Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON — Kathleen Toigo of Yerington wasn’t looking for a date with the leader of the free world when she made her $10 donation to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. But when she saw she could also enter a drawing for lunch with the president, she figured, why not.
“You don’t think anything like that will happen to you,” Toigo said in a phone interview. “It’s like winning the lottery.”
Toigo, an early childhood special education teacher, was one of four people selected to have what turned out to be lunch with the president on Friday in Washington.
“It was just so comfortable,” Toigo said. “He looks right at you and just is listening very intently to what you’re saying, and that was just kind of amazing I thought ... It was really close up like you were having lunch with your friends.”
Toigo and three others joined Obama for an hourlong lunch at Scion restaurant in D.C., where she said she had the opportunity to tell the president about her family, ask him how he balances being the commander in chief with the campaign trail, and be lightly teased by the president for ordering a salad (which he later acknowledged looked pretty delicious, she said).
“He actually asked if we wanted some of his fries,” Toigo recalled. “And I thought, this is the president of the United States asking if we’d like to share his fries.”
Toigo sat directly across from the president during the lunch, and was nominated by her contest-winning peers to ask the first question — “because I’m a teacher,” she explained — an opportunity she used to ask him about his dual role governing and campaigning.
But they spent more time talking about her work.
“I work part-time for the school district at a Head Start program ... providing special services to children from 3 to 5 years of age who have some kind of need, in terms of developmental delay or speech problems,” Toigo said. “(Obama) was wondering about education funding, and how that’s working out ... I talked about how Nevada’s been hard-hit with the economy.”
The “Dinner with Barack” events, which have been held three times, are an outreach tool as well as a campaign-building effort for the president. People are encouraged to enter the contest for dinner with the president via email or links on the Obama 2012 website. Those selected are interviewed, photographed and taped while they are feted in Washington and given the sort of extended audience few get with the president. The materials can then be used for the Obama 2012 campaign.
Toigo says she doesn’t mind that side of the deal.
“People say that’s a way to get contributions and yes it is, but it also signals a different approach to contributions as well,” she said, arguing it was a credit to the campaign that it sought to mobilize contributors by reaching out to average Americans.
Toigo did a little reaching out of her own in her audience with Obama.
“We were there early, we sat there for, oh, probably about an hour. When the president arrived ... we all stood up, he shook everyone’s hand and I said, ‘Mr. President, I shook your hand at a campaign even in Fallon, Nevada, in 2008, and I am so happy to shake your hand again as president of the United States.’ ”
The lunch, she said, was a happy end to a long period of anticipation: Toigo wasn’t allowed to tell anybody, except her close family — husband Ted, a retired educator, and her sons who live in Fallon and New Delhi, India — that she’d won.
“It was hard to do that ... keep it a secret,” Toigo admitted, adding that her husband — who came along to D.C. at the family’s own expense — broke the embargo the second he got the chance. “While I was at the lunch with the president, my husband was calling his mom and his brother,” she said.
Toigo has returned to Nevada, her home of the past 17 years, and plans to get involved as a volunteer for Obama’s re-election in 2012, as she did in 2008. She lives in a heavily Republican area, but says she has found other committed Democrats nearby, and believes there’s enough enthusiasm around that “there’s a good chance that we can keep Nevada blue” — though current polls suggest the lead Obama enjoyed four years ago has been erased in a potential matchup with Republican front-runner Mitt Romney.
Toigo says she has an experience she can bring back to her work to bring the presidency alive for the children she teaches.
“You can put these things into a learning experience for little ones. They understand a little bit about the president,” Toigo said. “You talk about things, like if it’s a holiday, George Washington’s birthday. And you tell them our president is Barack Obama, and you show them a picture.
“Now, if I have a picture of myself, I could say ‘This is where I met the president,’ ” Toigo continued. “So that might come into it eventually, somewhere down the line.”