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On Tampa visit, sister offers intimate look at Obama

TAMPA — Maya Soetoro-Ng leaves no doubt she's a proud kid sister.

But hers isn't just any brother.

Thursday evening at Mise En Place restaurant, she was on a mission to reveal the softer side of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, to help him woo women voters, especially those who have expressed bitter resentment over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's defeat in the long primary fight.

She says he's a feminist, who bought her the first women's health/sex ed book she ever read, Our Bodies, Ourselves. And he helped her "figure out which boys to discard."

Joined by state Sen. Arthenia Joyner and former state Democratic Party executive director Ana Cruz, both Clinton-turned-Obama supporters, Soetoro-Ng talked to the crowd as if it were composed of her closest girlfriends.

"I'm giving up all his secrets, because I just have to," said Soetoro-Ng, 37, launching into a story that offered a rare glimpse of Obama's interaction with his daughters.

She explained how the Obama family spent the Fourth of July, Obama's daughter Malia's 10th birthday, at a Montana motel. Malia teased him about spending her birthday on the campaign trail. And at one point, Obama started to tear up, because he noticed how his daughter had sprouted up, tall and lean.

"He's not a soft man, but they touch him so," said Soetoro-Ng, who is married and has a 4-year-old daughter.

She is nine years younger than her brother, who came from her mother's first marriage. Soetoro-Ng's father was an Indonesian businessman, and she and Obama spent four years living in Indonesia. However, the marriage didn't last. Both their mother and Soetoro-Ng's father have since died.

She talked about how she struggled with the absence of her own father and learned from watching Obama struggle with a similar absence from his. She said it was important for Obama to visit his father in Kenya and "to dare to love his father in spite of his father's imperfections."

"He came back. Wrote a book. Moved on. No lingering bitterness," Soetoro-Ng said with a hint of jealousy in her deep, rich voice. "He doesn't have issues, my brother."

He taught her how to ride a bike. He encouraged her to exercise. He urged her to work on math problems more appropriate for grades above her. He took her to neighborhoods "I never would have ever gone to otherwise." He helped her get her first job, teaching swimming.

"He helped me to be a better version of myself and to push myself and he really did such a good job of combining high expectations with compassion and support, and I feel like that's what he's doing for the country," she said.

Soetoro-Ng teaches world culture and U.S. history at La Pietra, a high school for girls in Honolulu. She also teaches at the University of Hawaii's College of Education. This is her first visit to Florida. She said its mugginess reminded her of Hawaii.

In an interview before the speech, Soetoro-Ng acknowledged that she was trying to help her brother resolve any perceptions that he has a problem with women.

"I want to invite people who formerly supported Hillary Clinton into the dialogue and reassure them of the fact that Barack is going to be a very strong advocate for women in the years to come," she said. "It's a matter of getting to know him and his policies better. In this case, familiarity will breed love."

This morning in Largo, Soetoro-Ng will meet with Pinellas County teachers.

Most of the women who attended the speech had been Obama supporters even during the primary season. Yet, many said they delighted to hear so many personal stories.

"She has her brother's gift for speaking, and she was great at making Barack seem like regular kind of people," said Linda Norris, 47, of Oldsmar.

Soetoro-Ng told lots of self-deprecating jokes, poking fun at her complex over her older brother's accomplishments, such as winning two Grammy Awards for audio recordings of his books.

"Talk about hard acts to follow. How am I going to win a Grammy?" she asked to a roaring crowd. "Yeah, you sisters think you have it hard."

On Tampa visit, sister offers intimate look at Obama 07/17/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 18, 2008 11:19am]
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