The streets were still quiet and the traffic was light as I made my way over to the Hilton Hotel at 6:30am last Thursday to cover the "Women For Obama" fundraiser. When I arrived, only a Fox News trucks belied the fact that something other than the usual tourist crush was going on inside. The lobby was already filled with women in line to enter the ballroom, which was prepared to welcome Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Red curtains set off a large blue banner announcing "Change We Can Believe In." Tables of twelve were set up from the front to the back of the room, with seating on side balconies as well. The breakfast fare consisted of orange juice, a plate of mixed fruit, and a muffin basket. But the crowd wasn't there for the menu. They were on hand to see and support Barack and Hillary.
The time schedule kept changing. By 8am, nothing was happening and an Obama volunteer informed me, "They're running late." I had the opportunity to chat with some of the people in the press area. Isabel Piquer Hubert, a writer for Público -- a Spanish daily national -- spoke to me about women's issues on her side of the Atlantic. "In Europe, there is as much sexism as there is here, in both government and daily life." She used the example of Ségolène Royal and the French elections. Although French women had to wait until the end of World War II for the right to vote, they now get four months of maternity leave with full pay, as well as free abortion and birth control. Hubert explained that in Spain, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero had appointed nine women to his cabinet of seventeen.
A brief conversation with Gail Collins, first female Editorial Page Editor for The New York Times, about women in the media yielded the information that only 20% of the material sent in for Op-Ed consideration was penned by women.
Close to 8:30am Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetora-Ng, warmed up the crowd with, "Hey New York, how are you?" She reeled off the "strong women in Barack's life" including their mother, grandmother, and Michele Obama ("She's been a tremendous sister to me.") And then the introductory phrase, "Your Senator." She continued, "Let's give her a big hand for her years of service on behalf of women ... all over the world." With a healthy round of applause from both Obama and Clinton supporters (they were identified by their Hillary buttons), the New York Senator said, "Good Morning New York. Such a great way to start the day." She looked around at the filled-to-capacity room and said, "On behalf of unity ... I know you'll be there in November when we take back the White House." As she spoke, Obama sat casually in a chair. She reflected on the "remarkable journey" they had shared and threw in a couple of jokes including, "While Barack went to the gym in the morning, I would have my hair done." Turning serious, she zoned in on the adjustment it would take by her supporters to whole-heartedly change allegiances. "I know how difficult it is. I understand how challenging it is to change on a dime." Shifting gears from loss to the future she continued, "Anyone who voted for me has so much in common with those that voted for Barack. The Democratic party is a family ... sometimes a dysfunctional family." (A good analogy for a New York audience.)
Moving into policy talk, she ticked off Democratic concerns from health care to a woman's right to choose. In a room full of predominantly upscale, professional women she addressed "equal pay for equal work" and acknowledged the "women working in this hotel" -- with a reminder that most minimum wage workers are women. "We need a Democrat in the White House," she reiterated, "so I ask for your help. I'm going to do everything I can."
Chants of "Yes We Can" greeted Obama's turn at the microphone. "To all the passionate supporters of Hillary ... Most of all, thank you Hillary Rodham Clinton." He described her as one of the best senators New York State has ever seen and verbalized, "I know that I desperately need her and Bill Clinton." He thanked her on behalf of his daughters and other girls who are now "dreaming a little bigger."
Obama spoke of his role as a "father, son, and a husband." About Michelle Obama he said, "She is the foundation of the Obama family ... and it tears at her trying to split herself up." He admitted, "I'm complicit. The jobs at the end of the day, the jobs you don't get paid for...that falls to women." Characterizing these concerns as "not just women's issues," he worked the theme. "You'd think solving these problems would be a priority. I don't accept an America that makes women choose between their families and their jobs."
Touting his record on abortion, 100% approval from Planned Parenthood as opposed to 0% for John McCain, he declared, "It's not a nail biter." Ironically, later in the day, a woman from the political world expressed her anger to me regarding Obama's recent comments on "mental-health exceptions to late-term abortions." She referenced the recent "Legalities" blogs of Jan Crawford Greenbury from ABC News.
