- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2007

Soup”s on, or at least it will be next month when Sen. Barack Obama will pencil in dinner and conversation with four average Americans who won the quasi-contest sweepstakes announced by the campaign a few weeks ago.

For the bargain basement price of a $5 contribution, the lucky winners will be flown in July 10 from New York, Nevada, Florida and Louisiana, all expenses paid, for a feast and political shoptalk with the Democratic presidential hopeful at a restaurant in Chicago or Washington.

The winners say they’re more interested in the conversation than the food.

A burger and fries will suffice for Haile Rivera, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. “I hadn’t even thought about it, but I’ll try and save him some money,” he said.

Mr. Rivera, who turns 30 today, came to the United States in 1983 with his mother when he was six, growing up in Paterson, N.J. Incidentally, today is also the day he becomes an American citizen — “That’s the best birthday present I could have ever wished for.”

He moved to New York 11 years ago and is now taking political science courses at Lehman College in the Bronx where he lives and works as a program specialist for one of the city’s food banks for the poor.

“Being that I am a college student, I know I want to talk to him about that. … The first bill [Mr. Obama] introduced was the Hope Act to increase the Pell Grants for students to $5,000,” Mr. Rivera said. “The reason I have not finished already is because I can’t afford it, so, hopefully with him as president, I am hoping that college students will be better off.”

He also mentioned that he wants to talk about education and job creation with the Illinois Democrat, something that fellow contestant Margaret Thomas-Jordan, from Gonzales, La., is intimately aware of and concerned about as a mother of two boys, who she said “are slipping through our education system.”

Mrs. Thomas-Jordan, 31, said she is also eager to talk to Mr. Obama about his health care plan, because she lives in a small town with limited access to health care that is loaded with working families struggling to afford it. “Neither of my parents went to college, and they raised eight children and we used a lot of home remedies,” she said.

Her husband is currently serving a 15-month tour in Iraq, she said. “The war presents a burden on the spouses and the children left at home. I have to adjust to him being gone, but also to the possibility that he may not come back the same way he left, both physically and mentally,” she said.

For Michael Griffith, 34, that is already a reality as his father is a disabled veteran of the Vietnam War, and veterans’ health care is something foremost on his mind. “Luckily he is covered fully, but for those who aren’t I want to talk about veterans’ care funding being mandatory instead of discretionary. That is one of the biggest problems and it is a disservice to their service,” Mr. Griffith said.

A California native, Mr. Griffith currently lives and works in Fernley, Nev., mining diatomaceous earth, a compound of fossilized minerals used for filtration.

He said he didn’t even consider asking Mr. Obama about mining issues — although he will now — because his stronger concerns regard border security.

“I don’t think there is a problem with immigration, the problem is securing the border, and if you do that first, and you have to do that first, then you can deal with the rest of the issues,” Mr. Griffith said.

He also has small children so health care and education are foremost on his mind as well.

The final contestant, Jennifer Lasko of Lake Worth, Fla., could not be reached for comment. She is a firefighter and a paramedic and a former Republican who volunteered to serve the party in college on behalf of President Reagan.

She told the campaign that she likes Mr. Obama because, “He brings a non-divisive approach to politics, trying to find the right answer — not picking an ideological answer and defending that right or wrong.”