Hugh Had to Be There

On this windy Tuesday, as Hugh Rodham has been traveling, first to Tallahassee, then to Tampa, to announce his candidacy for the United States Senate, clouds have gathered back in Miami, and not just in the sky. For a good part of the afternoon an answering machine has been taking calls at Rodham's new campaign office on the eleventh floor of a building on West Flagler Street downtown. Finally a campaign worker, Mary Ann Ruffner, picks up the phone. She sounds edgy as she explains that the office has lost contact with the candidate, the younger brother of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The one link to Rodham and his entourage -- the pager belonging to his campaign manager, Michael Copperthite -- is broken. "His beeper's on the blink," Ruffner huffs. "I don't know what is wrong with it." Regaining her composure, she promises that, as planned, Rodham will be in front of the Metro Justice Building for a 5:00 p.m. kick-off rally, adding that it would be best to get there early. "There may be thousands of people," she speculates.

A USAir worker at Miami International Airport is more uncertain if somewhat less concerned than Ruffner about the fate of Rodham and the five people accompanying him, including his Cuban-American wife Maria Arias. "They've just sort of disappeared," yawns Phil, looking at his computer screen. "I can't find them anywhere in the system." Phil confirms that the Senate hopeful was booked on a 2:44 p.m. USAir flight from Tampa that was canceled. An American Airlines flight scheduled to leave at approximately the same time was also scratched. His computer screen doesn't have the capacity to tell him why. "Ah, here they are," Phil says with slightly more enthusiasm, "on a flight departing Tampa at 3:30. At least they had a reservation...but this time they canceled. Now why would they do that? How strange."

At the Metro Justice Building on NW Twelfth Street, the crowd, which numbers about 70, doesn't appear too worried that Rodham is twenty minutes late. Most are more concerned with shouting at each other over the din of the gusting wind. The conversation is mostly in Spanish; many of those gathered are Cuban-American friends of the candidate's wife. "I have known Maria for many years," says Nina Ruiz. "Her husband is a good man and a good friend of a free Cuba, so I came here to show my support. He has a difficult job ahead of him."

He certainly does. Recent newspaper and television reports about Rodham have ridiculed his bid to win the Democratic nomination to oppose incumbent Republican Connie Mack. They have painted Rodham as an extended-First Family fool rushing in where even the most seasoned Democratic politicians fear to tread A namely on Mack, who has plenty of money and the state's Republican machinery behind him. Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, on the other hand, has spent the past fourteen years working in the Dade Public Defender's Office, first as an investigator, then as an assistant public defender. His political experience, as Republicans have so gleefully pointed out in recent days, is limited to registering to vote just before running as a delegate to the 1991 state Democratic convention, where his brother-in-law was seeking a straw poll victory.

Even the kindest commentators have noted that if Rodham were to be considered a political heavyweight, it would be due to his weight. Quoted in a February 17 New York Times article about the candidate, Tom Fiedler, the Miami Herald's political editor, said Rodham reminded him of Norm on Cheers. He told Times reporter Maureen Dowd that the First Lady's brother might have a chance in the Senate race if he "could run this whole campaign sitting on a bar stool, having a beer" and talking to people one at a time. At the campaign rally this day, Fiedler finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to criticize a fellow reporter for taking his "Norm" quote out of context. "It was pretty mild in the context in which I said it," he explains, smiling uncomfortably as he hunches against the wind within earshot of one of Rodham's campaign workers. "In the context [Dowd] used it, it was more cutting." Dowd herself was far less considerate, mentioning Rodham's "straining shirt buttons" and efforts to get the candidate "fixed up with some statewide health club memberships."

Rodham has also been bitten by the Republican refrain that he is a windmill-assault specialist armed only with his family name. That criticism doesn't seem to bother the Reverend W. Bernard Kelly, president of the Carol City Democratic Club, who says that "as a realist," he has no problem with Rodham's relying on his family connections. "Hey, this man eats with the president," Kelly stresses, evidently unaware of the hazards involved in any reference to gulping down food. "Come on -- you can't do much better than that. I mean, he's a fighter for the people and all that, but realism is realism. Connections are connections."

