In July 2013, Emily Erin Todebush wrote Garrett Odhiambo Arwa an email pretending they knew each other.
“I said, ‘Hey, you might not remember me, but we worked together on the Obama campaign,’” she said. She hadn’t completely made it up: In August 2012, Ms. Todebush, then a volunteer field organizer for Mr. Obama’s presidential re-election campaign, had been in the same room with Mr. Arwa, then the executive director of the Michigan Democratic Party, at a Royal Oaks, Mich., launch event.
Neither of them recall speaking to the other that day. Ms. Todebush thinks they might have met in passing. But she felt compelled to write him after seeing his photo and email address at the top of the website for the Michigan Democratic Party. She wanted to discuss an issue that had unexpectedly become central to her life: access to affordable health care.
Ms. Todebush, 37, is now the development director at the Committee to Protect Health Care, an advocacy organization. Mr. Arwa, 41, is now interim executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
In her email, Ms. Todebush was hoping to connect with a fellow supporter on what had become a hot-button political issue in Michigan: Medicaid expansion. Months earlier, she had started feeling numbness and pain behind her right eye. In February 2013, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “I was 27,” she said. “It was pretty devastating.”
She wasn’t receiving Medicaid. But “I felt that someday I might have to,” she said. “I wanted to advocate for those who needed it.”
At the time, lawmakers in Michigan were considering a bill to expand Medicaid. Mr. Arwa, who knew stories like Ms. Todebush’s helped to humanize those who rely on the benefit, was grateful she reached out.
In his response, he played along about them being acquaintances. “He said, ‘It’s so good to hear from you,’” Ms. Todebush said. “Then he said, ‘I think there’s something we can do with this.’”
Ms. Todebush grew up in Birmingham, Mich., with an older sister and three younger siblings; two are brothers and one is nonbinary. Her parents, Susan and Thomas Todebush, divorced when she was in fifth grade. Susan Todebush is the executive vice president and general manager at the Michigan Design Center. Thomas Todebush is the senior program manager at Webasto Americas, an automotive supply company. A decade before she graduated from Wayne State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2010, Ms. Todebush had already started expressing political views. In middle school, “I was incensed about the crisis in Kosovo,” she said. “My friends were like, ‘Where is Kosovo?’”
Mr. Arwa and his two younger sisters grew up in Dover, N.H. His parents met through a Peace Corps project in Kenya. His American mother, Cheryl Arwa, had joined as a nurse. His father, James Arwa, a member of the Luo tribe who was born and raised in Tanzania, worked as a translator.
In 1980, the couple moved to the U.S. His mother is a nurse at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover. His father, a microbiologist, is on long-term disability after a stroke in 2004. Mr. Arwa graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism in 2003, then earned a master’s degree in international relations from the University of New Hampshire in 2008.
Weeks after Ms. Todebush’s email landed in his inbox, Michigan State Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer, now Michigan’s governor, read Ms. Todebush’s email aloud at a Medicaid expansion debate. “She said, ‘A lot of people, like Emily Todebush, are really counting on this,’” Mr. Arwa said. “That was wild,” said Ms. Todebush, whose M.S. is relapsing-remitting, which allows for periods of complete or partial recovery between neurological attacks.
The bill didn’t pass. But Mr. Arwa’s compassion for her condition and admiration for her advocacy were on his mind when the two met in person months later, in January 2014. After Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State address at the capitol, both attended a Democratic after-party at Tavern on the Square in Lansing. When Ms. Todebush mentioned Mr. Arwa, a friend of his overheard and made the introduction.
“Garrett thanked me for being brave, and then he said, ‘Next time you’re in Lansing, let me know,’” Ms. Todebush said. “It was kind of a throwaway comment.” But when she scheduled a meeting there a few weeks later, she emailed him to ask if he could meet for lunch.
That lunch in March, also at Tavern on the Square, lasted three hours. “We talked about everything,” Mr. Arwa said. “When I got back to the office, my co-workers were looking at me with sly grins like, that must have been some lunch.’”
Later that evening, they met for drinks at Renshaw Lounge in Clawson. Before they said good night, they kissed in the parking lot.
In April, she was Mr. Arwa’s guest at a formal dinner where Bill Clinton was speaking; he risked a run-in with the Secret Service to introduce her to the former president. By the end of the year, she had moved into his Lansing apartment.
