NEW YORK — There was an elephant in the Javits Convention Center Monday, where Hillary Clinton joined Gov. Andrew Cuomo on stage for a victory rally celebrating New York’s new law raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Surrounded by New York’s political and labor establishment, Clinton hailed the minimum wage hike as a milestone for the state and for the country. But unlike Bernie Sanders, Clinton does not back a $15 federal minimum wage, a distinction that both Republicans and the Sanders campaign were quick to seize on.
It was the latest reminder of how the Vermont senator’s challenge to Clinton on her adopted home turf is complicating her planned pivot to a general election message. Instead of talking about a commander-in-chief test – the one she began to preview after a five-state sweep on March 15 — Clinton is back to showing off her progressive bona fides to skeptical liberals.
“This is such a great day for our state, this is a real watershed,” Clinton told the crowd of healthcare and fast food workers who have been leading the Fight for $15 movement. “It’s a result of what is best about New York and best about America. I know it’s going to sweep our country.”
Progressive leaders who back Sanders noted that Clinton’s embrace of the issue with just two weeks to go until New York voters head the polls underscores how Sanders is driving the conversation.
“From day one, Sanders has been an unambiguous leader on the fight for $15 for all workers everywhere, no exceptions,” said Bill Lipton, the state director of the Working Families Party, which backs Sanders. “It’s just another example of how the Sanders message — on trade, climate, campaign finance reform — is driving the debate.”
“I don’t know why she picked that event,” added Sanders’ senior strategist Tad Devine. “I know that Bernie Sanders is right when it comes to a living wage in America being $15 an hour. Hillary does not share that view.”
From the other end of the spectrum, the right-wing PAC America Rising Squared noted that Clinton “headlined a victory rally for New York’s newly passed $15 minimum wage even though she refused to endorse the policy herself.” Now, the group asserted, Clinton “owns that wrongheaded policy position, and its dangerous consequences for working Americans.”
On Monday, Clinton touted her support for “getting an increased wage at the federal level” but without getting into specifics. Her official position is that she supports a $12 federal minimum wage, a hike from the current $7.25, boosted by local efforts to raise it higher on a city by city basis.
While she supports a $15 minimum wage in New York and in Los Angeles, Clinton has said that rate could be too high for employers in certain states with a lower cost of living, and would disincentivize them from hiring and could even lead to layoffs.
“Part of the reason that the Congress and very strong Democratic supporters of increasing the minimum wage are trying to debate and determine what’s the national floor is because there are different economic environments,” Clinton explained of her position while campaigning in New Hampshire earlier this year. “And what you can do in L.A. or in New York may not work in other places.”
It’s been a point of tension as many large labor unions, particularly SEIU, have fallen in line behind Clinton. “How does SEIU, whose premiere campaign is the Fight for $15, endorse the one Democratic candidate who says fifteen is too much?” one exasperated labor leader vented to POLITICO after the union endorsed Clinton last November.
SEIU has defended the endorsement by noting that the Fight for $15 campaign is not about passing federal minimum wage legislation but about a grassroots movement to raise wages. “If she’s in support of $15 in Buffalo, Rochester and Binghamton, it’s pretty safe to assume she’s supportive of $15 in many places across the country,” said an SEIU official.
Rallying with union members on Manhattan’s far West Side on Monday, Clinton carefully steered clear of drawing any contrasts with Sanders on the issue of the day. She framed the contrast instead as an ideological battle with the Republican Party. “There are people who don’t believe the minimum wage should be raised,” Clinton said. “Donald Trump has said that wages are too high. And a lot of members of his party agreed.”
She noted that “the real value of our minimum wage is lower than it was when Ronald Reagan was in office. I don’t know what the calculation is by Trump and others, but I’ll tell you this, they’re selling America short.”
Clinton’s position is in line with Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer, who also supports $15 for New York but not nationally.
Cuomo, who is hoping New York will lead the way for states across the country to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, appeared to embrace some of Sanders’ platform while touting Clinton as the best hope for working families.
“We want economic justice and we want it now,” he said, highlighting the main framework of Sanders’ campaign. “The truth is, yes, people are angry….they should be angry, in this economy they have been going backwards for decades. This new economy is not a fair economy for working families.”
But taking a veiled shot at Sanders, Cuomo said that his father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, said that “government is not about advocacy and giving speeches it’s about getting things done. He said we don’t need ideas that sound good, we need ideas that are good and sound.”
Cuomo also took the opportunity to mock Trump. “We’re going to make the wall of China look like a curtain!” he joked. “And it’s going to be a good looking wall. Oh, is it going to be a handsome wall…You think we’re going to fear immigrants, man, look in the mirror, we’re all immigrants. That’s the essence of this country.”
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