Politics & Government

Clinton energizes Fresno crowd

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton hasn't raised much campaign cash in the Fresno area, but she showed Monday that she can raise a crowd.

The New York senator swept into the Valley for a morning rally in front of Fresno High School that attracted thousands of exuberant supporters.

"I loved it. It gives me hope," said Earlimart resident Teresa DeAnda. "I wish somebody had said 'H' is for Hillary and 'H' is for hope."

Clinton's 30-minute address went out to a receptive audience that included hundreds of high school students and touched on the campaign themes that have made her the Democratic Party's front-runner.

She spoke on affordable health care for all, good-paying jobs, a president "who respects the Constitution" and ending the war in Iraq. That last topic received the largest ovation of all.

She also threw in one idea that seemed tailored to the Valley -- maintaining a strong agricultural sector, though she later said the region was also a perfect place to create jobs in renewable energy ventures such as solar, biomass and biodiesel.

Her themes established, Clinton then set goals her administration would pursue: restoring the nation's leadership in the world, rebuilding a strong and prosperous middle class and reforming the government.

Of the last, she added: "Which is going to be a big job after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney leave town."

As with most political stump speeches, Clinton's was long on proposals but short on details about how they would be funded.

She did say, however, that establishing a secure electronic medical record system that would replace paper-based medical records and billing systems could save $77 billion per year.

The speech resonated with many.

"I think she would give it a try," Fresno pharmacist Willie Whisenhunt said of Clinton's ideas. "I'm not saying she would succeed, but these are changes we need."

Five Sanger High students -- Pamela Lo, 16, Fancy Moua, 16, Alee Moua, 17, Valee Vang, 16, and Mai Her, 16 -- also came away from the rally impressed with Clinton, though only Alee will be old enough to vote next year, and then only in the November general election.

All five said they would be willing to volunteer for Clinton.

Clinton's campaign said 7,500 attended the event and called it the largest political rally ever in Fresno -- surpassing a 1968 gathering for Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

Fresno police, however, estimated the crowd totals at 2,500 to 3,500.

Clinton's visit was a boon to some local businesses. Michael Canton, owner of nearby Javawava, said business doubled Monday before Clinton's speech began.

"We're certainly having a better day" than usual, he said. "And 90% of our customers are people we've never seen before."

But Bob Gamueda, owner of the Filipino Oriental Market, said he had only a few customers Monday morning because Echo Avenue was closed.

"My customers can't come in because it's all blocked off," he said.

Outside a perimeter line established by the Clinton campaign, protesters carried signs criticizing Clinton.

Fresno resident Billie Jane Houston held a sign that read "Hillary Will Tax You To Death." But it was clear that Clinton's stance on the war in Iraq bothered her the most.

Houston said she has a grandson who just spent 17 months in Afghanistan, and she feels Clinton opposes providing funds that troops serving in the Mideast need to carry out their mission.

If taxes go up under Clinton, "the tax increase wouldn't go to support the troops," she said.

While she drew a crowd at the rally, in Valley campaign donations Clinton is well behind three major Republicans -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain -- and even Democratic rival John Edwards, a former North Carolina senator. All four have held fundraisers in Fresno.

Clinton has been a regular in San Francisco, the Silicon Valley and the Los Angeles area, where she's raised a combined total of more than $10 million for her presidential campaign, but this was her first Fresno stop. There was no fundraiser.

Clinton's three-hour stop in Fresno included a closed-door meeting with the United Farm Workers at the Casa Velasco apartments on North Fruit Avenue.