Each year, the president invites several guests to attend his State of the Union address, seated alongside the first lady in a viewing box.
The guests are typically ridiculously high achievers, people who have written particularly moving letters to the president, individuals emblematic of a point the president is trying to illustrate, or, ideally, all three.
According to a release from the White House, the special guests sitting with Michelle Obama this year include a Syrian refugee, a Republican mayor from Tennessee who has focused on criminal justice reform, and Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in this year’s Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision.
The White House also announced late last week that one seat will remain empty to "commemorate the lives lost to gun violence," and said that "they need the rest of us to speak for them. To tell their stories. To honor their memory."
Together, these guests are intended to represent the larger themes of President Obama’s speech — both a congratulatory look back at the past seven years and an appeal to continue forward with progressive policy goals. Look out for their names to come up during the president’s speech. Here are their full bios, as provided by the White House.
A vacant seat for the victims of gun violence
Obama’s decision to highlight victims of gun violence at the State of the Union comes on the heels of other gun actions the president took this week. He announced more than 20 executive actions designed to tighten gun sales made without background checks.
Sue Ellen Allen of Scottsdale, Arizona, a former prison inmate who aids fellow released prisoners reintegrate into society
Released from prison in 2009, Allen is the founder of a nonprofit called Gina’s Team that works with women in prisons to prepare them for reentry into society, including with educational and job programs.
Allen wrote a letter to the president thanking him for the launch of a new pilot program that enables incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants. Her inclusion on the list of guests signals the president’s desire to tackle criminal justice reform in his last year in office.
The issue is one of the rare few on which Democrats and Republicans share significant common ground. A package of reform items that would curtail the lengths of many prison sentences has already cleared the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, and advocates of criminal justice reform, including the president, hope some version of that legislation will be one of the few bills to cross the finish line this year.
Gloria Balenski of Schaumburg, Illinois, who benefited from health care reforms in Obamacare
Another letter writer, Balenski was chosen to exemplify the ways in which the president’s economic safeguards, put in place by the Stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, were intended to work. At the beginning of the recession, she lost her job, her husband’s job at an auto plant was in question, and the money she’d saved for her son’s college education had dried up in the stock market.
On top of that, in 2012 her husband suffered a major heart attack and racked up more than $400,000 in medical bills. But thanks to Obamacare, the hospital bills were covered. And due to the president’s actions to stimulate the economy, including an auto bailout, her husband kept his job, and her son purchased a new home.
Jennifer Bragdon of Austin, Texas, a nontraditional community college student
Bragdon, 42, attends a community college in Austin while working full time and raising a family. Because of her time constraints, the college is allowing her to finish her degree one course at a time.
Her setup is an example of just the sort of flexibility in college education the Obama administration has been promoting since the president unveiled a plan to make the first two years of community college free.
Edith Childs of Greenwood, South Carolina, a county council member who believed in Obama from the beginning
Remember the phrase "Fired up! Ready to go!"? That call and response, echoed at so many Obama rallies in 2008, was first coined by Childs, who attended an early gathering for the then-candidate. Her presence in the guest box is targeted at liberals: She’s a reminder of the verve with which they approached Obama’s first election, and a call to keep up that excitement as yet another election approaches.
It’s also probably a simple thank you from the White House to a loyal supporter, which is more accustomed to watching formerly ardent supporters of the president express disappointment or frustration with how his presidency has unfolded.
Cynthia "Cindy" K. Dias of Las Vegas, Nevada, an advocate for homeless veterans
Dias, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, worked as a registered nurse before receiving a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that cost her a job and eventually her home.
She eventually found a place to live at Veteran’s Village, a nonprofit in Las Vegas that works to house homeless veterans, in accordance with a challenge from the first lady to ensure that no veteran is living without a home. In November 2015, Las Vegas announced it had met the challenge of ending veteran homelessness.
Mark Davis of Washington, DC, who created green jobs for low-income people
Davis started a small business called WDC Solar, which hires low-income people to install solar panels on private homes, including in low-income communities. His presence at the speech checks two boxes for the president.
