Annette John-Hall: Small gesture, big inspiration

I don't know about you, but I'm starting to view big-money presidential campaigns as nothing more than vehicles for political dirty tricks, special interests, and filthy-rich super PACs.

I mean, how could I not, here in the land of voter suppression? Especially when deep-pocket donors and $50,000-a-plate diners seem to matter more than great-grandmothers without valid voter ID.

Thank God for folks, like Sandy Swanson, who haven't soured on civic engagement. The part-time grant writer and stay-at-home mom of two young daughters is a feel-good example of how everyday people can politicize a community, motivate citizens, and, yes, even inspire a president.

I saw it firsthand Sunday, when dozens of neighbors turned out for a "Barack on the Block" party, organized for President Obama by Swanson in Merion.

Wait, I'm getting ahead of the story. Let's rewind to August.

 

Letter to the president

Swanson, 37, had no expectations at all when she wrote out a $15 check in late August and mailed it with a letter to President Obama. All she wanted was to make her voice heard.

She wrote: My husband Steve is currently a [Ph.D.] student at Temple University. Since starting his degree, we've lived considerably below the poverty level ... but we aren't complaining. Two healthy daughters, a house full of memories, a future full of hope. We're the lucky ones.

She went on: $15 means something these days. ... $15 is a special pizza dinner at our local pizza shop. It's 11/2 tickets to see the newest film at the old-school cinema we walk our daughters to. It's getting fresh fruit instead of frozen, fresh vegetables instead of canned. ... It's all these things to a family like ours.

Our pebble-in-the-ocean support feels almost pointless. 'Leave the campaigns to the rich,' I think to myself. 'Get your daughters pizza instead.' ... After all, I will never be a player, but I still want to believe I can play a part.

"I wrote White House on the envelope and put it in the mail, thinking, 'Well, that's two hours wasted,' " Swanson told me.

She couldn't have been more wrong.

 

Who's calling?

The Swansons had just sat down to dinner when the phone rang. Sandy, seeing an unrecognizable number, almost didn't answer. But her experience phone-banking for the Obama campaign taught her that even cold callers deserved courtesy. So she answered the phone.

Good thing, too.

"Hello, Sandy?" It was the president himself, calling from Air Force One.

Now, Swanson has supported the president since day one, but she has always made it a point not to gush over him, especially to her Republican friends. But how else do you respond when you get a call out the blue from the president of the United States?

"Hi, Barack!" she gushed.

President Obama, fresh from the Democratic National Convention, called to thank Swanson for her letter "because you are the kind of families we're fighting for," he told her.

As delighted as Swanson was, she was also wry. The nation is so politically divided that she couldn't help but worry how her letter would be interpreted.

"It's really ironic that right around that time, we heard Mitt Romney come out with his 47 percent comment," Swanson said. "There is nothing pathetic or needy about my family, but I was afraid that someone would read the letter and think we were asking for a pizza bailout."

Still, the president's call inspired her - to partner with the Obama campaign and organize Sunday's festive block party, complete with live bands, and educational booths on voter registration, voter ID and volunteering, and information about the president's platform, among other things.

And in keeping with the grassroots spirit of the day, everything was free - ice cream, lemonade, and 400 slices of pizza provided by Swanson's favorite (and now famous) pizzeria, Poppi's Pizzas in Wynnewood.

"Sandy is a superstar," said neighbor Jewelie Sluzas, as she watched her friend with admiration. "It's wonderful how one person can get everybody up and going."

 


Contact Annette John-Hall

at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.