In Stamford, Mrs. Obama and the Five

STAMFORD — On Sunday, a Democratic presidential campaign staffer asked Lushe Gjuraj whether her eatery — Parkway Diner in Stamford — would have room the coming Wednesday for six people and some accompanying press.

She said it would: After all, 2:30 p.m. isn’t exactly the lunch-hour rush. Then yesterday, she received another call informing her that the principal guest would be Michelle Obama, the wife of Democratic presidential aspirant Senator Barack Obama.

Michelle Obama, who stopped for lunch in Stamford on Wednesday, holds a roundtable with five local women, including two Yale affiliates.
Grant Smith
Michelle Obama, who stopped for lunch in Stamford on Wednesday, holds a roundtable with five local women, including two Yale affiliates.

“Oh, that’s good to know,” she said Wednesday, reflecting on the sense of awe and disbelief she felt upon hearing the news. “It’s great. It’s wonderful.”

With Super Tuesday approaching Feb. 5 — when voters in 22 states and American Samoa will cast primary ballots — the presidential campaigns still left standing are engaged in a frantic last push of rallies and bus tours, as they crisscross the country trying to campaign in as many states and Congressional districts as possible within the constraints on time and money.

Obama’s campaign is no exception.

Michelle Obama’s appearance at the diner, with its old-fashioned metal exterior and wall of baby photos from regulars, was billed in a press release as a “Roundtable with Working Women” and came two days after Senator Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 stumped in Hartford on Monday. In the back room of the diner, Obama answered questions about her husband’s policy priorities — always being careful to add “as Barack would say” — and her possible role as “first spouse.”

Beverly Murphy — who arrived early but still had to struggle to find an open booth — noted that her status as a Connecticut voter put her in the minority.

“I’m maybe one of 10 people that are citizens — people who aren’t with the press,” she said.

As Obama’s arrival approached, a couple dozen residents from surrounding communities ultimately filed in — hoping, they said, to glean a better and more personal sense of Obama’s policies, to find ways of getting involved with the campaign or simply to catch a glimpse of a potential White House resident.

Matthew Notice, 27, who came with his wife Tia, said that while he had voted before, this year marked the first time he had become more than superficially involved in politics. Both he and his wife said they are excited by Obama’s background as a community organizer and what they called his sincerity in comparison to that of other candidates.

“I’m just starting to get involved, and I really want to see where I can fit in and help,” said Notice, a truck driver who lives in Stamford.

But Murphy was more ambivalent. A self-described Clinton supporter, she said that having grown up at a time when many women were fighting to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, she has long been awaiting a viable female presidential candidate.

“I’m kind of torn,” she said. “I’m an African-American and a woman, and I figure I should not be too close-minded.”

Still, she added: “Why is it being held in such a small place?”

Homey as the diner may have been, the cramped environs meant that in the back room where Obama spoke with the five women — who were asked to appear by the Obama campaign only yesterday, two of them said — all the remaining space had to be reserved for members of the press.

During the discussion, media personnel jockeyed for a position close to the table, as more than half a dozen camera crews swiveled long microphones precariously past human heads and picture frames, while print journalists behind them struggled to hear what the women were saying.

But for the women at the table — and perhaps the television audience, which certainly had the best view — the hour-long talk reinforced their support for Sen. Obama, they said.

“I really got a lot of confidence from Michelle, relating to the fact that Obama is new,” said Jessica Pettigrew NUR ’09, one of the roundtable members, and one of two with a Yale affiliation. “They’ve both just finished paying off their student loans three years ago. She and Obama have the same concerns regular Americans have, like childcare.”

Much of the roundtable talk focused on affordable health care and ways of providing support to women who do not want to have to choose between children and a successful career. Obama emphasized the strain of a campaign, as she has before on the trail, and remarked that voters should not expect Obama to run again in the future if he is not elected this year.

Now was the chance, she added, to choose someone untouched by the reality of Washington politics.

“Realistically, you get more isolated,” she said, referring to national politicians. “You don’t go to a diner or Target as much.”

Improving access to health care is imperative, Obama told the diners, but doing so also requires rebuilding Americans’ trust in government and the medical system by making health care more efficient. She referenced her professional experience, which includes serving as a vice president of the University of Chicago Medical Center.

“I see what happens when there are so many people who don’t have access to primary care, what people with insurance take for granted,” Obama said, noting that unlike her own daughter, whose asthma is under control, many people only can afford to go to hospitals during emergencies.

Pettigrew said she likes what she called Clinton’s more expansive health care insurance program, but she said Obama’s plan better fits the desires of most Americans — and thus has a better chance of passing Congress.

Taiwo Stanback ’06 — who remained in New Haven to work for a nonprofit after graduation but left that job when the group fell on economic hard times — said she came to the discussion undecided about whom to vote for but is leaning towards casting her ballot for Obama.

Still, she said, she wished more of the other women in attendance had asked hard policy questions rather than offering “testimonials” to how much they supported Obama.

“I wanted to know from her how Obama was going to fund everything,” Stanback said, adding that Michelle Obama had given an adequate, if not expansive, response. “She gave the general ‘reprioritizing,’ but she noted that as we reduce the $8 to $9 billion we’re spending each day on the war, that will free up more money for programs.”

For the average Stamford voter not chosen to be among the lucky five, excitement and proximity, but not detailed answers to complex policy questions, were on the menu Wednesday. For those, voters could have tuned into last night’s local news broadcast.

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