Paul Pelosi, Tyre Nichols’ parents, U2 star Bono, Monterey Park shooting hero Brandon Tsay, Ukraine’s ambassador to the US Oksana Markarova and a Holocaust survivor are among those headed to the US Capitol Tuesday evening where President Joe Biden is set to deliver his State of the Union address.
Biden’s remarks will both touch on key themes of his presidency and offer a preview of a 2024 reelection message. And the guest list for first lady Dr. Jill Biden’s box offers a blueprint for what to expect.
The first lady’s 26 guests represent key administration priorities and accomplishments like infrastructure, mental health, climate and health care. They also represent issues the administration has confronted in the past year: support for Ukraine in the face of Russian invasion, antisemitism, the overdose epidemic, support for same-sex marriage, increased political polarization, mass shootings, a renewed national conversation on justice in policing and women’s reproductive health.
“Each of these individuals were invited by the White House because they personify issues or themes to be addressed by the President in his speech, or they embody the Biden-Harris Administration’s policies at work for the American people,” the office of the first lady said in a statement.
Here are the guests and the stories they represent:
Dr. Biden has invited Markarova as a guest for a second year in a row “in recognition of sustained U.S. support for Ukraine,” the White House said. Markarova received a standing ovation as she sat in the first lady’s box during last year’s State of the Union just days after Russia launched its war on Ukraine. The president is likely to highlight ongoing US assistance for Ukraine, including billions of dollars for both military and humanitarian aid.
There are multiple guests who have been impacted by the bipartisan infrastructure law passed in 2021 that has begun to be implemented in recent months.
Saria Gwin-Maye is a union member of the Ironworkers Local 44 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and among those employed as a result of the bipartisan infrastructure act that the administration is working to implement with states and localities across the country. Gwin-Maye is working on the Brent Spence Bridge that has long been a chronic symbol of America’s crumbling infrastructure. Biden traveled to the bridge alongside Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to highlight bipartisanship as the infrastructure law is set to invest more than $2 billion in the nation’s bridges.
Deanna Branch, a Milwaukee mother who has worked to raise awareness about toxic lead pipes after her son suffered from lead poisoning due to unsafe levels in their drinking water and home, is also invited.
The first lady invited multiple guests who highlight job growth during the Biden administration, statistics the president frequently highlights as he makes an economic pitch to Americans, with last month’s unemployment rate at a low 3.4%.
Biden is expected to highlight Maurice “Dion” Dykes who is training to become a teacher in Knoxville, Tennessee, through a registered apprenticeship program after spending more than two decades working in graphic design.
Kate Foley, a 10th grader from Rolling Meadows, Illinois, will also be in attendance. Foley is studying computer-integrated manufacturing at a public high school that seeks to build career pathways for students through community college and local employer partnerships.
The first lady also invited a well-known celebrity with philanthropic ties: Irish rock legend Bono. The cofounder of the ONE campaign, Bono also worked to build support for the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
The president is expected to highlight the sweeping climate and health care bill signed into law last August.
Fort Myers Beach, Florida, Chamber of Commerce President Jacki Liszak, owns a small business and met the president and first lady in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. Paired with the infrastructure law, the bill is working toward “lowering energy costs and making communities like Fort Myers more resilient to extreme weather events through record funding to strengthen and weatherize our nation’s power grid, roads, bridges, homes, public water systems and more,” the White House said.
Biden has repeatedly sought to speak out against political violence, including a major speech on extremism and democracy one week before the midterm elections. Tuesday, the first lady is hosting former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul, who continues to recover from a politically motivated, violent attack at their California home. During the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, pro-Trump rioters searched for Nancy Pelosi and last fall, a male assailant attacked the then-speaker’s husband with a hammer, shouting: “Where’s Nancy?” – a “similar chant of those responsible for the January 6th Capitol insurrection,” the White House said.
And the first lady has invited Monterey Park Lunar New Year shooting hero Brandon Tsay, the man who wrestled a gun from the California shooting suspect at Alhambra dance hall. Tsay, the White House said, “is credited with preventing the gunman, who had killed 11 people and injured 10 others, from carrying out a second attack in Alhambra.”
