World·CBC in Cleveland

Clinton's 'counter-convention' in Cleveland takes aim at Republicans from the sidelines

In a week dominated by the 2016 Republican National Convention, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's Cleveland operation is attacking from the sidelines.

Cleveland field offices have been closely monitoring Republican message and countering with their own

Volunteers for Hillary Clinton in Cleveland's Shaker Heights district have been working to get their message out throughout the Republican National Convention. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

It doesn't look like much. Certainly not compared to the impressive operation at Cleveland's cavernous Quicken Loans Arena, the venue currently hosting the Republican National Convention.

But a vacant law office less than a kilometre from the arena is a rogue vessel floating in a sea of American conservatism this week in this port city on the shores of Lake Erie.

Inside the building, which is next to a sports pub festooned with Cleveland Indians banners, pro-Clinton signs cover the office windows. The furnishings are sparse — some chairs, a lectern for press conferences, a sea-foam green carpet and a framed print of the Bill of Rights on the wall.

Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida calls the Clinton operations in Cleveland a 'counter-convention.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

This is Hillary Clinton's downtown Cleveland war room. And in a week dominated by the RNC, it's served as a hub for expressing Democratic dissent.

"This is a counter-convention," Democratic Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Wednesday, speaking from the fourth-floor Hillary For America field office.

"We're here to make sure that the American people hear our message: That we're better than what they're hearing from that convention floor."

Republican event in a 'Democratic town'

For Wasserman Schultz, setting up shop here is no liberal invasion.

Cleveland, she said, happens to be "a Democratic town hosting a Republican convention" in a key swing state.

Every day of the four-day convention so far, the downtown Cleveland workspace has convened a morning press conference responding to the previous night's RNC speeches and events. Clinton backers in the Buckeye state view this as an opportunity to contrast their candidate's messaging with that of the Republican Party and its presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

Hillary For America campaign staffers work out of a pop-up downtown Cleveland field office, a former attorney's office mere blocks away from the Quicken Loans Arena where the RNC is taking place. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"While Donald Trump's offensive and divisive words are streaming from the Republican National Convention into Ohio homes, we'll be using every day of this week to expand our campaign in Ohio," Hillary for Ohio State director Chris Wyant wrote in a blog post in the lead-up to the RNC.

Though this satellite field office is the nearest one to the Republican convention, it's among at least three pop-up Democratic bases in the Buckeye state and the quieter of two in Greater Cleveland.

Getting out the message

The activity is livelier 20 minutes east, at a former art gallery in a strip mall in the Shaker Heights suburb. There, a team of 17 Clinton volunteers sit around six flip-up tables on a Wednesday afternoon, beavering away at data entry, making phone calls and canvassing for voter registration.

They work by lamplight, with a tangle of laptop chargers connecting to extension cords in the centre of the room. Two yoga balls rest against a wall. Candy-coloured sticky notes on an oversized calendar highlight upcoming pro-Clinton community events — "LGBTQ for Hillary!" "Women for Hillary!" "African-Americans for Hillary!"

Clinton staffers have been closely following events at the RNC and blasting media with counter-messages. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"In Cleveland, nothing is given. Everything is earned," proclaims a Clinton-branded mural depicting the Cleveland skyline, including the Key Building and the Terminal Tower.

Sophia Gumbs is two years shy of voting age, but she's anxious about working her hardest to ensure her candidate's message doesn't get drowned out amid all the excitement around the Republican National Convention.

Sophia Gumbs, 16, can't vote but has volunteered her time to the Clinton campaign, making calls to voters from the Shaker Heights field office. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"I think it's an honourable thing that we're fighting for the right ideas in the most crucial election we've ever had," the 16-year-old said, her iPhone earbuds still in her ears after making a round of get-out-the-vote calls.

"I don't want to look back in the future and think I didn't do all I can to overcome and defeat what Donald Trump represents."

Chloe Harkins, a 19-year-old college student about to become a junior, has volunteered several hours a day nearly every day since June 13.

"I think this is probably going to be the most important election in my lifetime," she said. "It's a little over 100 days before the election. Every vote is going to be critical, and we need as much help as we're going to get."

Synchronized digital strategy

While the RNC rolls on, Hillary For America has engaged in a digital strategy led from Clinton's Brooklyn headquarters that closely follows the Republican convention timetable. It's been a clearly synchronized undertaking, with the Clinton camp tweeting criticism using the #BetterThanThis hashtag during key speeches in the Quicken Loans Arena and co-ordinating press blasts to ramp up during the most prominent prime-time addresses.

As Trump's vice-presidential pick, former Indiana governor Mike Pence, accepted the second spot on the Republican ticket around 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, a new email was waiting in journalists' inboxes. Subject line: "America Deserves Better Than Mike Pence."

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When Republican senator Ted Cruz took to the stage, a campaign email titled "Happening Now" opened with the headline, "Ted Cruz Participates In 'Absolute Trainwreck.'"

Hillary For America's press team sent out at least 23 emails between the opening of the speaking session at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and the conclusion four hours later. That's nearly one email every 10 minutes.

Moments after Cruz urged his fellow Republicans to "Vote your conscience" and the crowd erupted in a chorus of boos and jeers at the Texas senator's blatant refusal to formally endorse Trump, it seemed for a moment that the Clinton camp had found some common ground with their opponents.

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The former secretary of state's Twitter account later echoed Cruz's sentiment, with an ironic twist: "Vote your conscience," it reiterated, adding a link to Clinton's voter-registration page.

Acting as a shadow convention of sorts, the Democratic team in Cleveland will no doubt be watching Thursday night's much-anticipated Trump with just as much interest.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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