$25 campaign donation wins dinner with Obama

Courtland Milloy
Columnist July 17, 2012

After making a $25 contribution to President Obama’s reelection campaign earlier this year, Janet Jones received a telephone call saying that her name had been entered into a raffle. And she’d won. The prize: a dinner with Obama.

“I was absolutely in awe,” said Jones, 64, a grandmother and homemaker who lives in Accokeek. “It was unbelievable.”

For her small online contribution, Jones was rewarded with an experience usually reserved for the largest donors in a presidential campaign. So how would she spend her face time with the president? What did she want from Obama?

Every donor wants something.

Take casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. He doesn’t want Obama to raise taxes on his hotel properties in Singapore and Macau. So he’s spending tens of millions of dollars — maybe as much as $100 million before the campaign ends — to elect Republican Mitt Romney.


Janet Jones, who won a ‘Dinner With Barack’ raffle and dined with President Obama at the Lincoln Restaurant in D.C. last month, holds a photo of her and the other dinner guests. (Courtland Milloy/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Romney favors tax breaks for the rich.

Obama’s supporters include some Wall Street financiers, Hollywood titans and media moguls. Some want to be considered for ambassadorships. Others would be happy with invitations to an official state dinner at the White House.

Jones was not interested in that kind of quid pro quo.

“I have a friend who could not afford health insurance, and she almost died on the emergency room floor,” Jones told me. “It’s people like that who Obama keeps in mind. He has his finger on the pulse of the middle class and the needs of the most vulnerable. That’s what I want in a president. Someone who cares.”

The dinner was held last month at the Lincoln Restaurant in the District, not far from the White House. Jones was joined by three other raffle winners: Paula Matyas, a retired GM autoworker from Milford, Mich.; Jim Heath, a firefighter from Aurora, Ohio; and Wyndi Austin, a realtor from Gilbert, Ariz. (Anyone who contributed $3 or more was automatically entered in the contest.)

“We weren’t sure what to expect when he came in the room sauntering as only he can do,” Jones said. “He just grabbed us and embraced us with this strong, warm hug and greeted everyone by name. He has a huge, easy smile. He has a way of inviting you into his world, and he easily steps into your world. When the worlds connect, it’s like we are all family.”

Jones ordered chicken pot pie. Obama had a cheeseburger.

“He eats with excitement and talks with excitement and makes the people around him feel the excitement,” Jones said. “He is such a slim man, but I guess when you’re happy and excited, that boosts your metabolism and you stay upbeat.”

It has been said that small donors like Jones — those who contribute $200 or less — are more likely than wealthy donors to express enthusiasm for their candidate. They volunteer on Election Day, knocking on doors, making phone calls and helping voters get to the polls. Obama has nearly 3 million small donors, far more than Romney.

Romney is relying heavily on wealthy donors.

During the dinner, which lasted about an hour, Obama talked about how much he misses driving a car. Jones, who had been chauffeured to the dinner in a limousine, said she’d trade places with him anytime.

She also told the president about her father, Milton Holmes, a Tuskegee Airman in World War II and later a civil rights activist in Baltimore. Holmes had encouraged her to get involved in politics — and not just to vote but also to financially support her candidates.

In January, after receiving a rather desperate e-mail plea for funds from Team Obama, Jones made a contribution.

“I feel we owe a special debt of gratitude to African American war veterans for the sacrifices they made for the country and on behalf of civil rights,” Jones said. “They were instrumental in growing the black middle class. We can’t just sit back and watch the middle class destroyed.”

The president agreed.

“He has his finger on the pulse of the middle class and the most vulnerable in society,” Jones said. “He deserves another term.”

During this presidential campaign, Obama contributors have paid at least $40,000 to be a part of much larger dinner gatherings. Romney’s contributors have paid at least $50,000 just to be in the same room with him. Who knows what they’ll get in return.

What Jones got, money can’t buy.

Hope renewed.

To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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