Neither had given much thought to a commitment beyond state borders when Mr. Arwa was offered a job as director of engagement for NextGen Climate, a San Francisco political action committee, in August 2015. “We hadn’t talked about, ‘What are we doing here? What is this going to be?’” he said. But when he asked Ms. Todebush how she felt about San Francisco, she mobilized. “We packed up our life and our dog and moved across the country,” she said.
Ms. Todebush’s political involvement, all volunteer until then, became her paid job in San Francisco, where she worked as a digital strategist for Clarify Agency, an advertising and fund-raising company. In Michigan, she had supported herself and paid for her M.S. treatments through marketing positions at companies including IGA, a retail design firm.
But the job at Clarify was short-lived. One year after they moved to San Francisco, Mr. Arwa was asked to relocate to Washington, D.C., to become the national political director at For Our Future, a new super political action committee. Before he accepted, he said he needed to talk it over with his girlfriend.
Her response surprised him. “She said, ‘I didn’t know D.C. was an option,’” he said. Ms. Todebush had wanted to live in Washington since she started watching “The West Wing” as a child. There was also a presidential election both liked the idea of proximity to: “We were very excited about Hillary, thinking we were going to win,” Ms. Todebush said.
Donald Trump’s victory wasn’t the only headwind they faced during their first four years in Washington. In 2018, Ms. Todebush had an M.S. relapse. In February 2019, the same year Mr. Arwa changed jobs to work with the National Redistricting Committee, she started a course of chemotherapy that her doctors wanted to repeat the following year as an M.S. treatment.
The 2020 treatment coincided with the start of the pandemic. “I had no immune system,” she said. “So I pretty much shut the door to our apartment and didn’t leave.”
For Mr. Arwa, who was ready to propose, that made engagement ring shopping difficult. When the world abruptly shut down, “I decided, if we can make it through Covid, we can make it through anything,” he said. Ms. Todebush had been hinting that she wanted to get married since San Francisco. But he struggled to leave the apartment without telling her where he was going. So he used his daily runs to cover his tracks.
“I would usually run an hour or more,” he said. But in the summer of 2020, “I’d run maybe a quarter mile, then take an Uber to a jeweler.” Before he came home, he would dump water on himself to make it look like he was sweating.
On Dec. 20, 2020, both masked up for a date to visit the National Christmas Tree, near the White House. When Mr. Arwa spotted the engagement photographer he had hired, he asked Ms. Todebush to take her mask off. But “I was like, ‘I’m not taking my mask off for anything,’” she said. Only when Mr. Arwa said the words “Will you marry me?” did she agree to. “I was so shocked,” she said. “I was crying, crying, crying. It was the best day.”
Ms. Todebush and Mr. Arwa were married Nov. 19 at the Detroit Opera House. Sam Singh, a Michigan state senator-elect, friend and Universal Life Church minister, officiated a traditional ceremony before 125 vaccinated guests.
Besides Mr. Singh, only one other current elected official, Representative Haley Stevens, Democrat of Michigan, a close friend of the bride, attended. That was intentional. “We wanted it to be a friends and family atmosphere,” Mr. Arwa said.
The lack of political posturing in the room was in keeping with the intimacy guests got a glimpse of at the altar. The maid of honor Sarah Todebush, Ms. Todebush’s sister, stood behind her sister when they said their “I do’s.”
“I saw so much emotion and love on Garrett’s face in that moment,” she said. “It was the most beautiful thing.”
On This Day
When Nov. 19, 2022
Where The Detroit Opera House, Detroit, Mich.
Washingtonians Mr. Arwa started working with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in 2019 and became interim executive director in July. Ms. Todebush started her current position with the Committee to Protect Health Care in April. In 2021, the couple moved from Washington to Cheverly, Md.
Feeling the Love At a reception also held at the Detroit Opera House, the couple danced to Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love,” written by Bob Dylan. Both artists are among their favorites. To prepare for their dance floor moment, they took rumba lessons at an Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Silver Spring, Md. The training paid off. “We nailed it,” Ms. Todebush said.
Combo Speeches After a dinner of beef tenderloin and pecan-crusted salmon, guests settled in for wedding speeches. Politics crept into some. “They did lean political in that they detailed our commitment to service,” Mr. Arwa said. The ceremony included readings from the Supreme Court decisions Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges.