” in the race, he said, adding “We need somebody who can win.”
He said that the intention of her rivals to be more blunt in their attacks on her revealed that she was clearly the candidate to beat. “When all these guys that are running against her jump on her, I think they know something, don’t they?” he said.
After more than an hour of speeches, Clinton herself spoke at the podium before a black grand piano and under silver and gold organ pipes. Dressed in a turquoise jacket and black pants, she started with some overtly religious language.
“On this earth God’s work is our own,” she said at one point. At another point she declared, “The spirit is with us.”
She spoke often about New York.
“So much about what matters to New York matters not just to New York but to the rest of the country and the world,” she said.
“When Bill and I were leaving the White House we were so excited about coming here,” she said. “And the fact that he does have his office on 125th Street has been such a joy for him and for all of us.”
Near the end of the speech, she said she looked forward to the day that “George Bush and Dick Cheney finally leave.”
After the speeches, Loretta Faison, a 49-year-old welfare worker wearing a t-shirt that said “Praise God,” said she planned on supporting Clinton.
“She is the best qualified right now and let’s face it, she was there,” she said. She also said she thought that Barack Obama would be ready in the “next election.”
Outside, veteran Assemblyman Denny Farrell stood under a large white umbrella, providing yet more testimony about Hillary Clinton’s local bona fides.
“She is from New York and she is a New Yorker,” he said. “That was validated with the vote she got last year.”
Of the Clintons, he said, “They are New Yorkers first. United States people second, and world third.”