Velma Hart: Friends On Her

Who is Velma Hart, the woman who gained national attention for telling Obama he "exhausted" her? Benjamin Sarlin talks to friends and colleagues about what she wants from the president.

09.21.10 6:56 PM ET

Velma Hart’s phone is ringing off the hook. A day after the chief financial officer for the veterans’ nonprofit AMVETS had a star turn as the voice of middle-class frustration at President Obama at a town hall forum, Hart is a certified political superstar. In an email Hart, who famously told the president she was “exhausted of defending you,” told the Daily Beast that her schedule was suddenly “insane.”

Hers was a swift ride into the stratosphere. "I'm one of your middle-class Americans," Hart told Obama, at the forum, sponsored by CNBC. "And quite frankly, I'm exhausted. Exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now. I've been told that I voted for a man who was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people, sir, and I'm waiting. And I don't feel it yet."

"I can't conceive of her saying anything relating to her own personal situation. I think she was speaking as an American about America," Cox said.

A day later, she was on the front page of the New York Post, being lionized by Time magazine as “ Velma the CFO”—and drawing comparisons to Joe the Plumber.

Obama’s Velma Hart ProblemHart sought to dispel any suggestion that she might be a GOP plant, telling reporters afterwards that her criticism was meant to be constructive; she “100%” supported Obama, she said. Nonetheless she made clear she wasn't satisfied with the president’s answer and said she feared that the cost of putting her daughter through college paired with declining home values threatened her family's financial standing. "You can have all the hope in the world, but it has to be backed by action. It's been a long time since I had to make decisions about grocery purchases," Hart told the Post.

So who is this overnight sensation, and how did she come by her view?

John Cox, a longtime friend, said that Hart's attitude is not new; her question fit right in line with their own conversations about the president.

"I understood it completely and broke out laughing when I heard [her question] because I knew exactly what she was saying," Cox said. The two had talked together about how "we care for [Obama], we want him to succeed, we voted for him, but we're running out of patience."

Cox says Hart is not particularly ideological; other than her support for Obama, he says, he has no idea who she’s voted for. But her tone was vintage Velma, he adds.

"Her candor with him is very much in keeping with who she is," he said. "She's a very honest person and she would not pull punches, she would say what she feels, and I think that is what endears her to so many people."

Hart has a significant profile in the nonprofit world. In addition to her position with AMVETS, she's secretary at the Alliance for Nonprofit Management. She also recently served a term as chair of the 22,000-member American Society of Association Executives, an organization that aids trade associations, philanthropic foundations, and nonprofits.

"It's a big deal," says Bruce Butterfield, president of the Forbes Group and a fellow at ASAE. "[ASAE] is the biggest professional organization in the association sector in the world and it takes time to get to the top."

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John Graham, the president of ASAE, said he shot Hart an e-mail congratulating her on that "heartfelt" moment with Obama after the town hall.

"She's a very genuine, authentic person and what you see is what you get," he said. "I think that's what people saw, it was very much Velma Hart."

Both Graham and Cox said they were surprised to hear reports from the Post indicating that Hart was under financial pressure. Both suggested that her comments to Obama about returning to the "hot dogs-and-beans" time of her life were more likely about the broader middle class.

"I can't conceive of her saying anything relating to her own personal situation. I think she was speaking as an American about America," Cox said. "It would be totally out of character to make a personal reference."

Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for