June 6, 2013

First Lady Michelle Obama was confronted at a fundraiser on Tuesday night by a heckler who interrupted her speech several times. By her own admission, she is not as good at handling hecklers as her husband, as reported by the Washington Post:

First lady Michelle Obama experienced a rare face-to-face encounter with a protester late Tuesday – approaching the activist and threatening to leave a fundraiser if the person did not stop interrupting her speech.

Obama was addressing a Democratic Party fundraiser in a private Kalorama home in Northwest Washington when Ellen Sturtz, 56, a lesbian activist, interrupted her remarks to demand that President Obama sign an anti-discrimination executive order.

Obama showed her displeasure – pausing to confront Sturtz eye to eye, according to witnesses.

“One of the things that I don’t do well is this,” she said to applause from most of the guests, according to a White House transcript. “Do you understand?”

A pool report from a reporter in the room said Obama “left the lectern and moved over to the protester.” The pool report quoted Obama as saying: “Listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”

Obama’s suggestion that she would leave was not included in the official White House transcript.

The audience responded by asking Obama to remain, according to the pool report, which quoted a woman nearby telling Sturtz, “You need to go.”

Sturtz was interviewed by the Huffington Post about the incident:

In an interview later with The Huffington Post, Sturtz, a divorced lesbian, said she didn't go to the event intending to interrupt Obama. She said she instead planned to reach out to someone from the DNC about her concerns. But as the first lady urged the audience to make the country a better place for the next generation, Sturtz said she decided to speak up.

"I want to talk about the children," she said. "I want to talk about the LGBT young people who are ... being told, directly and indirectly, that they're second-class citizens. I'm tired of it. They're suffering. ... We've been asking president to sign that ENDA executive order for five years. How much longer do we need to wait?"

Sturtz donated to the DNC in 2008, she said, in large part because she believed the president would fight to end workplace discrimination. She said she was disappointed in the first lady's response at the fundraiser.

"Basically, I was asked by the first lady to be quiet, and I can't be quiet any longer. ... I was surprised by how negative the crowd seemed to be. It was actually a little unsettling and disturbing," said Sturtz.

"She obviously thought she was going to make an example of me or something. I wasn't scared at all," she added.

The conflict appears to be quite similar to the conflict we saw unfold over Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The administration wants a continued push for a legislative remedy to ENDA rather than an executive order, because one is more permanent than the other. With our current Congress, it would take the force of three acts of God to get anything like that, which is what gives rise to the tension over it.

I tend to lean toward legislative remedies too, because the next president could very easily simply kill the Obama EO with the stroke of a pen, which would really make a muddle out of workplace policies for federal workers. In 2010, the administration expanded coverage for gay couples with regard to certain benefits like long-term health insurance, day care benefits and other employee benefits.

I believe Sturtz was trying to "be the change." I'm just not sure a fundraiser where the First Lady is in the middle of a speech is the best venue for that, though. Hopefully they can have a beer summit and work it out.

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