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Hillary Clinton burnishes ties to Latinos at Los Angeles event

Hillary Clinton talks with US-Mexico Foundation President and CEO Martha Smith (to Clinton's left) during the event at USC.
Hillary Clinton talks with US-Mexico Foundation President and CEO Martha Smith (to Clinton's left) during the event at USC.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

Hillary Clinton has not declared herself a candidate for president in 2016, but her schedule — including another stop in Los Angeles on Saturday — has heightened speculation that she is planning another run for the White House. 

Clinton smiled broadly as she took the stage at the Town and Gown Ballroom at the University of Southern California Saturday morning.

"Thank you very, very much," Clinton said as the crowd continued to clap loudly. "Wow."

She was there to accept an award from the Mexican American Leadership Initiative, or MALI, which seeks to encourage cross-border philanthropy and dialogue between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.  Clinton took the opportunity to remind the mostly Latino crowd of her deep ties to the community – dating back to her days as a teenager working with migrant farmworkers in Illinois.

“It was such an extraordinary experience for me,” she said of her time caring for farmworkers’ children.

Prominent Southern California Mexican Americans looked on, including former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, and Tom Saenz, President of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Clinton, who is considering a run for president in 2016, also urged Congress to pass immigration reform.

"Part of the obvious argument for immigration reform is that we are a country of immigrants, and we should be celebrating that rather than fearing it," the former First Lady, former U.S. Senator and former Secretary of State said. The crowd erupted again. A couple of the Latino waiters pulled out their cellphones and snapped pictures of the Democratic superstar.

In selecting Clinton for an award, MALI co-chair David Ayon said the group was impressed with her decision to encourage Mexican Americans to become more involved in supporting Mexico. It's something many have been reluctant to do amid ongoing anti-immigrant sentiment and a feeling that they need to prove their loyalty to America, he said.

"Having the support, the endorsement, the encouragement of the Secretary of State really just blew away those inhibitions," Ayon said.

Latino voters favored Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic Party primary by nearly a two-to-one margin, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. They are an important base of support for her.

L.A. City Councilman Gil Cedillo was an early support of Obama, and traveled across the country urging Latinos to back him. He attended the ceremony at USC, and answered a reporter's question about whethere there are any lingering hard feelings towards Clinton.

"That’s a good question," he said. "Its been asked. But I think that’s over."

Latino leaders from outside California also attended the event, including San Antonio-based architect and real estate developer Henry Munoz, III. He raised big money for Obama in 2008, and currently serves as the first-ever Latino finance committee chair of the Democratic National Committee. Asked if he’d support Clinton for president, he was coy.

"I am a person who believes that the next president of the United States ought to be a Democrat," Munoz said.

Also in attendance: former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, who served under President Clinton, and former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, a Republican who served under President George W. Bush. Both are trustees of the US Mexico Foundation, which runs the MALI initiative.

Despite his party affiliation, Gutierrez heaped praise on Clinton.

"I admire her," he said. "She is not an extremist, and I think extremism on both political sides is a big problem today in this country." 

The event was one of several Clinton has attended recently in the Los Angeles area. She received the Global Champion Award from the International Medical Corps Friday night in Beverly Hills.