“You can kid the world, but not your sister.”
That’s a quote from the famous Canadian writer, Charlotte Gray, and it can easily apply to the maternal half-sister of President Barack Obama, Maya Soetoro-Ng.
So the president may not be able to kid her, but fortunately they are very close, and they are both really nice people. Like sister, like brother you could say. I found this out at the weekend when she joined a Democrats Abroad Australia fundraiser in Sydney via Skype from her home in Honolulu.
Maya Soetoro-Ng has been a high school history teacher, and a lecturer at the University of Hawaii, where she earned her PhD in international education. She also has an MA in English from New York University, and has been active in both of her brother’s presidential campaigns, reaching out to Asian, Pacific and Hispanic Americans (she learned Spanish when she lived in New York). She and Barack lived together in Indonesia and Hawaii, before their mother, Ann Dunham, decided to return with Maya to Jakarta, where they both learned the language and fell in love with the country and its culture.
Maya spoke, along with Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson, at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina earlier this month, paying tribute to the woman who gave birth to her and the President: “… we were blessed with a mother who taught us that education is the surest path from limited means to limitless opportunity. She inspired me to become a teacher. And she inspired Barack’s deep commitment to giving all our young people the opportunities our education gave us … Making sure everyone in America has a chance to make it like he did – that’s what my big brother is all about. And that’s what he’ll do for four more years!”
She told the gathering of Democrats – most from battleground states (photo above taken by Dae Levine, chair of Democrats Abroad Australia) — she was more confident her brother would get those four more years after the convention, which “energised” her, highlighting the differences between the two parties. I asked her if she was worried, after the many gaffes of Mitt Romney (like the 47 per cent of Americans “dependent on government” he’s not worried about) and a subsequent rise in the polls, that Democrats might be getting complacent.
Maya said she was concerned that people are complacent, and are making no extra effort to get people to vote: the young, the old and the poor. It worries her a bit, that people are not as excited as they should be. And she was worried about the media coverage: “I have asked my students to view the media from more than one perspective. They need to have a bifurcated view.” There is, for example, the ABO crowd, the “Anybody But Obama” mob. She didn’t mention Fox News in this context, but I will! I was flicking back and forth between CNN and Fox News to watch the conventions, and it was like getting two different versions of the same event when it came to analysis.
Despite her concerns, Maya says: “We’re going to be all right. My brother’s administration has achieved a great deal. He leads a party dedicated to building bridges with the rest of the world, a good party for women, also dedicated to social justice and equity issues, as well as business and the economy. And people are now addressing the economy vigorously.”
She asked us to make phone calls if we had contacts in the US, and to talk about people we know and what they’ve achieved, and their vision of America. We “should make sure it remains an intimate process … you really have to put your voice out there.”
Maya Soetoro-Ng said her brother wanted to engage with the Republicans four years ago in a healthy dialogue, but they wouldn’t do it: “There were too many people who felt this way. We needed to talk about it, the splintering of the country. When I see him with all the name calling and stress, he’s still cheerful about it. He said: ‘I might not be able to change people’s minds, but I might be able to change the minds of their sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters.’ He said: ‘There’ll be things that frustrate you, but don’t get hot and bothered about it’.”
She predicted in answer to a question about the upcoming debates that the President will try to articulate a plan in a clear and informative way, and to be pragmatic and honest. He’s an intellectual, but he wants to communicate. (She could have said, he’s not heavy, he’s my brother!) She thinks his approach will work because “he’s better for the middle class than his opponents.” He will work to lighten their load.
At this point, one of her two young daughters wanted to get on camera to say hello, so Maya picked her up and waved to us. Her husband, Konrad Ng, is the scholar-in-residence of the Asian Pacific American film collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, so when he’s away from home, Maya has to play the role of single mum. She seems to be performing very well in the role!
REPUBLICANS USING VOTER ID LAWS TO SUPPRESS VOTES
On a question about voter suppression laws from the gracious host of the fundraiser, Carmelan Polce from Pennsylvania, Maya said people wanted to vote, and the campaign for Voter ID laws “showed a lot of desperation on the part of Republicans. I was in Wisconsin – Milwaukee — earlier this year where they had just fought and won their battle against voter suppression and the old, young and the poor can now vote.” Waymon Hudson, a LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) activist, has written a good background piece on voter suppression laws in the Huffington Post http://huff.to/QpiyG5, in which he reports: “This year the Department of Justice has struck down voter-ID laws in Texas, Florida, South Carolina, and Wisconsin under the Voting Rights Act, which mandates that states with a history of racially discriminatory voting procedures get their laws cleared by the DOJ.” The law in Wisconsin was declared unconstitutional earlier this year.
But voter suppression is still a serious issue. According to a report by the Black Youth Project, election turnout among young African and Native Americans and Latinos could drop by nearly 700,000 voters in states with new photo ID laws, especially in the battleground states of Florida and Pennsylvania http://bit.ly/QSNuus. Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sent the case on voter ID laws back to a lower court for review. The law requires liberal access to photo IDs, to those who don’t have state-issued IDs. These Republican-inspired laws have angered one black GOP leader in Pennsylvania http://huff.to/RKSJwE, where as many as 758,000 residents could be barred from voting (obviously a high estimate, given the Black Youth Project’s numbers mentioned above). Veteran Republican politician Stanley Lawson said: “The whole thing stinks.” The Republicans say the laws will stop fraud; the opponents say there’s no fraud, and it’s all about politics. Democrats in two counties have come up with an innovative way to get around the law, which would allow universities and nursing homes to issue voter IDs to the counties’ residents. And other counties are considering the same approach. http://bit.ly/Tjjf79
I hope Maya is right and “impressive measures,” like Democrats making sure voters have the right ID, getting people to the polls and having lawyers at polling stations, will allow the young, old and the poor to vote this November.
David Kennedy, a New Hampshire voter, asked Maya about the Romney’s campaign release of audio of her brother’s 1998 speech in which he endorses redistribution of wealth. Romney says it’s a bad thing http://abcn.ws/PxpA9H, but David pointed out that the USA’s first income tax law of 1862 was about a progressive tax: the higher the income, the higher your rate of tax. It was about shared responsibility. David ended his question with a comment about Romney: “He doesn’t believe in the ethic of shared responsibility. He wants to keep paying 14 per cent in income taxes (as his just released 2011 tax returns shows).”
Maya Soetoro-Ng replied: “Of course, he does (want to keep paying 14 per cent), and of course, he doesn’t believe in it (graduated income tax).”
Some plain talking from the president’s sister. David Kennedy thinks the Democrats are on a winner if they keep hammering home the point that Mitt Romney doesn’t want to pay his fair share of taxes, going back to a principle enshrined in law in the 19th Century.
Provided the young, old, poor and minorities are allowed to vote, Mitt Romney continues to believe he doesn’t have to worry about 47 per cent of Americans dependent upon the government, and Barack Obama keeps listening to his sister, Democrats will be celebrating the re-election of the President on November 6.