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How Democrats Are Using Guests to Send Messages at the State of the Union

Originally Published in The New York Times

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg

 

WASHINGTON — Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal Democratic upstart from New York, is bringing a sexual assault survivor who cornered a Republican senator in an elevator, demanding to know if he was going to vote to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and a chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is bringing a climate change scientist. Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota and a Somali refugee, is bringing a Liberian refugee who is threatened with deportation. And all will be wearing white.

When President Trump delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday night to Congress — his first under divided government — the left wing of the ascendant House Democrats will have a rare opportunity to confront him. In 2016, Republicans headed for the exits before President Barack Obama had even finished his final address, and one famously shouted, “You lie!” in 2009 when Mr. Obama addressed Congress on health care.

The new Democrats — many of them women, and many of them people of color — are planning to send their own pointed messages to the president with their choices of guests and attire. Many women will wear white — the color of the women’s suffrage movement — to spotlight issues like reproductive rights and equal pay. Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic leader, will be handing out white lapel ribbons to the men.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, told reporters on Monday that Mr. Trump intends to make some gestures of peace: “He’s calling for cooperation, and he’s calling for comity — c-o-m-i-t-y — and also compromise.”

But he may find an inhospitable audience.

“I think the goal here is to really show the tremendous step backwards that our country has taken under this president,” Ms. Jayapal told reporters on a conference call on Monday, “and to call out the very specific ways in which he has pushed policies to undermine our climate, undermine immigrants, undermine worker protections and undermine, of course, women’s reproductive rights.”

[Some of the Trumps’ guests are the human faces of narratives that the president has been crafting and wishes to advance.]

State of the Union addresses are almost always remembered as much for their theatrics as for their policy announcements. Mr. Trump’s, delayed one week by the partial government shutdown, is coming at a particularly tense moment — less than two weeks before the deadline for House and Senate negotiators to come up with a plan for border security that will avert another shutdown.

It will also be the first Trump State of the Union address with Representative Nancy Pelosi presiding as speaker. Ms. Pelosi, Democrat of California, an institutionalist and a stickler for decorum, is unlikely to look kindly on any outbursts from her members. She will introduce him as the president of the United States, released by custom from having to utter his name.

Congress-watchers are already wondering what the dynamic will be like between her and Mr. Trump — and what messages her body language and expressions will convey — when she stands behind him, captured on television cameras, during the speech.

“That photograph is worth the price of admission,” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, who is bringing Amer Al-Mudallal, an Iraq-born chemist who was furloughed from the Environmental Protection Agency during the record-breaking shutdown, along with his wife.

“This is a president — I can’t even say he struggles with empathy; he lacks any signs of an empathic capacity to understand the suffering or plight of other people,” Mr. Connolly said, adding, “I want my guest to give witness, by virtue of being here, to the president that real human beings were negatively affected by your shutdown.”

Members of Congress each get one ticket to bring a guest to the State of the Union address; sometimes they invite family members, but more often they use their tickets to make a point. Addressing gun violence is high on the agendas of several Democrats.

Representative Lucy McBath, Democrat of Georgia, whose son Jordan Davis, 17, was shot to death in 2012 by a man upset that he was playing loud music, is bringing Jeff Binkley, the father of Maura Binkley, 21, who was killed last year in a shooting at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Fla.

Representative Ted Deutch, Democrat of Florida, is bringing Manny Oliver, whose son Joaquin Oliver was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., during the massacre there last year.

“I hope the president will take note of how the American people voted to send a gun safety majority to Congress,” Mr. Deutch said in a statement, “and live up to his previous promises to stand up to the N.R.A. and support meaningful policies to make our communities safer.”

Mr. Trump’s immigration policy is also top of mind for Democrats this year.

Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, Democrat of New Jersey, is bringing Victorina Morales, an undocumented immigrant who spoke out about her work at Mr. Trump’s golf resort in Bedminster, N.J. Representative Adriano Espaillat, Democrat of New York, has invited Yeni González, a mother who was separated from her three children at the border, while Representative Veronica Escobar, a freshman Democrat from Texas, is bringing an immigrants’ rights advocate whose father has been deported to Mexico.

Ms. Omar’s guest, Linda Clark, fled civil war in Liberia in 2000 and has lived in the United States for the past 18 years, but may be forced to leave because of Mr. Trump’s decision to end special protections for thousands of Liberian immigrants.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s guest, Ana Maria Archila, is a resident of Queens who helps direct the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive advocacy group. She confronted Jeff Flake, then a Republican senator from Arizona, in an elevator during the Kavanaugh hearings. The encounter prompted Mr. Flake to call for an F.B.I. investigation into accusations that then-Judge Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted a women when they were in high school.

In an interview, Ms. Archila said she senses a new energy this year around the State of the Union address.

“Unlike last year, when Trump had the presidency and the Republicans were firmly in charge of both houses of Congress and essentially enabling his agenda to be forced on the country, this time around, the energy is with the people who protested,” she said. She added that “the wave of women” just elected “speak with so much moral clarity in the face of someone who is so willing to lie and bend the truth and fan the flames of hate and fear.”