Register Topics Editor
STAMFORD — For more than an hour, they connected.
Paying back student loans, juggling family and work, worrying about schools and health care, Michelle Obama, shown at far right, on Wednesday touched on those topics and more as she talked with five women from Connecticut about the real issues confronting them.
Obama, who began the day in New York and was scheduled to leave for Delaware after an evening fundraiser at Ned Lamont’s home in Greenwich, spoke softly and carried on as if she and her new friends were the only ones in the back room at the Parkway Diner on a main drag in Stamford.
"When we first started, there were maybe two of these," Obama said, pointing to the crowd of reporters, TV cameramen and photographers assembled three rows deep in front of her, although she wasn’t complaining about the attention.
Obama, 43, a health care administrator in Chicago, stopped to conduct one of her signature meetings with voters on the day the Rasmussen Reports showed her husband, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, neck and neck, each with 40 percent of the vote as Connecticut gets ready to head to the polls Tuesday for the Democratic presidential primary.
Last week, a University of Connecticut poll showed Clinton with 41 percent to 27 percent for Obama, although that poll also found 21 percent of voters undecided.
Obama said she found in her travels that everyone has the same worries and wants the same things, and she said in that sense America is not a divided country.
"We are not that far apart," Obama said.
"They just want to know that they can trust who is going to be leading the charge. We have lost confidence in our government, and we have also lost confidence in one another, and that is something that has to be restored," she said.
Obama emphasized that her husband’s run for the White House, "is now or never."
"This is the only time that Barack will be this close, that we will have a chance at having someone who is three years outside of paying off their (student) debt. Someone who is still going to Target to get toilet paper ... there is something about being that close to the issues on the ground," she said.
When Barack Obama first got into the race, there was much discussion that it was not his time, that he could give it another shot in four years.
His wife Wednesday said there is something lost the longer you go after such a goal, and especially for her family personally. "Do you have kids going through this again and again?" Obama asked, referring to her 9- and 6-year-old daughters, whose father has been home only 10 days in the last year.
"It’s not a threat, it’s a reality," she said.
Asked what her emphasis would be as "first spouse," she said, "The truth is, I don’t know."
But like most women, she said first she will have to settle her children. After that, she felt she could advance the issue of adequate child care, a good education and the struggle to balance work and home by providing a platform to address it.
"When I talk about this stuff, I talk about values first, not some sort of holier-than-thou kind of approach, but I think we have to start with a vision of what kind of country we want to be," she said.
Obama said even people who are not going to vote for her husband should still participate in the election.
"The bigger challenges are us and our level of engagement and not giving that up, not conceding that to fear or cynicism or ignorance," she said. "We have given up our voices, we have handed over our power and we can’t afford to do that,"
Two of the five women at the table, who ranged in age from 24 to 59, were from New Haven: Jessica Pettigrew, a midwife in training at the Yale School of Nursing, and Taiwo Stanback, a Yale graduate who worked in the nonprofit Youth@Work program. Stanback said she now needs to find a job to pay off $20,000 in student loans and get health insurance.
While she favors Clinton’s health plan over Obama’s, Pettigrew, 25, is not sure America is ready for it and thinks Obama’s compromise is a step in the right direction.
Stanback came to the event not sure whom she would vote for, but was leaning toward Clinton. When she left, Stanback, 24, was ready to campaign for Obama.
"There was a genuineness about her," she said of Michelle Obama. An organizer herself, Stanback said Barack Obama’s ability to engage people was important. "It is evident that there is something special there," she said.
Mary E. O’Leary can be reached at 789-5732 or firstname.lastname@example.org.