The president previously called Tsay to thank him for his act of bravery.
The mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, are among the first lady’s guests on Tuesday. Nichols’ death days after being beaten by police in Memphis last month has renewed calls for police reform and reignited a national conversation on justice in policing. Biden hosted members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House last week to discuss police reform, which has stalled in Congress multiple times and faces an uncertain path forward.
The president has taken multiple executive actions in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade and has forcefully spoken out against the decision. On Tuesday, Amanda and Josh Zurawski of Austin, Texas, will be in the first lady’s box. Amanda Zurawski, the White House said, was unable to receive medical help when her water broke at 18 weeks pregnant because “her doctors were unable to intervene to help her because they were concerned that providing the treatment she needed would violate the Texas abortion ban, which prohibits abortion care unless a woman’s life is in danger.” Zurawski, the White House said, “developed sepsis and nearly died because of the delay in receiving treatment” and “continues to suffer from medical complications due to the delay.”
Second gentleman Doug Emhoff’s special guest is Holocaust survivor Ruth Cohen of Rockville, Maryland. Cohen and her family were forced from their home during the Nazi regime. Cohen was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and was liberated in 1945, ultimately immigrating to the US three years later. Emhoff, the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president, recently returned from a trip to Poland and Germany, where he marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a visit to Auschwitz and other key sites aimed at countering antisemitism.
The president is also expected to herald the CHIPS and Science Act passed last year, a bill aimed at boosting domestic production of semiconductor chips. The first lady will host Paul Sarzoza of Phoenix, Arizona, the owner of a small facilities services company that services a major semiconductor manufacturing company, TSMC. TSMC is expanding in Phoenix due to the legislation and “to keep up with the increased demand for his company’s services, Sarzoza plans to hire 150-200 employees in the next year,” the White House said, demonstrating the “economic plan at work.”
Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill codifying protections for same-sex marriage, into law late last year. On Tuesday, same-sex marriage advocates Gina and Heidi Nortonsmith will be among the first lady’s guests. The Nortonsmiths were plaintiffs in Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health, where Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court struck down a ban on same-sex marriage in the state.
Biden has outlined addressing the mental health crisis as a key aspect of his agenda.
Guest Harry Miller, a current senior and former football player at The Ohio State University, “announced he would no longer continue to be a student-athlete to prioritize his mental health and has since become an advocate for mental health and emotional wellness,” per the White House.
The first lady has invited several guests who have been impacted by cancer, including breast cancer survivor Darlene Gaffney of North Charleston, South Carolina, who worked with a cancer support ministry at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church to help educate the community about early detection.
Biden also invited Maurice and Kandice Barron of New York City, whose daughter Ava is in remission from a rare form of pediatric cancer. Maurice Barron wrote a letter to the president sharing their family’s experience.
Lynette Bonar, a registered member of the Navajo Nation and former sergeant and medic in the Army who worked as a registered nurse and executive at the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation, will also be in attendance. The first lady appeared with Bonar at the opening of the first cancer center on a Native American reservation in 2019.
Doug Griffin became a key advocate for American families battling addiction after his 20-year-old daughter Courtney overdosed on fentanyl. Griffin, the White House said, is “raising awareness about the stigma associated with addiction, and calling for better access to substance use disorder treatment services.” The president has put forth a National Drug Control Strategy aimed at “(beating) the overdose epidemic.”
Other guests include a mother and daughter duo – Kristin Christensen and Avarie Kollmar of Seattle, Washington – who have worked with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to advocate for “Hidden Helpers,” military and veteran children in caregiving homes. Christensen became a caregiver to her husband after he medically retired from the Navy due to combat-related injuries.
Mitzi Colin Lopez of West Chester, Pennsylvania, a Dreamer and immigration reform advocate who came to the US from Mexico when she was three years old, is among the guests. Biden has put forth his own immigration plan and has called repeatedly on lawmakers to find a bipartisan solution, but there is an uphill battle ahead with a divided Congress.