Still one of the Democratic Party’s chief fundraisers despite the scandals swirling around her husband, first lady Michelle Obama faced down a protester last night during her speech at a private party, making news with her response to the heckler.
While speaking at the Washington, D.C., home of a wealthy lesbian couple, the first lady was interrupted 12 minutes into her 20-minute speech by Ellen Sturtz, 56, an activist with the pro-LGBT rights group GetEQUAL.
Sturtz was demanding that the president issue an executive order forcing federal contractors to stop discriminating against gay and transgendered job applicants. Gay activists said he promised the executive order five years ago during his first presidential run, but he has opted instead to push for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which remains stuck in Congress.
When Sturtz began yelling at Obama, the first lady reportedly said, “One of the things that I don’t do well is this,” as the crowd, which had paid up to $10,000 per person to attend the event, loudly applauded.
The first lady then left the lectern and approached the protester, inviting the woman to “listen to me, or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”
The crowd shouted that they wanted Obama to stay, and one woman near the protester said, “You need to go!”
The protester was then escorted out, saying she wanted “federal equality before I die.”
In an interview later with the Huffington Post, Sturtz, who writer Amanda Terkel described as a “divorced lesbian,” said she didn’t go to the event intending to interrupt Obama.
She said she actually had planned to reach out to someone from the DNC about her concerns, but she was moved to action when the first lady urged the audience to make the country a better place for the next generation.
“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 the president to sign that ENDA executive order for five years. How much longer do we need to wait?”
Sturtz said she donated to the DNC in 2008 in large part because she believed the president would fight to end workplace discrimination, but she said she was disappointed by 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.
When GetEQUAL activist Autumn Leaf, 22, interrupted DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s (D-Fla.) speech to call for the executive order, Leaf said Wasserman Schultz replied that the way to get ENDA passed was to help Democrats retake the House.
Leaf was “disappointed” in Obama’s reaction to Sturtz and surprised she “approached Ellen as aggressively as she did.”
The fundraiser took place in the backyard of donors Karen Dixon and Nan Schaffer, with tickets ranging from $500 to $10,000, according to a DNC official.
In addition, there was also a $100 student/young professional rate that several of the GetEQUAL activists qualified for.
Though some may quibble with Sturtz’s methods in confronting Obama, one thing is certain: she was able to get her employment discrimination issue on the national radar, at least for a couple of days.
During her speech, the first lady urged donors to stay engaged and back the president’s agenda, even though there’s no presidential election coming up.
“That is why it is simply not enough to just elect a president every four years,” she said. “We need you to be engaged in every election — every election — because special elections matter. Midterm elections really matter. It matters who we send to Congress. It matters. And if you don’t believe me, just look at the record. Look at the difference just a few votes in Congress can make when it comes to the issues that we say we care about.”