Ever since President Obama held them up as a model of American strength and perseverance, Rebekah and Ben Erler have felt a predictable backlash.
A Google news search for “Rebekah Erler” on Friday yielded about 9,000 results, many of them pointing out Erler’s work for a Democratic senator more than a decade ago.
Talk radio giant Rush Limbaugh called Erler a “Democratic campaign operative,” and a “fake.” On Thursday, she scrolled through dozens of Facebook and Twitter messages from strangers repeating those charges, telling her she should be ashamed of herself.
“Between the two of us looking at our phones, all we’re seeing is that she’s a political operative and a person that is not real, as if our life is somehow made up just to participate in this thing,” Ben Erler said on Thursday night, not long after the family returned from Washington and what Ben called a “once in a multiple generation” visit to the White House.
Obama spotlighted the couple in his State of the Union address as a typical American family, struggling in a difficult economy and just starting to find their footing. Ben, who drives a 1999 Ford F-150 pickup, just celebrated one year back in the construction business and Rebekah works as an accountant. They live in a one-story house in St. Anthony with sons Jack, 5, and Henry, 3.
Yes, Erler said in an interview with the Star Tribune. Just after she graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in political science, she knocked on doors for Washington Democrat Patty Murray’s Senate campaign. But she said that was a long time ago, and Sen. Murray likely couldn’t pick her out in a lineup.
“I was, like, basically a paid intern for five months, 11 years ago,” Erler said. “The idea that I was some sort of political operative is like calling the mail sorter at Microsoft a chief strategic officer. I mean it’s ridiculous.”
A lot has happened in those 11 years. The Erlers met in San Francisco, moved to Seattle, married in 2008 and then came to Ben’s native Minnesota in desperation after the economy soured. They still flinch every time they write a check for child care, which is what prompted Erler to write a letter to Obama in March 2014.
“Everyone that we are surrounded by is blue collar, dealing with the exact same thing,” she said.
The driving theme of Obama’s speech was a quote from that letter. The Erlers were the speech’s key anecdote, and he brought up the cost of child care as an economic issue.
Rebekah Erler watched from the gallery, sitting between Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, while Ben and their sons Jack and Henry watched from a screening room at the White House.
“America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story,” Obama told the joint session of Congress. “They represent the millions who have worked hard, and scrimped, and sacrificed, and retooled.”
Lunch in San Francisco
In the summer of 2006 Rebekah lived in San Francisco, where she worked an office support job. Ben Erler, a carpenter from Minnesota, was visiting town for a conference on concrete countertops. They happened to eat at the same lunch counter one day.
“I sat at the one open seat in the restaurant and he was sitting there,” Rebekah Erler said.
Six months later, Ben moved to San Francisco.
Once the economy started to cool, they moved to Seattle. They married and lived there three years, but it was always a struggle. Ben tried to start a construction business, but it collapsed and he ended up working for a starting carpenter’s wage while his wife, seven months pregnant with their first child, waited tables. It was a low point, he said.
They decided to move to Minnesota. She took care of Jack and started working on a two-year accounting degree. Ben finally gave up on construction and beat out 400 other applicants — many of them also exiles from the building trades — for a job as a train conductor with Canadian Pacific. He got up at 3 a.m., worked 14-hour days and sometimes was away for three days at a time.
But he was grateful for the job. “He did what he needed to do to take care of us,” Rebekah Erler said. “He just worked and worked and worked and worked to keep us afloat.”
By early 2014, Rebekah completed her degree and started work as an accountant. Ben was back doing construction. And yet the cost of child care was canceling out the second income.
She kept hearing that the economy was improving, but it didn’t seem real to her. So she wrote a letter to the president, explaining the cost of child care and the challenges middle-class families face.
“It was more cathartic than anything,” she said. “I sat down to write the letter, I felt better, I put it in the mail. I said what I wanted to say.”
She expected a form letter, if anything, in response.
Several weeks later, she got an e-mail from the White House asking if she had time to talk in late June. It all happened very quickly, but she ended up meeting the president at Matt’s Bar for a Jucy Lucy and introducing him at a campaign event at Lake Harriet.
Just before Christmas, the White House contacted her again to see if she’d be willing to participate in the State of the Union. The couple thought it over, considered the likelihood that they would be criticized, and decided to go ahead.
“We knew,” she said. “We had a microcosm of that in June, and so it was like, are we going to turn it down? At the end of the day we looked at each other, and the president of the United States is asking us to do something. Who are we to say no?”
It wasn’t until a few hours before the event, when the family met Obama in the Oval Office, that she found out how prominently the family would figure in the speech.
The driving theme was Erler’s quote about her family being tight-knit and resilient. “It is amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to,” she wrote. “We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.”
Obama repeated it several times, and closed the speech with that quote, applying the Erler family’s story to the story of the American people.
“I’m not a crier. I teared up,” said Ben Erler. “I was sitting in the White House movie room, the president of the United States is talking about how close and tight-knit my family is. It was moving.”
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz