Saturday August 4, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- In a rousing campaign speech before a pumped-up capacity crowd of 780 at the Colonial Theatre on Friday afternoon, first lady Michelle Obama exhorted the audience to spread the word about her husband's record in office and to recruit "just one" new supporter for a Nov. 6 election she predicted would turn on "just a few thousand votes."

In a 30-minute, largely off-the-cuff speech interrupted more than 50 times by applause, cheers and whoops, Mrs. Obama reminded listeners that, among many other priorities, "this election is also about keeping our country safe." She saluted "our heroic men and women who have served, sacrificed and given their lives" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ticketholders wait to enter the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield on Friday for first lady Michelle Obama’s fundraiser. In a roughly 30-minute speech,
Ticketholders wait to enter the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield on Friday for first lady Michelle Obama’s fundraiser. In a roughly 30-minute speech, Obama exhorted the crowd to recruit voters for the Nov. 6 election and praised the military for keeping the country safe. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

"After 10 long, hard years Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to this country," she declared, urging supporters to spread the word that "Barack kept his promise and brought our troops home from Iraq and he's working hard to get them the support they've earned. Today our troops no longer have to lie about who they are after serving the country they love."

Outside the theater, there were about 100 people who did not have tickets, but who were just excited to -- possibly -- get a glance of the first lady.

"It's a unique opportunity to see a piece of history," said Evelyn Barstow of Cheshire. "It's an exciting day."

"I'm just here to see if I can get a glimpse of the first lady, and maybe a picture," said Ann Kunce of Pittsfield. "I'm excited to have the first lady of the United States in Pittsfield. I think it's a great honor for the city."

A number of onlookers fondly remembered the last time a first lady visited the city, when Hillary Clinton stood in front of the Colonial Theatre and spoke in 1998.

"There was a huge crowd," said Kunce. "It was wonderful."

Then there were folks who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Obama gives her speech at the Colonial in front of 780 ticketholders.
Obama gives her speech at the Colonial in front of 780 ticketholders. (Timothy Farkas / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
Sarah Hlavachek, her husband, John, and their two children were visiting the Berkshires from Holden, in central Massachusetts.

"We just walked out of the Berkshire Museum," said Sarah Hlavachek.

When they discovered the first lady was going to visit the theater, they decided to stick around in hopes of getting a glimpse.

"Not too often you have a chance to see the first lady," said Hlavachek.

Glimpses of the first lady outside were ultimately hard to come by. Mrs. Obama, under tight security, was whisked into and out of the Colonial.

Emphasizes president's vision

Inside, the first lady emphasized the president's support for women's choices in health care, as well as equal pay for equal work.

"We're here because of the values we believe in," she said. "The vision for this country that we all share, that everyone in this country should have a fair shot."

The first lady hit on the populist theme of supporting the middle class.

"We believe teachers and firefighters shouldn't pay higher tax rates than millionaires," she said to prolonged cheers and whoops. "After a lifetime of hard work, you should be able to retire with dignity and security ... these are basic American values that many of us were raised with, including myself.

"When people ask you what this preaident has done for our country, I want you to tell them how many jobs he's created, tell them how much money he's put back into the pockets of the American people," she urged the crowd.

Pittsfield Police Officer Chris Whitney wipes sweat from his brow as guests line up at the theater.
Pittsfield Police Officer Chris Whitney wipes sweat from his brow as guests line up at the theater. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

Mrs. Obama credited her husband with having created more than 4.5 million private-sector jobs, cutting personal taxes by $3,600 on average, and reducing taxes on small businesses 18 times.

"Remind folks how Barack passed historic health reform and stood up for our most basic fundamental rights again and again and again," she declared.

"But all of this is at stake this November," she warned. "It's all on the line, and that's the choice we face."

"Are we going to watch and let everything we've fought for just slip away?" she demanded. "Who are we? What are we going to do? We can't turn back now, we need to keep moving this country forward."

Taylor serenades crowd

Her high-energy speech, passionately delivered with many off-the-cuff personal references, followed a one-hour performance by James Taylor and his group of singers and musicians. Mrs. Obama thanked Gov. Deval Patrick, U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, and Mayor Daniel Bianchi for being on hand.

She also described James as "one of our biggest supporters, one of our dearest friends. He's a wonderful gifted man with a sweet soul."

Sharing her personal experiences as first lady, Mrs. Obama said, I've seen what it's like to be president, up close and personal. There's no margin for error. You get all kinds of advice from all sorts of people, but at the end of the day, what I've learned is that when it comes time to make that decision, as president all you have to guide you in the end are your life experiences, your values, your vision for this country."

"It all boils down to who you are and what you stand for," she asserted. "And we all know who my husband is, don't we!"

"Barack had the back of American families," Mrs. Obama declared as she listed the benefits of the health-care reform law. "Millions of people can finally see a doctor when they're sick and get the treatment they need, thanks to your president."

"When we need a president to stand up for the middle class, protect our most basic rights, no matter who we are, what we look like or where we're from, or who we love, you know what Barack Obama's going to do, because that's what he's been doing every single day as president," she said.

Grass-roots effort

But on a more somber note, she observed that "he cannot do this alone, this election is going to be even closer than the last one, that's a guarantee. In the end, it could come down to those last few thousand votes. This journey is going to be long, it's going to be hard, with plenty of twists along the way, but that's how change always happens in this country."

"If we keep fighting that good fight," she added, "then eventually we'll get there, because that's what we do in this country, we always move forward."

That led her to exhort the crowd to join a grass-roots effort as volunteers -- "with one new voter you register in your precinct, that one neighbor you get to the polls Nov. 6, that could be the one that makes the difference, that puts this election over the top, the difference between waking up on Nov. 7 and asking, ‘could I have done more,' or feeling the promise of four more years."

Winding up her speech and preparing to depart for a private dinner and discussion at Gov. Deval Patrick's country home in Richmond, she asked the crowd: "Are you in? I mean, are you really in? Passionately and actively engaged in this election, are you that kind of in?"

As the crowd roared back affirmatively, Mrs. Obama declared: "If you haven't noticed, I'm pretty fired up, so I'm going to be doing my part."

Eagle Staff writer Derek Gentile contributed to this story.