By Louise Kuo Habakus
It was Friday before Labor Day weekend. Desperate celebration was in the air as the end of summer loomed before us. There was a thick envelope in my mailbox. The flyers and contribution applications were accompanied by a kind note from my neighbors, inviting us to join them and apologizing in advance for any inconvenience their event might cause.
Corzine, Bon Jovi and DNC Finance Chair Phil Murphy were inviting me to a fundraising reception with Senator Obama, benefiting the Obama Victory Fund. Reception and Photo Line - $2300 per person.
His historic, highly anticipated acceptance speech was that very evening. And in one week, Obama was going to be two houses away.
I picked up my cell and offered my neighbors the use of our driveway. When they hold huge gala events, we offer our property in case they need it for parking overflow. Ron and I will always remember their kindness when we moved in, by throwing a party in our honor to introduce us to our neighbors.
Then I called Claudine. “Will you go?” I asked. When it comes to vaccine policy reform, Claudine and I share the same “damn the torpedoes” philosophy. She knew what I meant: will you go grab Senator Obama by the lapels and tell him what he needs to hear? We laughed at the imagery. It would require guts, access and a lot of luck.
Claudine called back on Wednesday. “Why don’t you have a rally on your front lawn?” I knew what she meant: let’s go for it. She would go to the DNC event. And I would invite the world to my front lawn. I burst out laughing. It was perfect. Brilliant, actually. And way too obvious. Why hadn’t I thought of it? It would horrify my kind neighbors, of course. That was the reason for the pit in my stomach. I’m not being completely honest. A rally on my front lawn. But in that split second, I knew I would do it. “Let me call Ron.” My poor husband.
“What are the pros and cons?” he asked in an attempt to get me to slow down. Ron regularly saves me from myself. But I couldn’t think about the cons. I told him our neighbors had not asked to use our parking. I was silent. And he started making the noises he usually makes when he’s indicating support with a big struggle. “Love you, gotta go!”
Could I pull this off? It was noon on Wednesday. Quick calculation. Boys have half days of school. Gary Null’s radio show. Three-hour vaccine seminar ninety minutes away. It was insanity. But I knew that the parents would come through. Vaccination reform is a bipartisan issue. This would be a party-neutral rally to send a message to someone who might be President.
Lisa Rudley started laughing on the phone. “I’m there. Whatever you need. New York is behind you.”
So, as Sarah Palin looked squarely in the camera and spoke directly to parents of special needs children late on Wednesday evening, I was sending my e-mail blast. And the responses came pouring in.
Would the Secret Service let me do this? What are my rights? The mundane details crowded in… we needed tables, chairs, banners, signs. The lawn needed to be mowed.
The pit in my stomach reappeared as I dialed my neighbor on Thursday. “We’re having some people to our house tomorrow afternoon. No, not a party. A… uh.. gathering.
Maybe fifty or so. Oh, and there will be some… signs. It’ll be very peaceful… they’re friends and supporters.” I quickly hung up the phone and imagined the worries I had just piled upon my neighbor. They were hosting the Democratic candidate for President and now they had to concern themselves about the possible antics just few hundred feet away.
I called our local police to give them a head’s up and was told that we had the right to a peaceful event. Supporters could drive in as long as they parked on my property. No one could be on the curb when the motorcade passed. Piece of cake, right? Something told me this was way too easy. “How about I fax you a list of names?” [The actual officers on the street were, as you might imagine, really tough. No name, no go.]
Thursday passed in a blur. The only glitch that evening is that we were somehow heading home on the northbound Parkway (we live over an hour south). It was midnight when I stumbled to my PC. Over one hundred parents and children were planning to come. And McCain had just mentioned his commitment to someone with autism in his acceptance speech. I drafted the “IT’S A GO” e-mail. I then came across the kind offer to distribute my press release. Awesome! Only… there was no press release. So I wrote one. Not a great one. But it would do.
Friday passed at warp speed. I updated the attendee list and picked up the twenty-foot banners. We had chosen federal and state messages to reach Obama, our Congressmen and Corzine:
1:94 NJ Boys Autistic But Fully Vaccinated
Vax Choice: Moms Know Best
Forced Vaccination, Only in America!
I edited my presentation slides down, attached a letter and the Vaccine Nation DVD. There was no doubt in my mind that Claudine would be able to hand Senator Obama the package. Ron set up the banners and patio furniture on the lawn. People started to arrive. Most families were from New Jersey but at least a dozen people were from New York. Parents canceled appointments, took off from work and braved rush hour traffic. The commitment was impressive. Ron and I wanted people to feel comfortable but they outdid us. They brought balloons and champagne, good cheer and food for all. The motorcade wouldn’t appear for hours yet but it was already a huge victory for parents. With a mere one day’s notice, over one hundred adults and children came together and gave a voice to our cause.
