Fact Check

State of the Union Guest Rebekah Erler Was a Plant?

Rumor: State of the Union address guest Rebekah Erler has been revealed as a 'Democratic operative.'

Published Jan 22, 2015

Claim:   After the 2015 State of the Union address, Obama family guest Rebekah Erler was revealed to be a Democratic operative.


TRUE:   Rebekah Erler listed previous work as a staffer on the campaign of Democratic Senator Patty Murray.
FALSE:   Erler is a planted "Democratic operative" whose background was uncovered after the State of the Union address in January 2015.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, January 2015]

Rebekah Erler was a Democratic campaign staffer? Was she a plant in the SOTU speech?


Origins: On 20 January 2015, as President Barack Obama touched on a number of current issues in the annual State of the Union address, among his talking points was the economy and its effects on average Americans. President Obama referenced a 36-year-old woman in attendance named Rebekah Erler, whom he described as an American parent struggling to make ends meet after the economic downturn adversely affected her husband Ben's construction business.

Erler was mentioned early on in President Obama's address, as he broached the issue of the economy:

Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds. She waited tables. He worked construction. Their first child, Jack, was on the way.

They were young and in love in America, and it doesn't get much better than that.

"If only we had known," Rebekah wrote to me last spring, "what was about to happen to the housing and construction market."

As the crisis worsened, Ben's business dried up, so he took what jobs he could find, even if they kept him on the road for long stretches of time. Rebekah took out student loans, enrolled in community college, and retrained for a new career. They sacrificed for each other. And slowly, it paid off. They bought their first home. They had a second son, Henry. Rebekah got a better job, and then a raise. Ben is back in construction — and home for dinner every night.

"It is amazing," Rebekah wrote, "what you can bounce back from when you have to ... we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times."

We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.

America, Rebekah and Ben's story is our story. They represent the millions who have worked hard, and scrimped, and sacrificed, and retooled.

He mentioned Erler again as the speech concluded:

I want our actions to tell every child, in every neighborhood: your life matters, and we are as committed to improving your life chances as we are for our own kids.

I want them to grow up in a country where a young mom like Rebekah can sit down and write a letter to her President with a story to sum up these past six years:

"It is amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to ... we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times."

Erler's appearance at the 2015 State of the Union address was supplemented by a biography published to the White House blog that included background information on why Erler was invited to the address:

Rebekah wrote the President last March to share what her family had been through together — and to detail the rising cost of doing right for her family, from groceries to student loan payments to child care.

Erler was among several middle class Americans with whom President Obama met personally in the summer of 2014 as a response to letters they'd written to him about their lives. In July 2014, a picture of President Obama dining with Erler in Minnesota was published to the White House blog along with details about other citizens whom the President had met during the summer:

Lately, the Bear has been loose a lot, and this week will be no different. The President is hitting the road on a three-day swing to Colorado and Texas, where he will meet with Americans who've written him letters and whose stories — their challenges and successes — resonate with folks from across the country.

The day after the [2014] State of the Union, a woman named Alex received a raise, allowing her to pay rent and afford groceries without worry. Alex's boss was inspired by the President's call and increased her wage right away. Earlier this year, Alex wrote the President to say "thank you."

Tonight, the President will deliver his reply in person when he meets Alex for dinner in Denver. And tomorrow, she'll introduce the President before his remarks in Denver.

Erler was not mentioned by name in the text of that blog post, but she was identified in a caption that accompanied its image: "President Barack Obama has lunch with Rebekah Erler at Matt's Bar in Minneapolis, Minn., June 26, 2014. Erler is a 36-year-old working wife and mother of two pre-school aged boys who had written the President a letter about economic difficulties."

Immediately after President Obama's June 2014 meeting with Erler, Republicans in Minnesota published a press release titled "BUSTED: Obama Walks in Shoes of Former Democrat Campaign Staffer." A Reuters article published on 26 June 2014 included details about Erler's work history culled from her now-unavailable LinkedIn page:

After Obama chatted with Rebekah Erler, 36, over a cheese-filled "Jucy Lucy" hamburger at the dark-paneled Matt's Bar in Minneapolis, he drove to a city park where 350 invited participants were waiting.

Erler, whose LinkedIn profile shows she was once a field organizer for Democratic Senator Patty Murray, wrote to Obama earlier this year to express her frustrations about the economy.

Erler's LinkedIn page is either private or has since been deleted, but the claim Erler is a "Democratic operative" is somewhat misleading. Those identifying her as such refer to her as a former "field staffer" for the campaign of Patty Murray, a Democrat who represents the state of Washington in the U.S. Senate. Field staffers are generally the

lowest ranking workers on the field team of any campaign, and Murray's state campaign has no exceptional link to the Obama administration.

So while Erler may have worked for a time as a low-level campaign staffer for a Senator in Washington state, no evidence has been turned up suggesting her political involvement transcended that experience, that she is a "Democratic operative" or "plant" who furtively carries out tasks to further the agenda of that party, did not in fact come to President Obama's attention because she (like many other people) wrote a letter to him, or the circumstances of her life she described to him in that letter (which he referenced in the State of the Union address) were untruthful.

The one hundred senators in the United States Congress employ hundreds (if not thousands) of people on their campaign staffs at any given time. Erler's prior work on a single Senate candidate's campaign was not a secret after she first met with President Obama in June 2014, and there's no indication her work in that capacity was of note. Nor has any evidence been presented that shows Erler was involved with politics in any paid position after she moved to Minnesota.

Ultimately, Erler was not exposed as a "plant" following the State of the Union address, as her connection to the campaign of Sen. Patty Murray was widely publicized in June 2014. If Erler's authenticity was a concern for the Obama administration, they had six months of warning to put forth a different example but still chose Erler despite significant prior coverage of her work experience as a one-time field staffer.

Last updated:   22 January 2015

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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