Obama wrapped up with the visual image of "tucking his daughters in at night," knowing that they will have chances that his mother and grandmother did not. He ended on the note of "My friend Hillary Clinton," and his assurances that he would work with her as a partner on the "chance to reform America." The campaign music came up, and Obama and Clinton disappeared into a phalanx of photographers who swarmed on to the stage.
Outside the ballroom, I asked attendees about their impressions. The responses all were favorable. "They are a dynamic duo," said a woman rushing to get back to work. Inga Watkins, who has a business that "teaches girls self-esteem" said, "It was amazing. I'm happy to see Obama up close. It was good to see Hillary. I'm motivated to work on the campaign."
"I thought it was great," said Jennifer Baltimore Johnson, a 40-year-old attorney with AOL. "He's clear about important issues." On the Hillary comment about having her hair done, Johnson said, "I think it was about that whole thing of having expectations of women...that we are supposed to look good." Regarding Clinton's debt she offered, "I would give $100 to her campaign."
Lee Wade, a publisher of children's books, said, "I thought it made Obama more of a person. I voted for Hillary, but we have to focus on Obama now. They stand for the same things."
Another person who voted for Clinton was Kevin L. Clayton. The National Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta opined, "I'm convinced she is behind Barack. If not, she should change her profession from politics to acting." He saw her as contributing to a potential Obama administration.
Back in the ballroom, a knot of guests waited for books to be signed by Obama. Jocelyn R. Taylor, Publisher of Uptown Magazine, had featured Obama on her Summer issue. She was holding a copy with his signature.
"I thought it was fabulous," she said. "Very inspirational. People are coming together. We're ready to make changes globally." Taylor was joined in the discussion by Sherry B. Bronfman, a fundraiser for not-for-profit organizations. The push to reduce Clinton's debt was addressed. "Have we done that for any other candidate in the past?" Taylor asked before stating, "Let's focus! Our goal is to get a Democrat elected." Bronfman sounded the note, "The media is manipulative."
She was not alone in her estimation. As I left the event, I passed a man and a woman in the driveway of the Hilton. The man was wearing an Obama button, and I couldn't ignore the opportunity for one last point of view. They told me they had attended the breakfast, but could not give me comments for attribution. After some back and forth, the man described himself as "an Obama fundraiser on the finance committee." It was apparent that he had a lot to say. He agreed to go back into the lobby and find a quiet space to speak. He had a definite bone to pick with the press about how the story of Hillary's debt relief was being depicted.
"It [debt relief] is going to happen. It's already being worked on," he said emphatically. "The notion that Hillary and Obama fundraisers are not working together is completely wrong.
It's just way off. I was at the fundraiser last night, where they had dozens and dozens of Hillary fundraisers and supporters who raised or wrote a combination of $50,000 or more for a photo op with Barack. So her fundraisers are on board. She's on board." As I listened, he asked rhetorically, "Why would she and her fundraisers come out and raise so much money for the Obama victory fund?" In explanation of any perceived ambivalence he said, "If you have a big haystack, you are always going to find one straw that is different from the others. But you're talking about hundreds of fundraisers on the Hillary side and the Obama side, and there might be two disgruntled people out of the hundreds who are complaining... and [they] feed the press. Most Hillary supporters are going to come out and support Barack. Unity is not a story for you guys [the press]. We're united. It's working. We're going to have the debt relief fundraisers. Chicago is working on it; people in New York on the Obama and Hillary side are working on it. It's not a story for the press, because it's not interesting."
When I exited the hotel for a second time, all traces of the visit from a presumptive presidential contender and his former opponent were gone. The questions about the Obama-Clinton relationship will undoubtedly remain. However, the voices for "party unity" and "taking back the White House" were starting to sound increasingly strong.
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