WARREN, Mich. >> Hillary Clinton has landed on a very personal counterpunch to what she says is Donald Trump’s checkered business past: her dad.
As the Democratic presidential nominee works to undercut Trump’s economic record and promote her plans for small businesses, she is invoking memories of her late father’s Chicago drapery business. Recalling Hugh Rodham hard at work making and printing curtains for hotels and office buildings, Clinton argues that he would have been “stiffed” in a deal with the celebrity businessman.
“He expected to be paid when he showed up,” Clinton said recently during an event in Warren, Michigan. “He did the work. He paid for the supplies and the labor he often hired to help him on big jobs. I can’t imagine what would have happened to my father and his business if he had gotten a contract from Trump.”
Clinton hopes to remind voters that despite her years in public life that have left her a multimillionaire, she comes from a middle-class background and understands the life of a small-business owner. She also wants to contrast her biography with that of Trump, who was raised by a successful real estate developer and has drawn criticism for his treatment of small businesses during his career.
Trump has promoted his business record as a key qualification for the White House. But Trump casinos failed on several occasions. When the Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey went bankrupt in the early 1990s, some contractors who worked on the property went under because Trump’s company didn’t pay what they were owed, according to interviews with The Associated Press.
In a statement to the AP, Clinton said her father’s business gave her “a sense of responsibility,” adding that she was “living proof that a successful small business is at the core of the basic bargain in America, that if you work hard and do your part, you can make your own dreams and those of your children a reality.”
Clinton has been pitching her plans to support small businesses and to make it easier to start a company. On a conference call with small-business owners last week, she proposed a new tax deduction for small businesses and offered federal incentives to encourage state and local governments to streamline regulations.
While Clinton has spoken of her father throughout the campaign, the recent recollections have been more detailed and intimate. Clinton tends to speak sparingly about her family while campaigning and when she does, it is typically to make a broader point. She has referenced her grandfather’s work in a factory in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and her mother’s troubled childhood. Clinton has also spoken of her granddaughter as an example of the future generation she is fighting for.
Mo Elleithee, who worked for Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, said that reminiscing about her family’s business could put Clinton “in a different light” with voters. Elleithee, now executive director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University, noted that “she’s never done a very good job of talking about herself.”
A Scranton native, Clinton’s father moved to Chicago after graduating from college. There he worked as a traveling salesman before enlisting in the Navy during World War II, Clinton writes in “Living History.” When he returned from the war, he set up a drapery fabric business in Chicago, called Rodrik Fabrics, and later started a print plant on the city’s north side.
Rodham largely worked alone, but Clinton writes that she and her brothers helped when they were old enough. The business did well enough for Rodham to buy a house in the leafy suburb of Park Ridge, where he and wife, Dorothy, raised Clinton and her two brothers.
By all accounts, Rodham was a stern man, but he is also credited with instilling his daughter’s powerful work ethic and encouraging her ambition. Clinton’s childhood friend Betsy Ebeling said Rodham “could be gruff but he could be very loving.”
“Her dad was one that, as Hillary likes to say, he was a chief petty officer, both in the Navy and at home,” Ebeling said. “He’d sit at the dinner table and he’d throw out these conversation things and wait for us to go: ‘No way.’ We really did learn to debate at his feet.”
Of course, parental anecdotes may not win over all of those on the fence about Clinton, who has struggled with historically high unfavorability ratings. Still, Republican Rick Tyler, who served as an adviser to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential bid, said Clinton’s family-focused hit on Trump was effective.
“She’s got a message that’s relatable,” Tyler said. “There’s literally no one on our side who has been able to articulate a counter message. And Donald Trump embodies Hillary Clinton’s message that the rich get rich off the backs of the poor.”