WASHINGTON – Presidential contender Hillary Clinton was put on the defensive about her donations from large financial institutions in the second debate Saturday of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination.
Clinton has raised millions of dollars from banks in the campaign and is one of the industry's top recipients of political donations. Yet her close relationship with Wall Street has long given progressives pause.
Asked by debate moderator John Dickerson how she would "level the playing field" in the financial services sector when she is "indebted to some of its biggest players," Clinton noted that some in the industry are working to defeat her. She also touted positions she took in the Senate to impose restrictions on the industry.
"You've got two billionaire hedge fund managers who started a super PAC and they're advertising against me in Iowa as we speak – so they clearly think I'm going to do what I say I'm going to do," she said.
Clinton added: "And you can look at what I did in the Senate. I did introduce legislation to rein in compensation, I looked into ways that shareholders would have more control over what was going on in that arena, and specifically said to Wall Street that what they were doing in the mortgage market was bringing our country down."
She later explained that her work, as a senator from New York, helping to rebuild downtown Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks may have her bolstered support on Wall Street.
"I worked closely with New Yorkers after 9/11 trying to rebuild," she said. "I had a lot of folks give me donations from all kinds of backgrounds, saying I don't agree with you on everything, but I like what you did, I like how you stand up and I'm going to support you."
But Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, one of Clinton's two remaining Democratic rivals, pushed back, calling her response "not good enough."
Sanders said candidates who receive "huge amounts of money" from big industries often say "‘these campaign contributions will not influence me. I'm going to be independent.'"
"But why do they make millions of dollars of campaign contributions? They expect to get something, everybody knows that," Sanders said. A majority of the Vermont senator's fundraising is from small donors giving $200 or less.
The candidates also sparred over whether the biggest banks should be broken up. Both Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley have backed plans to revive the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law that separated commercial banking from riskier activities.
Clinton, meanwhile, continued to take a more nuanced response, warning that the big banks, along with the shadow banking sector, require careful oversight.
"Reinstating Glass-Steagall is a part of what very well could help, but it is nowhere near enough. My proposal is tougher, more effective, and more comprehensive because I go after all of Wall Street not just the big banks," she said, adding that she could break up the largest institutions if they fail to "play by the rules."