In return to South Carolina, Clinton accuses GOP of neglecting women, minorities

Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton visited Kiki's Chicken and Waffles during a visit to Columbia on Wednesday.
Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton visited Kiki's Chicken and Waffles during a visit to Columbia on Wednesday. gmelendez@thestate.com

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Republicans and business interests Wednesday of turning a blind eye to unequal pay and advancement opportunities for working women and said she isn’t “afraid to take them on.”

In a folksy address to Democratic women here, Clinton told anecdotes from her own working life and political career, sometimes inflected with a bit of the Southern twang she picked up as a young lawyer in Arkansas three decades ago.

“I don’t think I’m letting you in on a secret when I say too many women still earn less than men on the job, and women of color often make even less,” Clinton said to nods and knowing murmurs of agreement.

The friendly crowd of black and white legislators and activists seemed eager to embrace Clinton as the party’s front-runner and paper over any lasting damage from Clinton’s bruising and racially charged 2008 loss to Barack Obama in South Carolina.

Clinton included grace notes to Obama and to her husband, former president Bill Clinton, who had angered leading black politicians here seven years ago by seeming to discount Obama’s candidacy.

“I have spent my adult life going to bat for children, families and our country and I do know how hard this job I’m seeking is,” she said. “I’ve seen it up close and personal.”

There was no mention of Republican candidate Carly Fiorina – the only woman in the crowded GOP field – who turned up here Wednesday and accused the Democrat of ducking hard questions.

Clinton is Fiorina’s foil and chief raison d'etre. The former Hewlett-Packard chief executive tells crowds that her business background makes her the more accomplished choice to become the first female president.

“The Republican Party needs a nominee who will ask these questions on a general debate stage” and answer them, Fiorina told reporters outside the hotel where Clinton was about to speak.

During Clinton’s speech, she told a story also recounted in her memoir last year about how Obama wouldn’t take no for an answer when he asked her to be his first-term secretary of state. Her husband noted that she had also initially refused to marry him, she said.

If there was a pattern, both decisions came out the right way, Clinton suggested to laughter.

She got a bigger laugh with a crack about how every president, no matter how youthful and vigorous they appear on Inauguration Day, goes gray with the stress of the job.

“Now let me tell you, I’m aware, I may not be the youngest candidate in this race,” Clinton said. “But I have one big advantage: I’ve been coloring my hair for years.”

That line, also a staple of her fundraising talks to big donors, got the loudest applause of the afternoon.

“Noooo. You’re not gonna see me turn white in the White House,” Clinton said. “And you’re also not gonna see me shrink from a fight.”

Clinton said Republicans in Congress are standing in the way of legislation that would “give women the legal tools we need to fight discrimination at work,” and that Republican candidates are discounting the issue of equal pay.

“What century are they living in?” Clinton asked.

But Allison Moore, national press secretary for the Republican National Committee, said in a statement that Clinton “has a habit of contradicting pro-women words with anti-women actions.” She pointed to allegations that Clinton paid women less than men in her Senate office.

“The reality is that Hillary Clinton will say anything to benefit herself politically,” Moore said.

South Carolina is the last of the four early-primary states Clinton is visiting at the outset of her second presidential attempt. It was her first campaign trip to the state since 2008, when she not only lost the state’s primary but saw the start of an exodus of black voters from her presidential campaign.

Weeks before the Jan. 26, 2008, South Carolina primary, Clinton held a commanding lead over Obama, who was still relatively unknown to black voters. She led Obama 52 percent to 39 percent among African-Americans in a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in December 2007. But by the end of February, a Post-ABC News poll had Obama leading among black voters 62 percent to 30 percent.

“Some of you might remember we had a pretty vigorous campaign in 2008,” Clinton said Wednesday. “Both President Obama and I worked really hard, and he won and I lost. And then I went to work to make sure he’d win.”

Clinton also held a meeting with a group of minority small-business owners in Columbia, which is the state capital. Black voters made up about half of the registered Democrats in South Carolina.

This time, Clinton is hoping to keep together the coalition of young, female and minority voters that twice carried Obama to victory.

No one mentions the wounds of 2008 much these days, both black and white organizers of the Democratic women’s event said.

“You have to let things go,” said Joyce Rose-Harris, an African-American board member of the state Democratic Women’s Council.

Polls now suggest that Clinton remains popular among black voters. About three in four African-Americans viewed Clinton favorably in a Washington Post-ABC news poll in early 2014.