Hillary and Bill Clinton kicked off their final campaign sprints by worshiping in the pews of historic African American churches Sunday morning – an indication of the importance of African American voters to her hope of winning a potentially tight California primary.
"I promise you I will work my heart out for you," Clinton told congregants at Greater St. Paul Church in Oakland, where she swayed in her seat as she listened to a choir sing.
About 375 miles south, at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, Bill Clinton blasted presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s slogan, "Make America great again.”
"That's a code slogan for, 'We're going to make it great the way it was 40 or 50 years ago,’" Clinton said, drawing applause as he added, "Well, it wasn't so great for a lot of people 40 or 50 years ago."
Clinton and her supporters are counting on voters in those and similar churches to form a bulwark in Tuesday’s primary, much as black voters elsewhere have done throughout the primary season.
Clinton’s strong support among black voters has offset losses among millennials and independents, who have swung to her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“We’re going to make sure we deliver her and carry her across the line,” said state Sen. Isadore Hall of Compton when he attended the opening of Clinton’s South Los Angeles office in mid-May. “There is no question, the Clintons have done themselves right by the black and brown communities for years.”
The Clintons have a long, close relationship with African American voters, to the point that novelist Toni Morrison dubbed Bill Clinton the “first black president.”
Gwendolyn Cross, a Riverside activist, said she would vote for Bill Clinton for a third term if term limits allowed it.
“Hillary is the best candidate for president,” she said. And “she has an ace in the hole, and that’s Bill. Everybody loves Bill.”
During the contentious 2008 Democratic primaries, Clinton overwhelmingly lost black voters in California and elsewhere in the country to then-Sen. Barack Obama.
The rivalry got tense, notably when Bill Clinton questioned Obama’s experience, compared his campaign to the ones waged by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and declared, “This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”
Several black voters and elected officials who supported Obama in 2008 said that such friction is natural in a competitive campaign and that hurt feelings had been soothed by Hillary Clinton’s actions in the aftermath of her loss.
“After it was clear Obama was going to be the nominee, who nominated Obama at the convention in ’08? It was Hillary Clinton,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who backed Obama in that race and is supporting Clinton now.
“Not only did she nominate him to be the next president, he appointed her to be secretary of State.”
A crucial question to the outcome of the primary here is how much support among younger black voters Sanders has pulled from Clinton. Polls have shown Sanders winning a majority of younger Latinos, but most public polls do not include a large enough pool of black voters to draw a firm conclusion.
The Clintons’ schedule this weekend, however, made clear that African Americans are not a community the campaign is taking for granted.
In addition to the church visits, Clinton spoke throughout the weekend about the toll that gun violence takes on African American communities. Bill Clinton campaigned in Inglewood and Compton, visiting a school that bears his name – the first to do so outside Arkansas – and traveled through Los Angeles alongside Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
After church, Clinton and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) stopped in for breakfast at the Serving Spoon, an Inglewood restaurant, where one voter was brought to tears as she posed for a picture with the former president.
Among the diners Clinton greeted were Shani Jones, 31, Yeheyis Taye, 30, and their family. The couple told him they are getting married on Tuesday.
"It's Super Tuesday," joked Jones, adding she already had mailed in her ballot because she will be too busy to vote in person.
"I like that," Clinton replied.
Once the former president was out of earshot, Jones made a confession: She had voted for Sanders.
"He's more grass-roots," said Jones, who said she liked Sanders' critique of the banking system and was impressed that he had embraced the ideas of the Black Lives Matter movement.
She said she has argued about the election frequently with her father, a Clinton supporter who was at the diner.
"He was a part of the Clinton era" she said. "There is a split between like the younger and the older people on this."
Her father, Martin Jones, 73, told Bill Clinton he is with his wife "100%."
"She would be coming from a laboratory of experience," he said afterward. "It's about time we have a woman in charge of our government instead of our kitchen."