President Obama addresses thousands at Lake Harriet

Credit: Photo by Emily Byers Olson

A trio of Washburn High School students — Martin Donovan, Paige Hepenstal and Emily Byers Olson — were the first in line June 25 to get tickets for President Barack Obama’s speech at the Lake Harriet Bandshell.

They arrived at 4:30 a.m. to wait in line.

They sat in the second row for the president’s address two days later and each got to shake his hand afterward — an experience that left them teary eyed and shaking with excitement. 

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the president speak at the bandshell,” Donovan said. “We’ll probably never get to see that again.”

The students said they agreed with Obama’s views on the importance of strengthening the middle class, ensuring opportunity for all and investing in education.

Obama addressed an estimated 3,500 gathered at the bandshell.

His visit was inspired by a letter from Rebekah Erler, a Minneapolis mother whose plight reminded the president of times he and Michelle struggled to make ends meet. “And in many ways, her story for the past five years is our story. It’s the American story,” he said.

The White House billed the trip to the Twin Cities in part as “A Day in the Life of Rebekah.” The president and Erler had Jucy Lucy burgers at Matt’s Bar for lunch and stopped for ice cream at the Grand Ole Creamery in St. Paul the first day of his two-day stop to Minnesota.

Erler wrote to the president about the financial challenges she and her husband have faced because of the Great Recession. They have two young sons and are burdened by the high cost of childcare.

In her letter, Erler told the president that it’s “virtually impossible to live a simple middle class life.”

Obama called her letter “an act of hope.”

“Because it’s a hope that the system can listen, that somebody is going to hear you,” he said. “… I’m here to tell you I’m listening because you’re the reason I ran for president.”

The president highlighted his policies and aspirations for the middle class, along with his frustrations with Republicans in Congress.

“So far this year, Republicans in Congress have blocked or voted down every single serious idea to strengthen the middle class,” he said.

He also mentioned Aaron Barnell who runs Aaron’s Green Cleaning at 60th & Newton. Barnell’s mother wrote a letter to the president noting he starts his employees at $15 an hour.

“There they are,” Obama said, pointing to them during his speech. “So the letter said, ‘We are very proud of his people-centered business philosophy! Three cheers for a decent living wage.'”

Barnell said it was an “unforgettable moment” for him and his mother. 

The president’s visit to Minneapolis came as Democrats are gearing up for competitive battles across the county for midterm elections in November.

He highlighted his efforts to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour, cap student loan payments, and fight for fair pay for women, among other policies to help the middle class. 

The president concluded his remarks by urging people to avoid cynicism.

“But I’m here to tell you, don’t get cynical,” he said. “Despite all of the frustrations, America is making progress.  Despite the unyielding opposition, there are families who have health insurance now who didn’t have it before.  And there are students in college who couldn’t afford it before.  And there are workers on the job who didn’t have jobs before.  And there are troops home with their families after serving tour after tour. Don’t think that we’re not making progress.” 

Byers Olson said Obama’s speech has motivated her to get more engaged in politics.

“I know that many teens overlook the significance of politics, but I personally think it’s important for us to be aware due to the fact that sooner than later we will be the one whom these policies impact most significantly,” she said. “Hearing Obama’s speech sparked my interest even more and I am very grateful that I got to experience this unforgettable event.”

Hepenstal said she was also motivated to get more involved in her community because of the president’s speech.

“I have experienced the issues stemming from the achievement gap in schools first hand, and hearing the president address this was inspiring,” she said. 

City Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13) attended the president’s speech along with several other city officials.

“It was stunning to watch Barack Obama step onto the bandshell so familiar to our daily neighborhood lives,” she said.  ”I had a flashback to when he was running for Illinois Senate and I’d stuck a lawn sign for him in my yard.  Folks would stop and stare.  Few could even pronounce his name. I would tell the kids I was coaching that someday he’d be President, if we were lucky.  And there he was today… literally in our backyards.”

She added that she felt the president’s speech “was heartfelt, sincere and humorous.”

“The themes about better wages, the cost of childcare, and women especially hit home.  It made me proud to know I was there with all my working mother female colleagues on the council,” she said. “… To lay these issues out in a speech that was all at once a world stage, and also our bandshell’s stage quite literally was very powerful.”

Welcome Jerde, a Lynnhurst resident, attended the speech and said she “felt proud” that a Minnesotan woman raised issues felt by so many all over the country. 

“[Obama] read it, reached out, and came here to tell us he is listening to what people outside the Beltway think. He likened many of the stories to his life with a young, single mom, and the issues of career and daycare he and Michelle faced as they started off,” she said. “His message of wanting to accomplish something, almost anything, in Washington, D.C. is totally crazy given the antagonistic attitudes, but he’d rather share the credit with Republicans than fight with them.”

Congressman Keith Ellison said Rebekah Erler’s “story is powerful because it’s too common in America today.”

“Moms around the country are working every day to put food on the table and prepare for their children’s future,” he said. “Low wages, rising grocery prices and increased college costs weigh on the minds of parents in Minneapolis, in Memphis, in Detroit, and Topeka.”

Minnesota GOP leaders, meanwhile, dismissed the president’s appearance as a choreographed stunt and criticized the White House for not disclosing Erler’s work as a former Democrat campaign staffer.

The president’s visit also included a private fundraising event at Sam and Sylvia Kaplan’s home in the North Loop. In remarks released by the White House, the president reflected on Minnesota’s role in motivating to him to run for the nation’s highest office.

“It is true that the last time I was in this house I had no gray hair. I’m just saying. And many people could not pronounce my name. But Sam and Sylvia, and some of you who are here tonight, took a flyer on me,” he said. “And Minnesota actually really did have a lot to do with my deciding to run. There are a few charter members of the “Draft Obama” club, along with R.T. who started — who decided I should run for president before I had decided I should run for president. And that’s not surprising, because Minnesota has a history of putting confidence in people who represent a progressive tradition, and nobody represents that better than a man sitting right next to me, Mr. Walter Mondale.”