‘It was like something out of a movie’
Barack Obama can add another accomplishment to his résumé: playing matchmaker for Ashley Baia and Susana Raquel Berger, albeit indirectly.
The couple met in March 2012 while working on the former president’s reelection campaign in Virginia. Both of them had also worked on the Obama 2008 campaign, but it wasn’t until an allstaff event in Williamsburg that their paths crossed.
Ashley, a former White House staffer and field director in Richmond, noticed her close friend Brian Gill waving to Susana on the final day of their retreat and told him she thought Susana was cute.
Minutes later, when Brian walked up to chat, Susana confided that she had a crush on the boss, who happened to be Ashley.
“I’d love to tell you that I carefully hatched the plan to get them together,” says Brian, “but truth be told, I was merely a facilitator.”
“There was something for us at first sight that just clicked,” says Susana, 30, a research analyst at the Service Employees International Union.
Seeing an opportunity, Brian arranged for Ashley to stay at Susana’s brother’s house on Capitol Hill, where Susana was living, during campaign events in Washington.
After work, they bonded easily and quickly over politics and board games, and chatted like old friends. There was just one issue: Ashley was technically Susana’s supervisor, even though she didn’t report to her directly and they lived in different towns.
So they approached a possible romance with caution. They also recognized the often short-lived nature of campaign-trail relationships.
But, as time went on, they found it increasingly difficult to hide their attraction, and one night in late April, after a competitive game of Settlers of Catan, they shared a kiss.
They managed to keep their long-distance relationship secret for the remainder of the campaign. “We’d like to think we were pretty sly about it, but some people definitely caught on,” Susana says.
In early July, during a rare two-day break from the campaign, they stayed at a bed-andbreakfast in Fredericksburg, Va., the halfway point between their two cities, and grew closer.
“For the first time, we didn’t have to hide our relationship and were able to act like a real couple,” says Susana. “It was perfect.”
It wasn’t long before they exchanged “I love yous,” and after Obama’s victory in November, they moved in together.
“We went from living separately in different cities to living together,” Susana says. “We may have skipped a step or two, but it allowed us to figure out the next phase of our relationship.”
After Obama’s second inauguration, they began planning for the future.
“There’s a feeling when you come off a campaign, especially a presidential one, of grief,” Susana says. “It’s this huge part of your life that you’ve been dedicated to for so long — 18 hours a day, seven days a week — and then, suddenly, it’s all over. You’re (a) exhausted but also (b) figuring out what your life is about now.”
Craving a new adventure, they packed their belongings into Ashley’s Mini Cooper, embarked on a month-long, cross-country road trip and moved to Oakland, Calif., in July 2013.
The trip solidified Ashley’s feelings for Susana. “I realized then that I could spend a month in this tiny car with this woman and still laugh and have fun every single day,” says Ashley, 32, a vice president of 270 Strategies, a political consulting firm.
After their first year together, Ashley felt so confident and comfortable with their relationship that she began dropping not-sosubtle hints about marriage. But Susana implored her to wait.
“My parents, who I view as having the ideal marriage, had a long courtship … which lasted nearly a decade,” Susana says. Seeing how well it worked out for them, she pictured spending at least three or four years with her partner before entering into a marriage.
So the discussion was tabled. But in October 2013, life threw them a curveball: Susana’s father, Fred, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“It changed our lives a lot,” Susana says. “We were just starting to build a life together on the West Coast and it was very much cut short.”
With Ashley’s full support, they moved back East, where they faced more challenges: Susana’s uncle died, they moved Ashley’s mother to a new home and helped plan Susana’s sister’s wedding, and they adopted a rescue mutt named Rufus.
“In the first five years of our relationship, we’ve gone through more life changes and challenges than some couples face in 15 years of marriage,” Susana says. “I thought, ‘If we can make it through this, we can make it through anything.’ ”
Ashley’s devotion, both to Susana and her family, cemented Susana’s feelings, and in early 2015, she let Ashley know that she was ready to get engaged.
In April, Susana’s father’s health took a turn for the worse. Knowing his days were limited, Ashley arranged a meeting among the three of them.
Taking his hand at the side of his hospital bed, Ashley asked for his marriage blessing. To their surprise, he became more responsive and pulled Ashley close. “I would be absolutely honored to have you be a part of my family,” he said.
Beaming, he asked with humor: “Any idea on the timeline?”
Luckily, Ashley came prepared. “How about now?” she asked, and walked over to Susana. Taking a knee, she presented her with a bright blue Ring Pop.
Fred died five days later. “Watching Ashley share that moment with my dad is all I ever wanted,” Susana says. “I just wanted him to know that somebody, somebody who loves me so much, was going to continue to provide for me.”
Two months later, the couple took a 10-day trip to France, arriving in Paris the day the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision legalized same-sex marriage. To celebrate, Ashley sneaked out of the room while Susana was in the shower and bought flowers and champagne. When Susana emerged, she discovered a trail of rose petals, which led to Ashley on bended knee holding a real sapphire ring.
“It was like something out of a movie,” Susana says. Her response was once again cheerful and tearful.
On Feb. 19, 2017, the couple exchanged vows before 122 guests at Susana’s family home on Contadora Island in Panama. The four-day celebration spanned Presidents’ Day weekend.
“The island is the most beautiful place on the planet, but a logistical nightmare,” Ashley says. Everything, from the ice machine to the entertainment, had to be flown into Panama City and ferried over to the island.
But their efforts paid off, and the festivities went off without a hitch. Ashley walked in with Brian, who officiated the ceremony, and waited for her bride-to-be at the altar. Susana walked down the aisle with her mother and carried a bouquet tied with a locket containing a photo of her father.
Reciting her vows, Ashley, misty-eyed, told Susana: “The second I met you, I was done. I knew you were my person.”
Susana mirrored her sentiment. “You are the most incredible person I have met,” she said, “and make me feel safe in a way I never thought possible.”
In a nod to Susana’s Jewish heritage, the brides, wearing traditional floor-length gowns and heirloom gold Panamanian hair combs, stomped a glass in unison at the close of the ceremony. Later, for their first dance, they swayed to the Adele ballad “One and Only.”
A month before the wedding, the couple had flown to Chicago to witness Obama’s farewell address.
“It was wonderful to see all of these couples, some who had kids and others rings, who had met throughout the Obama years,” Ashley says.
“It’s cheesy to say, but he has connected so many people, through friendships and relationships,” Susana adds. “We will always have the fact that he brought us together, and that is beautiful.” Are you getting married in the Washington region? Tell us why we should feature your nuptials here at wapo.st/weddings.
‘We’ve gone through more life changes and challenges than some couples face in 15 years of marriage.’ — Susana Raquel Berger
Susana Raquel Berger, left, and Ashley Baia were married Feb. 19 at Susana’s family home on Contadora Island in Panama. They met in Virginia in 2012 while working on President Obama’s reelection campaign.