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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 13, 2007

Obama's half-sister jumps into flurry of campaigning

By Brian Charlton
Associated Press

Maya Soetoro-Ng of Honolulu, half-sister of presidential candidate Barack Obama, along with her husband, Konrad Ng, and their daughter, Suhaila, 2, meet with supporters of her brother in Honolulu.

LUCY PEMONI | Associated Press

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Instead of pushing presidential candidate Barack Obama's politics, his half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng decided to share memories of their mother as Hawai'i supporters met yesterday to organize a state campaign.

Debuting as an enthusiastic public campaigner for her older brother, Soetoro-Ng read a letter from the candidate for the Democratic nomination and described him as never mean to her, but sometimes "bossy" as they grew up in Honolulu.

Soetoro-Ng said their mother, Ann Dunham, had such a large impact on Obama, especially with her community organizing in Africa and Asia and her large spirit.

"She was an immense woman," Soetoro-Ng, 36, said of Dunham, who died in 1995. "She embraced everybody. There was so much good in her that there wasn't any room for smallness or meanness or violence."

She retold memories to more than 100 Obama supporters who met on Mother's Day eve at Kawananakoa Middle School to come up with strategies to campaign for his presidential bid in the state of Obama's birth.

Nearly nine months before Hawai'i's Feb. 19 Democratic caucus, the organizers plan to target the state's registered Democrats and sign up new members by organizing in different neighborhoods, said Andy Winer, who is helping run the Hawai'i campaign.

Soetoro-Ng, who was joined by her husband Konrad Ng and their 2-year-old daughter, Suhaila, said they planned to be active in the Islands and would campaign on the Mainland if needed. She said Obama's grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, 84, who also lives in Honolulu, is also supportive but can't be as active due to her health.

Obama's roots in Hawai'i have gained him local support. The Democratic senator from Illinois was born in Honolulu 45 years ago and lived here for the better part of 18 years. He spent four childhood years in Indonesia.

After Obama's mother divorced Barack Obama Sr., a Kenyan economist who died in 1982, she married Lolo Soetoro and had Maya in Indonesia. They moved to Honolulu where Obama was being looked after by his grandparents.

Soetoro-Ng said she lived with Obama in Honolulu from 1973-1976. After he moved in with their grandparents, she often visited with him until he graduated from Punahou School in 1979 and moved to the Mainland.

Although they're nine years apart in age, Soetoro-Ng said they share the same taste in music, literature and philosophy.

"We both love a good story that captures the human experience in all of its complexities," said Soetoro-Ng, who now teaches history at the private La Pietra Hawai'i School for Girls and instructs night classes at the University of Hawai'i.

The two would share picnics or at times go on long walks to talk about their lives. She said Obama helped her recover after her father died in 1987.

"He was instrumental in helping me make good decisions and seeing my strengths and helping me to trust my instincts," she said.

With her brother thrust into the intense national campaign, she said there have been frustrating moments, especially when some news organizations falsely reported Obama attended a madrasa, which teaches Islamic theology and religion, while living in Indonesia.

"It's frustrating," she said. "But I have to trust that there will be counter reporting that's more complex and more thoughtful and truth seeking."

Since moving away, Obama generally has been visiting Hawai'i in the winter to relax, play basketball and golf with old friends and to spend time with his family. In his letter, he said the spirit of Hawai'i has an effect on his politics.

"It often strikes me that Hawaii is a fabulous model for the kind of America I hope this campaign will bring about," Obama wrote in the letter read by his sister, "a place where different cultures can come together in harmony and a place that rises above the barriers that might divide us."