By Baird Helgeson and Abby Simons, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
MINNEAPOLIS — President Barack Obama began a two-day visit to Minneapolis on Thursday sharing cheeseburgers with a local working mother and bringing a middle-class message tailor made to aid Democrats fearful of massive losses in the upcoming election.
Obama said he shares the frustrations of people who went to college, work hard, and still struggle to buy homes, pay for child care, and dig out from student loan debt.
“You are the reason I ran for office,” he told a crowd of about 350 people gathered for a town hall forum near Minnehaha Falls. In his early life, he said, “I was you guys … You are the ones I am thinking about every single day.”
Obama talked about progress his administration has made curbing greenhouse gases and making college more affordable, but devoted much of his time to touting the need for a higher minimum wage and equal pay and benefits for women. Those issues resonate strongly in Minnesota, where Gov. Mark Dayton (D) and a Democratic-controlled Legislature enacted the largest minimum wage increase in state history this year and approved a menu of economic protections for women in the workplace.
“The idea that they would not be paid the same or not have the same opportunities … is infuriating,” Obama said of female workers. “If you are doing the same job, you should get the same salary. Period. Full stop.”
Republicans have sharply criticized the president’s push for a federal increase in the minimum wage, saying it will cause businesses to shed jobs across the county at a time when the economy is teetering. They are loading up on new data that the economy is showing fresh signs of dramatically slowed growth, although in Minnesota unemployment is in the low single digits.
Republicans hammered on the president for talking to a friendly crowd in Minnesota that did not press him on the economy or other recent troubles in Washington.
“While President Obama is out surveying the economy his policies have failed to rejuvenate, hopefully he will take the opportunity to consider a different approach,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short.
U. S. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), said the real reason Obama came to Minnesota is to raise money for congressional Democrats, highlighting the president’s appearance at a high-dollar fundraiser later in the evening.
Obama said his visit was prompted by a letter sent by Minneapolis’ Rebekah Erler, a 36-year-old working wife and mother of two preschool-aged boys.
Earlier this year, Erler, in a moment of frustration, wrote to Obama: “I’m pretty sure this is a silly thing to do, to write a letter to the president. But on some level, I know that staying silent about what you see and what needs changing never makes any difference. So I’m writing you to let you know what it’s like for us out here in the middle of the country.”
Erler wrote of a weakened housing market hit her family hard, causing her husband’s construction business to fold.
After moving from Seattle to Minneapolis, Erler’s husband is back working in the remodeling industry. Erler took out student loans to go to a local community college for retraining and now works as an accountant.
Last October, the couple bought their first home.
Erler’s story feeds into a broader narrative that both political parties are trying to leverage during upcoming election cycle. The Great Recession is over, corporate profits are up, and the stock market is surging back, but many middle-class families continue to struggle.
Before the forum, Obama joined Erler for a famed Jucy Lucy cheeseburger at Matt’s Bar in southeast Minneapolis. He surprised guests, going from table-to-table, shaking hands, and even posing for a picture.
“It was very heartfelt, and what she said just kind of touched a nerve” Ben Erlers said of his wife’s letter. “It was all her idea. I think after long day, that night she sat down and just wanted to say something.”
The original owner of Matt’s Bar, Matt Bristol, died the morning of the visit, never knowing the president planned to lunch at the famed burger joint.
Don Fleming, a 56-year-old maintenance worker for the Minneapolis parks department, said the president’s call for a higher minimum wage resonated with him.
He makes more than the minimum wage, but hopes a higher base will push his salary higher.
“I have never seen anything like it in my life,” said Fleming, who never imagined he would ever be so close to the president. “He’s real good. And I think he is doing the right things, helping the lower class.”
In the evening, the president attended a fundraiser for congressional Democrats at a home on Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis. The event was hosted by Sylvia and Sam Kaplan, a former Moroccan ambassador and major Obama contributors.
On Friday, the president’s last scheduled appearance is a speech at the Lake Harriet Band Shell.
Staff writers Rachel E. Stassen-Berger, Emma Nelson, and Jim Anderson contributed to this report.
Photo: Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT/Monica Herndon
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