by Larry Patrick
PUEBLO— I was in the middle of an intense game of Scrabble in a motel room just off I-25 in Loveland on Saturday night Aug. 4th. My wife, Terri, and two stepsons had traveled with me for a surprise birthday party for my daughter. Around 9:30 p.m. my cell phone rang. It was David Gnaizda, head of the Democratic Party of Huerfano County. David had never called me before and had been frantically calling people to get my cell phone number. He told me the Colorado Press Secretary for Obama was trying to reach me. I asked him why and he said the President was coming to Colorado and Gnaizda thought maybe he wanted to make a stop in Walsenburg.
Gnaizda gave me the phone number and I called right away. A lady named Kim answered, thanked me for calling, and asked if I would be willing to sit down with the President of the United States? “Of course I would,” I answered. She then asked for my birthdate, social security number, address, etc. I must have sounded a bit hesitant because she said you can e-mail me the information if you prefer. I said I would do so.
I then called David Gnaizda back to make sure he knew this was on the up and up. He said it was, so I called Kim back and gave her my vitals hoping all along that the little money I had in my bank account would still be there the next day. She said she would be in touch when she had more information.
The Scrabble game resumed and I won, just in case you were wondering. Sunday we were all going out to lunch. The phone rang and it was Kim addressing me as Mr. Mayor and saying the President was going to be in Pueblo, probably on Thursday. She wondered whether I had any questions I would like to ask. I gave her a couple off the top of my head and she said she would be in touch.
I heard nothing on Monday. On Tuesday my phone rang and Kim said the day was definitely on Thursday and because of time constraints, I would have to pick just one question.
She said she would call Wednesday with all the final details. Late Wednesday she called and said I would be meeting the President Thursday morning at 11:30 when I and two other reporters, could ask our questions. I then asked, if I was meeting the President as Mayor of Walsenburg or as a reporter for the Huerfano World Journal? She apologized for the confusion and said I would be there as a reporter. Information had been sent to my e-mail about where to get media credentials set up to meet President Barack Obama.
I got my small tape recorder ready; then I made sure the camera had fresh batteries, the car was gassed up and I was ready to leave by 8 a.m. to be there by the deadline at the Colorado State Fairgrounds.
I arrived at the fairgrounds in plenty of time, got my credentials and settled in at the media pit where all the TV stations, radio and newspaper reporters were claiming their spots. As many of the 3,500 people were arriving, I saw several people who were from Huerfano County.
The democratic gathering cheered loudly as the President made his way to the podium. I began taking many pictures, as did everyone in the crowd. Halfway through his speech, I was whisked away upstairs to a small room to meet the President.
Candi Hill, publisher for the La Junta Tribune-Democrat and Lance Maggart of the Lamar Ledger joined me. We learned that we were the only three reporters the President was meeting with and none of us knew for sure why we were selected.
A White House worker set up sound, security came in and other White House staffers sat on chairs around the perimeter of the room. After about 20 minutes, we were told the President was on his way up. He arrived, and we stood and shook hands and addressed him as Mr. President. He gave some opening remarks about how his administration has tried to focus on rural communities by setting up a rural council to study rural infrastructure needs. However, he noted the gridlock in Congress hasn’t allowed him to do all that he had wanted in his first term.
The President was proud of his administration’s efforts on farming and ranching especially in the area of exports to other nations. He noted the drought has had an impact this year and all but two counties in Colorado had been declared disaster areas. Obama said it was important to get a good farm bill out of Congress to help the farmers and ranchers of our nation.
The President then asked for our questions. When it was my turn, I started off by saying I was also the Mayor of Walsenburg and was interested in more information on his rural council to benefit infrastructure in small communities. The President leaned back and smiled as he said to me, “Someone told me you were a reporter and a mayor, too. How does that work? Did your newspaper make an endorsement of you?”
They were meant as rhetorical questions so I laughed and went on with my question. The President grew serious and gave the three of us plenty of eye contact as he answered. He said he hoped he would have better cooperation in his second term. He said we need to rebuild America and both parties need to work together for the people. He felt it was important to get his rural council moving forward to help people in small towns across America.
After answering my question he smiled broadly and said, “How about a picture?” I stood to the right of the President and we all smiled for the White House photographer as he snapped the picture. No personal pictures are allowed under these circumstances. The photo with the President will be sent to us.
President Obama turned and shook hands with Lance, Candi and me and then said how much he loved my American flag tie and how appropriate it was for the occasion. He expressed his appreciation for our meeting and with security at his side, disappeared down the stairs.
As I noted on my Larry Patrick Mayor of Walsenburg Facebook page, I consider it an honor to meet a sitting President. Some people get hung up on political parties and labels and make their arguments known. Yet most, if asked to have an audience with the President, would jump at it no matter their political persuasion. I was there as a reporter not because I was mayor or of some party affiliation. I have met governors, congressmen and candidates for president as well as some celebrities over my 40 years of reporting. It was my first chance to interview a sitting U.S. President. It was a very positive experience and a highlight of a very rewarding career in both broadcasting and newspaper work.
The only disappointment I had was upon learning the pictures taken in the meeting cannot be published. If you will give me a couple of weeks to receive the photo from the White House and you really are curious to see it, I’ll probably have it close by to show you.
Gary M. Vezzani was elected Walsenburg’s mayor in Tuesday’s special mayoral election/recall vote. Preliminary results announced Tuesday night show that both Nick Vigil in Ward