October 24, 2012 at 7:37 am
Bear hugging Barack Obama in September landed Fort Pierce pizza shop owner Scott Van Duzer a seat next to the first lady for Monday night’s debate and thrust him center stage Tuesday as he introduced the president at a rousing Delray Beach campaign rally.
Van Duzer, who was hand-picked by Obama’s campaign team to help drum up enthusiasm in the crowd of 11,000, yelled above the cheers that “He wanted to make a difference for folks and he has.”
As flags and arms waved in the crowd, Van Duzer, 43, screamed “It’s our turn to fight for him! The only choice is the right choice … President Barack Obama!”
Van Duzer said he was asked to introduce Obama amid the media whirlwind following the president’s surprise campaign stop last month at Van Duzer’s Big Apple Pizza & Pasta in Fort Pierce.On Tuesday, he spoke about what it was like attending the presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, and how he got on the exclusive guest list.
“Saturday I got a phone call from the White House and they asked if I would come to the debate. I was like ‘let me check my schedule,’” he recalled, laughing. “I said I’d love to.”
He wasn’t told then where he’d be seated.
“Monday we’re on our way to the debate and I got another phone call from the White House and they said ‘just want you to know you’ll be sitting next to the first lady’ and I was like ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’” Van Duzer recalled. “Unbelievable.”
Van Duzer said he was asked by an Obama campaign official to “help out” at Tuesday’s rally by introducing the president.
“He said, ‘Would you be interested in hanging out and doing something with him?’ ” Van Duzer said. “I said ‘Of course,’ and he said, ‘I’ll get back to you.’”
Sunday night he learned he’d be on stage with Obama, and said the campaign staff helped him write his introduction speech.
“They had a speech team from Chicago call and we went back and forth,” he recalled. “They asked a lot of questions about me and my (Van Duzer) Foundation and what we try to achieve. They said, ‘Put something on paper’ and we went back and forth several times.”
In his remarks, Van Duzer said he explained how a bear hug during Obama’s visit at his pizza shop led to his appearance Tuesday on stage.
“We talked about being a small-business owner and getting out and voting. I said I was a registered Republican, and we talked that I didn’t agree that you vote party line,” he said. “In doing what we do in our community, I’ve worked with Democrats and Republicans and I’ve voted for Democrats and Republicans, because I have relationships with those who care within the community.”
Asked how many hugs he gave out Tuesday, Van Duzer laughed, saying “Today was a rough one.
“One lady spotted me from where we were seated before the rally started and it was packed — they said 11,000 people — it was really packed,” he said. “Once that first hug starts, it’s contagious and then all of a sudden it got out of hand. One hundred to 150 hugs, easily.”
Congressman Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, started the hug-fest, Van Duzer said.
“I’d never met him before and he said ‘I know it sounds kind of silly, but would you give me one of those bear hugs?’” he said. “That’s actually what started it.”
Meeting Michelle Obama Monday night, Van Duzer said, was “pretty cool.”
“Once the debate started … she kind of sneaked in real quick and I stood up and she gave me a great big hug and we had a great conversation for about ten or 15 minutes. And it was pretty amazing,” Van Duzer said. “She asked me how I was doing because obviously with the good and bad with everything that’s going on, we’ve had death threats and she said she was so sorry for that and I said ‘in the big picture of things, I can only imagine what they deal with on a regular basis.’
“We really had a heart to heart conversation and she actually teared up a little bit,” he added. “We started talking about our foundation and the work that we do, and it was great; she’s a wonderful, wonderful lady.”
Van Duzer said Michelle Obama surprised him when she said he had much in common with her husband.
“I was thinking yeah, O.K., I’m a pizza man and he’s the president, not too much in common there,” he recalled. “But in heart and in compassion for people, he cares and it comes through.”
Aside from the positive feelings he’s garnered from his association with Obama, Van Duzer said what matters is the exposure his charitable foundation has received. He said the day the now-infamous bear hug photo went viral worldwide, about 1,000 people donated nearly $25,000 to his foundation.
The attention has taken some getting used to.
“It’s a little harder to go to the grocery store without people asking for a hug,” he said. “Everyone says you should charge for the hugs but I can never do that because the experience I had was genuine and a really good feeling, and I don’t want to cheapen that and I want everyone to feel that.
With Election Day looming, Van Duzer said he’s expecting his newfound fame to fade, and he’s O.K. with that.
“I know my 15 minutes is almost up and that’s fine. I love my job and I love where I work and I’m not concerned about that,” he said. “It’s nice to have your voice heard and for good reasons and to try to achieve good things from it … but I’ve had one job my whole life and I’m O.K. walking back into my pizza shop.”
Though, it might not be the last time he and Obama cross paths.
“I said yes, he invited us up to the White House (Tuesday),” Van Duzer said. “It sounds hard to believe but you meet certain people and you have an instant connection and he just happens to be the president.”