Bill Clinton stumps for Hillary in Philly - and parries with protesters

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Bill Clinton responds angrily to a pair of hecklers - among the points of contention was his 1994 crime bill - during an appearance in support of his wife at the Dorothy Emanuel Recreation Center in East Mount Airy.

Bill Clinton went off his stump-speech script Thursday at a Philadelphia rally for his wife, engaging in an exchange with two protesters over his 1994 crime bill and Hillary Clinton's impact on the African American community.

The 42nd president even used the words that have become a battle cry - "black lives matter" - in describing his wife's efforts.

He called on 400 supporters inside Dorothy Emanuel Recreation Center's gym in East Mount Airy to be part of a "big turnout" in Pennsylvania's April 26 primary. He thanked Villanova University for helping him win his NCAA basketball brackets - and Philadelphia voters for consistently helping Clintons win the state.

Halfway through his address, Erica Mines of Hunting Park started yelling at Clinton over several issues, including the 1994 crime bill. Mines argued that the Clintons' record had been one of detriment to the black community.

She and a man held up alternating signs, one reading: "Clinton crime bill destroyed our communities!" The former commander-in-chief responded saying, "Let's talk about that," as Mines continued yelling over his responses.

"I like protesters, but the ones that won't let you answer are afraid of the truth," Clinton said, prompting loud cheers. He went on to say how he thinks the bill, and his wife, helped the black community.

"Because of that bill we had a 25-year low in crime, a 30-year low in the murder rate, and because of that and the background-check law, a 46-year low in deaths of lives by gun violence and who do you think those lives were that mattered? Whose lives were saved that mattered?" Clinton asked.

He noted Hillary Clinton, a former New York senator and former secretary of state, wasn't in the Senate when the bill passed. "She was spending her time trying to get health care for poor kids. Who were they? And their lives matter," he said.

Things grew more tense as Clinton responded to a second sign, "Black youth are not super predators" - a reference to a Hillary Clinton comment in the 1990s.

"I don't know how you would describe the gang leaders who got 13-year-olds hopped up on crack and sent them out in the streets to murder other African American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She didn't," he said of his wife. "You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter. Tell the truth!"

Clinton also pointed to Hillary Clinton's past work at the Children's Defense Fund desegregating Southern schools, and her efforts to fight AIDS in Africa.

"I'll tell you another story about a place where black lives matter: Africa," Clinton said.

At one point, supporters roared "H-R-C!" to try to drown out the two protesters.

Mines, 38, a student at Community College of Philadelphia, said she's a registered independent, doesn't plan on voting in the primary, and wasn't representing any group.

"I'm here because Hillary Clinton doesn't deserve the black vote," she told reporters after the rally, as Clinton shook hands and posed for photos nearby. "She is married to Bill Clinton; their policies are the same."

Some listeners shrugged off the protests. "That's called a democracy," said former City Councilwoman Marian Tasco, who introduced Clinton. "People come and they have their issues, but I think the president handled it very well. It was disruptive, but those things happen."

Ty Jenkins, 53, said he thought blaming Hillary Clinton for high levels of incarceration was misplaced. "I don't hold Hillary responsible for what happened to us any more than I hold any member of society," he said.

The exchange with the protesters was a lively moment for Bill Clinton, who had largely avoided public campaigning for his wife until the New Hampshire primary, and has mostly toned down his passionate "Big Dog" political persona.

Earlier Thursday, he was low-key and charming as he spoke on his wife's behalf to some 300 African Methodist Episcopal ministers and laypeople in Philadelphia.

"I have worked hard for my candidate," Clinton slyly told an appreciative audience at the A.M.E. gathering. Members from 39 countries came for a meeting of the governing board of the church, founded in Philadelphia 200 years ago.

Avoiding direct criticism of Hillary Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton called his wife the "best change-maker I've ever known."

jterruso@phillynews.com

215-854-5506 @JuliaTerruso