First, Davis is a middle-class small business success story. The Obama administration has been touting its pro-small-business policies, including a bevy of small-business tax breaks, for Obama’s entire time in office.
But Davis also represents the precise private investment in alternative energy sources that the president has long predicted would become the case if a framework like the climate deal in Paris were put in place. Here is an example of one private enterprise that’s investing in, and making a profit from, alternative energy.
Cary Dixon of Huntington, West Virginia, who advocates for a solution to the opioid epidemic
Dixon, the parent of an adult child with a substance use disorder, appeared with the president at a community forum to advocate more comprehensive treatment programs for people with opioid addictions. She appears in the resident’s guest box as a champion of the push to reform the so-called "war on drugs," by shifting away from policing opioid possession toward treating dependence on the drugs as a sickness.
Obama is also hoping that by showcasing citizens like Dixon, he can convince detractors to support curtailing mandatory prison sentences for people who use the drugs.
Lydia Doza, originally from Anchorage, Alaska, who is an advocate for more women in STEM fields
Doza, an engineering undergraduate student who grew up in three native Alaskan tribes, represents more than one hardship overcome. She is a woman studying in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field largely dominated by men. STEM education has long been a centerpiece of the president’s education agenda, and he has made a point to highlight prominent women in science and engineering, including appointing a woman to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The White House found Doza through one of its native community outreach programs; Doza works with native youth to inspire more to pursue STEM fields.
Refaai Hamo of Troy, Michigan, who is a Syrian refugee
Perhaps the most plainly political of Michelle Obama’s guests, Ramo is one of a handful of Syrian refugees to resettle in the United States after Congress sought to block their arrival and more than two dozen governors refused to allow them in their respective states. It is a signal that the president is still committed to bringing in 10,000 additional refugees in the next year, even as immigration and terrorism continue to dominate the presidential campaign.
Lisa Jaster of Houston, Texas, part of the first class of women to graduate from the Army's elite Ranger School
Jaster is one of the president’s guests whose invitation stems plainly from her immense talent. Part of the first Ranger School class to admit women, she became the third woman to graduate, helping break down a gender disparity that has long dogged the military. On the heels of her admission into elite military leadership ranks, the Obama administration opened all combat roles in the military to women.
Mayor Mark Luttrell of Shelby County, Tennessee, which has become a model for rehabilitation of former inmates
Obama has strategically picked guests that demonstrate the bipartisan appeal of criminal justice reform, and Luttrell is yet another example. A Republican mayor from a southern state, Luttrell has nevertheless molded his city into a model for reform: The city’s courts funnel individuals with mental health and substance use issues into treatment programs, and people reentering community are provided resources to reduce the chance they will return to prison.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut, who led the "Second Chance Society" for former nonviolent offenders
The bromance between President Obama and Dan Malloy stretches back far beyond the governor’s invite to the State of the Union. The governor, now in his second term, has pursued many of the president’s liberal policy proposals that are untenable on a national level.
He pushed a package of gun restrictions in the wake of the Newtown shooting that some at the time called the toughest in the nation. In 2014, he became the first governor to sign a law raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, heeding the president’s call. And over his two terms, he has signed some of the most far-reaching criminal justice legislation in the country, including measures to legalize marijuana, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, and divert juveniles from the criminal justice system.
Braeden Mannering of Bear, Delaware, a volunteer with the first lady’s "Let’s Move!" campaign
Inspired by the first lady’s Let’s Move! Campaign to promote exercise and healthy eating, 12-year-old Mannering started a program called Brae’s Brown Bags to deliver healthy food in brown bags to homeless and low-income people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.
Satya Nadella of Bellevue, Washington, CEO of Microsoft and an education advocate
Nadella’s invite is meant to commemorate his company’s commitment to computer science education, which he bolstered through a $75 million commitment in September. But Nadella, who was born in India, also helps illustrate the benefits of a more open immigration policy — one the president pushed hard to reform early in his second term.
Jim Obergefell of Cincinnati, Ohio, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide
The symbolism of Obergefell’s invite is clear: As the named plaintiff in this summer’s Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, Obergefell represents the victor in a generations-long fight that has defined the social justice landscape of the Obama era.
Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole of Seattle, Washington, a community policing advocate
O’Toole has gained national recognition for implementing policies in her department that represent the changing role of police officers as law enforcers to community protectors. She instituted a system of community policing and required that all officers wear body cameras, an effort to boost transparency.
Her work to improve police-community relations is particularly relevant given the recent scrutiny paid to police shootings, and the president’s invite signals that the issue is one he holds dear.
Ryan Reyes, partner of a victim of the shooting in San Bernardino and an advocate for treating Muslims fairly
Reyes’s partner, Larry "Daniel" Kaufman, was one of the 14 victims of the shootings in San Bernardino that sparked national fear and led to widespread suspicion of Muslims and their motives. Since his partner’s death, Reyes has been a vocal advocate against stereotyping all Muslims based on the actions of the shooters, a point the president has repeatedly emphasized.
Ronna Rice of Greeley, Colorado, the owner of a small honey export company
The CEO of a woman-owned, family-run business, Rice is another exemplar of the ability of small businesses to flourish during Obama’s presidency. Rice stands to benefit from Congress’s approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as her company expands to countries in Asia including Japan and South Korea.
Right now, there is a 25.5 percent tariff on honey imported from Japan. Significant opposition to the TPP exists amongst both Republicans and Democrats, and Speaker Paul Ryan has said a vote is unlikely to take place until after the 2016 election.
Cedric Rowland of Chicago, Illinois, an Affordable Care Act navigator tasked with signing people up for health insurance
Rowland is an Affordable Care Act navigator, working on the front lines to implement the president’s signature health care law. Through his work, Rowland and other navigators like him help match clients with affordable health plans, achieving a plummeting uninsured rate that the administration frequently touts.
Naveed Shah of Springfield, Virginia, a Pakistani immigrant and US Army veteran
Born in Saudi Arabia, Shah moved to the United States when he was 2 years old and became a naturalized citizen when he was 8. Shah first felt the juxtaposition of his American and Muslim identities after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a feeling he beat back by enlisting in the US Army and serving for four years. His presence in the first lady’s box further highlights the president’s desire to combat souring rhetoric, much of it from Republican presidential candidates, meant to instill fear of Muslims in the American psyche.
Earl Smith of Austin, Texas, a Vietnam War veteran
Smith is the second of the president’s invites stemming from memories of his first campaign. In February 2008, Obama stopped at the Austin Hyatt Regency, where Smith worked as the director of security, to campaign. The two met in an elevator, and Smith offered the then-senator a military patch he had worn as an artilleryman in the Vietnam War, with a brigade that sustained over 10 thousand casualties.
Smith had worn the patch since leaving the Army, more than 40 years earlier, but parted with it as a gift to Obama. According to the White House, the patch will be archived at Obama’s presidential library in Chicago.
Spencer Stone of Sacramento, California, staff sergeant in the US Army who helped stop a terrorist attack on a train in Europe
Stone was on a Paris-bound train with two friends during a European vacation when a gunman opened fire on their train car. Stone, along with his two friends and a British passenger, subdued the gunman, preventing a potentially catastrophic attack. During the struggle, the gunman slashed Stone several times with a box cutter, nearly severing his finger.
Stone’s heroism earned him a trip to the White House earlier this year and now a seat in the first lady’s guest box at the State of the Union.
Oscar Vazquez of Fort Worth, Texas, a DREAMer and US Army veteran
Vazquez moved to the United States with his family when he was 12, and immediately showed promise in school as a STEM student, once beating an MIT team in a robotics competition. He attended Arizona State University and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering.
But without authorization to stay in the US, Vazquez was forced to return to Mexico until he was granted a green card to return – a process accelerated by the US Senate, who heard his story. Upon returning, Vazquez enlisted in the Army and became a full US citizen.
In June 2012, Obama announced an executive action known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allows people such as Vazquez, who arrived as undocumented children, to stay in the United States without the threat of deportation. The president has received much partisan blowback for his unilateral action, and his selection of Vazquez is intended to show that DREAMers, whom many politicians would want to deport, feel just as American as children born in the country.