Yesterday, Hillary Clinton was in San Antonio to receive Julián Castro’s endorsement for president at a rally at the historic Sunset Station just east of downtown. Following less than two days after the first Democratic debate, it was also the first “organizing event” for Latinos for Hillary and came with the hallmarks of a modern presidential campaign: six live trucks for onsite broadcast, long security lines and dogs sniffing backpacks, a few hardy protestors wearing their idea of fun t-shirts.
The size of the crowd came as a surprise to many of the national media in attendance. One reporter told me of an Ohio event where the room was two thirds full. As CNN’s Dan Merica put it:
This was not your normal Hillary Clinton rally: Supporters stood outside the venue to hear the 2016 candidate, Clinton worked the ropeline before and after the event and chants of “Hill-ar-y, Hill-ar-y” were heard multiple times throughout the fiery gathering here.
Here was this big crowd on a hot day. A hot Wednesday. At noon. And “Hillary” wasn’t just in the air. Everywhere you looked, there was La Hillary.
La Hillary on 3′ x 5′ banners attached to the long wrought-iron that runs along Sunset Station. La Hillary on t-shirts that were sold out before I could get one. La Hillary on heavy stock fan cards. La Hillary was everywhere.
The La Hillary poster, and several others, were made for the Sunset Station rally by local artists. The banners, shirts and fan cards were the work of San Antonio organizers. The banners along the fence were facing into the square. Not visible from the street where you waited to pass through the security check, they surprised you when you finally made it in. But it wasn’t simply their presence that was unexpected. Locally-designed banners don’t usually get past the advance team. An artist may take the time to design one. An organizer may spend the money to have a banner made. But 20-plus locally-designed banners, not to mention hundreds of fans and t-shirts, front and center when Hillary Clinton was receiving the biggest endorsement in her campaign thus far? Something unusual was going on.
I’ve been to a lot of rallies. The best ones happen when the people who come for a candidate or a cause give more of themselves than they are asked. It’s usually the other way around, with organizers and advance staff trying to turn the people into the perfect extras or spokesmen. You can feel attendees strain to meet the professionals’ expectations.
At those good rallies, the really great ones, the people bring something the candidate and her team didn’t expect. Pull their kids out of school. Put on an orange t-shirt they forgot they had. Tell the boss they’d be in later in the day, meet up with their three best friends, all beautifully dressed for a Chamber of Commerce press conference, then take selfies at their first national political event, chatting with the woman who sat behind them about the one who’s going to run for office one day. They bring themselves, their whole self, and share it with the candidate. That only happens when the candidate doesn’t overshadow the place, the place feels right to the people, and the people actually love the candidate.
I think the national media has grown accustomed to seeing passion at Bernie Sanders events. They often witness something more akin to mania on the Republican side. Clearly, they didn’t expect to see so much love yesterday in San Antonio.
No, this was not your normal Hillary Clinton rally because most Hillary Clinton rallies don’t take place in San Antonio, a city unique in Clinton’s life. It’s the place where she spent her first, formative presidential election as a volunteer, and her first presidential election with Bill Clinton. She was a young woman registering voters in San Antonio and the RGV in 1972. Listening to her yesterday, it was clear it’s an experience and a time she carries in her bones.
But like any great rally, it’s not just about the candidate. Both the people and the place are critical to making an event something you’ll remember by a speech or an image or a mishap. Yesterday, San Antonio did all Texas Democrats proud in front of a national press that often thinks of us as being nothing more than an ATM for national candidates. That trope is hard to square with hosting the best rally of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Maybe Secretary Castro’s right, and the future of the United States is going to look a whole lot more like San Antonio. I sure hope so.