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Video: Woman wins ticket to inauguration

By
TODAY contributor
updated 1/7/2009 10:28:36 AM ET 2009-01-07T15:28:36

Cynthia Russell will be raising the roof with Barack Obama — even as the roof caves in on her home construction business.

The homebuilder scored the first of 10 pairs of tickets to President-elect Barack Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration and ball. The prize seats were awarded to Russell by the Presidential Inaugural Committee 2009 for her winning essay in a contest asking Obama’s grassroots supporters what the inauguration means to them.

Russell sent her essay, along with a $20 donation, to the inaugural committee Web site. It told her own personal story, detailing how the downward spiral of the economy hit close to home for her.

Downturn details
Appearing on TODAY Wednesday, Russell told Meredith Vieira and Ann Curry she received an e-mail from the inauguration committee and put her fingers to keyboard in describing the downturn in her construction business.

“The last three or four years it’s been really bad,” Russell said. “I wrote about my struggles as a business owner and a single woman trying to make ends meet.”

In her winning essay, Russell wrote: “I’m a single female who has been building homes for over 18 years. I’ve supported myself and have been able to help out my mother from time to time. Now I find myself trying to sell off my assets just to keep my own bills paid.

“I’m searching the Internet to try and find another type of work that I can do to earn a living. Eighteen years of hard work and dedication is slowly going down the drain. I find myself wondering how much longer I can hold on and be able to pay my bills and keep the doors open for business.

“Barack gives me hope. Hope that 2009 will truly bring change to my business life and to Americans who find themselves in this mess with me. His inauguration can’t come soon enough.”

Russell told Vieira and Curry she’s excited not just about being on hand to witness history in D.C. as a result of her all-expenses-paid trip to the inauguration, but by what she believes it will mean to the country.

“January 20, we’re going to start having some changes,” she said.

Until the housing crisis hit hard in America, the plucky Gainesville, Fla., woman had become an unusual success story in a home construction market typically dominated by men.

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Unlikely success
Russell, 50, founded her own construction company, Emerald Ventures, and became a leading figure in her local housing industry. She’s served on the board of the Builders Association of North Central Florida and acted as the association’s liaison to the Alachua County Building Department. Russell has been featured and profiled in numerous newspapers and magazines through her work in home construction.

Now, Russell fears she may only be able to last another six months before she will be forced to sell off her business — and she hopes Obama’s plans to help rescue the economy will turn the tide. Russell says she’s been an Obama supporter since the beginning of the campaign — though it took a while for her to bring beau Chris Buffington into the fold.

In her essay, Russell said Buffington “was a strong McCain supporter until almost the very end but finally voted for Barack.”

With her winning essay entry, Russell and Buffington snagged much-sought hotel accommodations in Washington to go with tickets to the welcoming ceremony, Obama’s swearing-in, the Inaugural Parade and the inaugural ball.

And while Russell faces a big decision as the big day nears — what to wear to the event — there are still nine more pairs of tickets up for grabs to join the couple in Washington. But the window for entering and writing an essay is fast closing; entries must be submitted by midnight Thursday (click here for details).

Obama’s camp hasn’t revealed how many entries have been received so far, but says the response has been “robust.” It adds that donations to the inaugural committee are encouraged but not required to enter the contest.

For information on how to win a ticket to the presidential inauguration, click here.

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