Kelly is interrupted by someone shouting, "There they are!" The small throng rustles, necks craning to catch a glimpse of Rodham, who, having chartered a plane, is only 40 minutes late.

Stepping up to the microphone, Rodham musters more than enough breath to compete with the wind and the sirens of the ambulances making their way to nearby Jackson Memorial Hospital. He gives a short but rousing speech attacking Mack for his inattention to the problems plaguing Floridians -- crime, a lack of health care, and the damage caused by Hurricane Andrew. "Miami is a community that is vibrant, that is active, that is hard-working and unified behind myself to do something for the rest of the state, take the leadership roll and to show the rest of America that we are indeed vibrant," he surges, his outstretched arm causing supporters packed around him to readjust.

Though the fact seems to come as something of a revelation to those who have been jockeying for position during the past hour, it is easy to gain access to Hugh Rodham, at least at this point in the race. After his speech, the crowd slowly disperses, but Rodham, his brother Tony, and their mother Dorothy wait on the courthouse steps with a dwindling number of supporters until it's time to leave for a 7:00 p.m. dinner at Joe's Stone Crab. One of those who linger is Dade Circuit Judge S. Peter Capua, a close friend of the family, who is quick to point out that the State Supreme Court prevents him from endorsing Rodham's candidacy. "Whoa!" he says, backing away from a campaign worker trying to slap a "Rodham A U.S. Senate" sticker on his lapel. "You know I can't do that." He prefers instead to speak about the watch he's been sporting ever since visiting Camp David for a weekend. "I got it at the ship store," he says, holding up his wrist, where the watch's yellow face, complete with a presidential seal in the center, shines like a tiny sun. "Only people visiting Camp David are allowed to buy them."

Tony Rodham wears one of the watches, too. "Too bad I'm getting married -- it's great for picking up women," he jokes in one of the few light moments of what the younger Rodham brother acknowledges has been a rough day. "There were about 30 or 40 people at the rally in Tallahassee," he reports. "But they were mostly Republicans there to heckle Hughie." Among them was Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade, who will insist in a subsequent telephone interview that he attended the rally to congratulate rather than taunt the candidate. "I was the first to shake his hand and tell him that his candidacy is the best thing to happen to the Republican Party in years," Slade remembers. "By the way, it was the most amateurish political event I've witnessed in years." The party chairman recalls some shoving, but adds that it was started by Rodham's 38-year old campaign manager, Michael Copperthite.

At Joe's Stone Crab, Copperthite is certainly in no joking mood as he tries to establish some ground rules for reporting the scene at the bar. "Everything here is off the record," he says, gesturing at the bar, where Rodham and about fifteen supporters mingle with the hoity-toitier members of the hoi polloi. "If he [Rodham] has a beer, I don't want to read about it. If I read about it, your name will be mud in Washington." Rodham has a beer before making his way to a private room for a dinner with his family, close friends, and campaign workers.

The next day, during an interview at his campaign headquarters, the candidate tries to put the best face on his cloudy first outing. "You know in Indian cultures, rain is considered good luck," Rodham ventures. But he acknowledges that the day could have gone better. "I mean, if we were to believe in a spy behind every bush, you'd have to kind of question two flights in a row being canceled just because we were on them," he says, managing a chuckle. "But I'm not that suspicious. Maybe I should be." He does, however, sense a Republican conspiracy behind all the negative publicity. "It's character assassination, and it's been done all over the country," he grumbles. "I cannot and will not believe that there has been that much rapid interest in me, unless those stories are somehow being fed to the news media." His face darkens even more as he asserts that the joke is really on the overreacting Republicans. "They seem to be taking us very seriously," he says.


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