It took an Amtrak ride from Oakland to Paso Robles to give me a visceral sense of how Hillary Clinton has missed connecting with voters.
As the train rolled through sprawling cities and lush farmland south of San Francisco, my chat with a seatmate soon got around to politics.
Cyndy Pietronico, a 57-year-old hotel desk clerk from San Diego County, favors Bernie Sanders and has deep reservations about Clinton – though she would vote for her over any Republican.
As we talked, Pietronico’s view of the two Democratic candidates seemed emblematic of why Sanders has soared from fringe contender to potent candidate while Clinton, ordained as the front-runner, has stumbled a number of times.
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Pietronico is a single mother of two children; she has worked two or three jobs at once. Today she lives in a trailer park and is looking for work after a foot operation.
To her, Sanders, a Vermont independent, is someone speaking from the heart about issues that affect her every day. She sees him as a man who understands how hard her life has been and how the comfortable, middle-class life she enjoyed growing up is out of reach.
“Bernie is seeing the big picture of what’s going on – normal, everyday people working every day trying to make ends meet, and it’s getting harder and harder all the time,” Pietronico said.
As a registered independent, she views Sanders as never wavering from his message that America’s economy should work for all, not just for billionaires. Whether or not a candidate can win is not a factor that Pietronico focuses on.
“I like Bernie Sanders because he hasn’t taken money from anybody except grass roots,” said Pietronico, who has worked as a hotel clerk, waitress, school cafeteria worker, school bus driver and state park aide. “I think it is paying off for him. He is the first one I ever sent money to – 10 dollars!”
Interestingly, Pietronico’s problems with Clinton, the former secretary of state, aren’t based on whether she mishandled her personal emails or about whether she should be blamed for the deadly attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi.
Pietronico’s criticism represents a more fundamental, overarching problem for Clinton: It’s about her character.
“You’d think because I am a woman, I would want a woman to be president. That’s not the way I think,” she said. “I don’t like the vibe of Hillary. I think she is just telling people what she thinks they want to hear.”
Just after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, Pietronico says she had a more positive view of Hillary. “I looked up to her when she was trying to get health care legislation going and got shot down. Back then I had a positive image – that she was for the people.”
Over time, though, Pietronico’s view changed, and she can’t pin down precisely why. “What affects me now is how I read her – it is a gut feeling,” she said.
I got off the train in Paso Robles feeling more worried about whether a Democrat will win the White House than when I boarded. As much as Sanders speaks in a powerful fashion to Pietronico and millions of others, he may be too far left for most people, no matter how angry the middle and working classes have become.
In an era when income equality should be a cornerstone of Clinton’s campaign, her rhetoric is not as captivating as Sanders’, and her get-tough-on-Wall-Street talk is not reassuring. Once, though, in the early 1990s I saw her speak with a verve and intelligence that captivated her audience. Time will tell whether she will be able to summon up that part of herself again.
Susan Sward is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.