The indelible image of the day? The children. Dozens of them. Cooing, laughing, chasing, driving toy Jeeps, making signs, chanting “no more shots!” and “vaccination choice!” Our leading state and local papers and WCBS TV showed up, too. They weren’t invited to the fundraiser but they were invited to our rally. They couldn’t resist the children either.
I dare you not to be moved when you view the photos, slide shows and video:
Street traffic started to pick up. Limos, police cars, shuttle buses. Neighbors dressed in their cocktail finery waved as they walked down the street. The minutes passed. Speculation mounted. Was he already there? Did he arrive by boat? Was that him behind the tinted glass? [It was Cory Booker, Newark’s mayor]. Five-thirty came and went. Six o’clock and DNC guests were still waiting in the street. More cars… there goes Corzine! We addressed the parents and sent Claudine down the street to the DNC fundraiser with a cheer. I marveled at her courage. Claudine had a huge task and there were so many parents across the country eagerly awaiting her return.
At 6:27 pm, a friend called: “Louise, he just crossed Highway 35!” We got into position and, a couple minutes later, the motorcade approached. Most of us, fully intending to take a photo, instead chose to experience the moment. And sure enough, there was the telegenic Barack Obama, his smile beaming through his car window, waving to us all. Without knowing his position on our issue, it was still a great moment. He saw us. And in addition to the warm welcome, he knew we had a message for him. He saw our signs. Go, Claudine, go!
We spent the next hour talking and sharing stories with each other while the intermittent roar of applause punctuated the background. One of the press photographers showed us his photos. Claudine called to say she hadn’t reached him yet but she was stationing herself strategically.
It was getting dark and children were getting tired. Some parents reluctantly left but to my amazement, the parents who were able to stay stayed. They were committed to send the politicians off with that same strong message we delivered when they arrived.
Despite the outside lights and the occasional bright headlights which passed, it was nearly pitch black dark and difficult to see what was going on. Cars passed and it was anyone’s guess who was inside. Someone said, “There goes Obama!” and my heart sunk. A friend confirmed that she saw him. Another said, “He didn’t come out.” And I slowly turned around to begin the process of cleaning up.
To my complete amazement, some cars stopped. And suddenly, there was Governor Corzine, purposefully striding over with a warm greeting: “How’re you all doing?” He proceeded to tell us, “I’m listening and I’m going to study, ok? I understand there’s a lot of debate on this issue.”
Amidst the chaos, I have to say, it was just glorious. To be heard. Acknowledged. None of us is naïve enough to think that any promises were made. But we had our moment. We were giving our message to the Governor of New Jersey.
He guided us out of the street and onto my lawn. “First of all, let me just say, I think it’s terrific that you’re both expressing your view and you did it in a responsible and thoughtful way and it makes more impression than having it jammed down your throat.” He then said, “I would love for you to talk with my Commissioner of Health….we did homework on this and I’m taking the advice of the people I trust.”
The issues are admittedly complex. But they are not beyond the capacity of a man who ran one of the most successful investment companies in history. Our children are sicker than ever and the weight of the evidence demands caution. Surely the Governor is equal to the task. And I told him so. I beseeched him to personally investigate the issue. He admitted, “We get more e-mails and letters on this than any issue except tolls.” His aide took my contact information and promised that Heather Howard would call me on Monday.
The entire encounter lasted less than five minutes but he heard us.
A big group of New Jersey residents cared enough to stand outside for over four hours. Many, many others are writing and e-mailing. It will take much more work, of course, but that felt like something. I wanted to be sure to tell all the parents that their efforts matter. They see the letters and the calls and the e-mails. DON’T STOP!! [And if you listen to the video, please ignore that I sound like I’m on speed.]
Shortly after the Governor left, Kevin Barry gestured to a group of people and said, “There’s Claudine.” As exciting as our evening had been, she was bringing real fireworks of her own. Her story will follow shortly.
Special thanks to Adam, Barbara, Cristina, Dawne, Dennis, Gary, Gayle, Hilary, Jen, Kevin, Lisa, Patrick, Peggy, Terry, my husband Ron and all supportive parents. I received dozens of e-mails with photos, slideshows, video and stories, notes expressing gratitude, not just for this experience of real community but for the opportunity to share it with their children. Because it’s never too early to begin training our next generation of activists!
Claudine’s Story – “Inside”: To follow shortly.
Louise Kuo Habakus is the mom of two young boys. She is a board-certified health practitioner and lectures on vaccine safety and parent choices. Louise is a former senior corporate executive. Click HERE for information on future events.