A Newton Woman Had Dinner with President Obama

She actually didn't eat much of her dinner until after Obama left, though.

Hannah Banks, a 60-year-old former architect in Newton, had dinner with the President on Wednesday. And I don’t mean in some cheesy sense, like dining in a huge banquet room where you can see Obama off in the distance. I’m talking about sitting at a table for five, eating clam cakes, and chatting with the leader of the free world for an hour.

Banks won the experience through one of those contests that political organizations use to lure contributions, an official with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) confirmed for me. Banks, a frequent giver to Democratic candidates and committees—since 2011 she has run a non-profit called “Why I’m A Democrat”—sent in $25 to be entered into the DSCC “Dinner With President Obama” contest. The DSCC says it was their most successful contest of this election cycle. Banks was one of two winners, out of what she was told were 25,000 entrants; the other winner was Andrea Abrahams, of New York, who won on a mere $5 contribution. Each was allowed to bring a companion; Banks brought her husband, Howard, and Abrahams brought a friend.

“I’m just so tickled,” Banks told me Friday. As a fundraiser for Obama in 2008 and 2012 she had met him at fleeting photo-op encounters, but this was entirely different. “I’m still floating.”

Banks was notified of her good fortune just a week before the dinner through an email titled “Congratulations, you’ve won,” that she almost dismissed as one of the flood of ridiculously headlined fund-raising emails she receives. She called the number provided in the email, passed the background checks, flew down to D.C. on Wednesday morning on the DSCC’s dollar, checked into the hotel the DSCC put them up in for the night, and by late afternoon was being ushered through a side entrance into a small private room in a restaurant two blocks from the White House. There, a round table had place cards for the four of them, and an unmarked setting for the President. A DSCC staffer stayed in the room during the meal, Banks said, as did Obama’s political director—and Taunton, Massachusetts, native—David Simas.

Obama arrived, Banks said, well-prepared with biographical information about each of them. He presented Howard a Commander’s Coin in recognition of his Vietnam service. He asked Banks about growing up in what later became his home neighborhood of Hyde Park, Chicago. “I think of him as a kid from the neighborhood,” Banks said.

Obama had only green tea, she said, leaving the rest of them to awkwardly picking at their food during the conversation. After asking one of the New York women about her teaching experience, Obama said that Malia, his older daughter, is “anguishing over” her upcoming SATs. Malia is driving now, he said, although only around the White House grounds. Having dinner every night with his daughters, and listening in on the regular conversations of the two teenage girls, helps keep him grounded, he told them.

“His face relaxed when he talked about them,” Banks said.

There was some, but not much political talk, she said. Obama asked the New York women whether they attended the climate march, which had drawn hundreds of thousands to that city 10 days earlier; that led to him talking about his hope that the improving economy would allow for more focus on environment concerns.

Those concerns, and Obama’s energy policies, happen to be among the issues on which Banks is critical of Obama. “I am happy with him—with reservations, of course,” she told me. “There always are policies I disagree with.”

I got the strong sense that those disagreements were largely forgotten (at least temporarily) when the President gave her a hug when greeting her.

She did, however, remember to make an observation to him. Recently she noticed that three portraits hang on the wall of her Newton post office: those of the mayor, Setti Warren;  the Governor, Deval Patrick; and the President. All three, she realized, are black. Obama responded that he knew both Warren and Patrick, and was honored to be in their company.

Obama was there for an hour, at the end of which he posed for a few pictures and was quickly off, being flown to Gary, Indiana, that evening for Chicago-area fundraisers in the morning. The foursome were allowed to stay in the private room, to concentrate properly on eating their dinners.