Using State of the Union guests to convey messages

WASHINGTON — Seats at President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night will be filled with the legislative priorities of a bitterly divided Congress.

Efforts to humanize intensifying national policy battles will bring some strange bedfellows to the address, where a survivor of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre will find herself in the same audience as Ted Nugent, a rocker turned gun rights activist who was the subject of a Secret Service investigation last year after making controversial remarks about Obama.


Nugent’s invitation, which came from Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), was announced Monday, about the time Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced she had invited Josh Stepakoff, a 20-year-old California man who was injured in a San Fernando Valley shooting when he was a child.

A group of about two dozen House Democrats has invited people affected by gun violence to Obama’s speech as part of a push for gun control measures.

Other expected guests include a Rhode Island climate change researcher, a laid-off worker from Illinois, a New Hampshire Army veteran and a South Carolina father fighting deportation.

Most members of Congress are limited to bringing one guest each to the president’s annual address. Party leaders and the White House may bring more.

Using guest spots to make political points at the State of the Union address is nothing new. Since President Reagan invited Lenny Skutnik, who dived into the icy Potomac River to rescue a victim of an air crash, to sit next to First Lady Nancy Reagan during the 1982 State of the Union address, other presidents have used the gallery seats to honor citizens or call attention to select issues.

This year, the White House has invited the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teenager who was shot and killed just days after she traveled to Washington for the president’s inauguration.

According to the White House, the first lady’s box at the address will also include Americans from middle-class families who the president believes would be helped by his policy proposals. Obama will talk about how to help victims of gun violence, military families and immigrants, aides say.

Reps. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) started the gun control effort among House Democrats in January.

Among the guests will be Natalie Hammond, a teacher at Sandy Hook who was injured in the shooting; Carlos Soto Jr., whose sister, 27-year-old teacher Victoria Soto, was killed while trying to protect students at Sandy Hook; and a mother and daughter who live in Newtown, Conn., but were not involved in the shooting.

Speaking at a 2012 National Rifle Assn. convention, Nugent said that if Obama were to win reelection, the rocker would “either be dead or in jail,” and called on conservatives to “ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off.”

The Secret Service met with Nugent shortly afterward, and nothing further came from the incident.

Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro) said she hoped the victims who attended the State of the Union would help put pressure on Congress to enact tougher gun laws.

“These people hopefully are going to go back to their neighborhoods and be the president’s ambassadors,” she said.

Richard Simon, Christi Parsons and Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.