On a big day for minimum-wage laws, Hillary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders, grabs the spotlight


With the stroke of a pen, Andrew Cuomo got a beat on Jerry Brown. And with the flash of the cameras shortly after, Hillary Clinton sought to steal a bit of Bernie Sanders’ spotlight.

Cuomo, New York’s governor, signed into law the first statewide $15-an-hour minimum wage in the nation Monday, beating Brown doing the same in California by an hour or so. And Clinton, New York’s former senator, who is banking on a big victory in its primary in two weeks, was a conspicuous presence in celebrating the state enacting what has long been a policy goal for progressives.

“It’s a result of what is best about New York and what is best about America. And I know that it’s going to sweep our country,” Clinton said.


Sanders, the Vermont independent who has galvanized liberals by building an entire campaign around income inequality, could only issue a statement from afar.

“As president, I will proudly stand with working families all across our country and fight for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and provide paid family leave to every worker in America,” he said.

The moment was a microcosm of Clinton’s primary campaign: singing in harmony with the Democratic progressive base while she seeks the party’s nomination, but not quite the same tune in the way that Sanders does.

Sanders supports a nationwide minimum wage of $15 an hour, firmly aligning him with the array of progressive groups and labor unions engaged in what they call the “fight For $15.” But Clinton has taken a more nuanced position, saying that although she supports local efforts to reach $15, she wouldn’t commit to that nationally, aligning herself instead with legislation establishing a $12 hourly federal rate.

“What you can do in L.A. or in New York may not work in other places,” she told reporters after a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last summer at which she also staked out other positions short of the progressive ideal.

Days later, after meeting with labor groups, Clinton explained her position further by aligning herself with Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate’s health, education and labor committee, who had introduced a $12-an-hour federal wage bill.


“Whatever she advocates, I pay a lot of attention to, because she knows how to get it through the Congress,” Clinton said of Murray. “Let’s not just do it for the sake of having a higher number out there, but let’s actually get behind a proposal that has a chance of succeeding.”

Clinton has tried to withstand the Sanders insurgency with political reality checks, calling herself a progressive who wants to make progress rather than make promises she knows are not likely to be realized in a divided Washington.

Clinton’s position also represents the rapid evolution in Democrats’ thinking on this issue. In the 2014 midterms, Senate Democrats ran on a platform of a $10.10 minimum wage.

But $15 “has become the standard” for labor groups in part because of the advocacy of fast-food workers in particular, said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union.

“The fearlessness of the workers has made elected officials understand that there is huge wind at their back,” she said. “We’re proud that it created a situation where both New York and California were dueling at the same time. But it wasn’t like it was on anyone’s plan anywhere. It’s how the movement has created more than we even imagined possible before.”


Henry, whose union has endorsed Clinton, said they’ve discussed the issue with her and that she supports a $15 hourly wage for fast-food, home-care and child-care workers.

“By the time she’s elected to office, we will be able to generate the kind of momentum that the federal government will feel the same wind at their backs that Cuomo and Brown have felt,” Henry predicted.

And there is a political analog in New York. Two years ago in his bid for reelection, Cuomo faced a spirited primary challenge from his left, a race that exposed some liberals’ frustration with Cuomo, the scion of a Democratic icon.

Cuomo can now say he delivered on two of their chief priorities, both the minimum wage and a new paid family leave law. As Cuomo and Clinton arrived at a rally after the private bill signing, labor groups in the audience cheered: “Si se pudo” — yes we did.

Clinton praised Cuomo’s tenacity in securing the votes in New York’s Legislature to enact the minimum-wage bill, saying it wasn’t just enough to support the idea, but that “feelings have to be matched with politics.”

“Some people get bored by that kind of talk,” she said. “I think we’d still be [just] sounding good and feeling good if not for the hard work and the incredible commitment that the governor made to this issue.”


With that implicit jab at Sanders, Clinton then turned to a more overt attack at her potential Republican opponent, Donald Trump, who said in a debate that he did not support a minimum wage. She, of course, disagreed.

“This is what makes America great,” she said.

Follow @mikememoli for more 2016 campaign news.


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