WASHINGTON – While the rest of the nation watched from their living rooms, a handful of Arizonans had front-row seats Tuesday night to President Barack Obama’s eighth, and final, State of the Union address.
First lady Michelle Obama hosted Sue Ellen Allen of Scottsdale, who was inspired to work with women convicts after her own time in prison, and Oscar Vazquez, a Carl Hayden High School graduate whose dream of an engineering career was stymied by his immigration status.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation, meanwhile, hosted everyone from personal friends to guests there to be recognized for their work in the district or on hand to make a political statement.
“We’re asking for President Obama and the administration to just recognize Amir,” said Rep. Matt Salmon’s guest Ramy Kurdi, whose brother-in-law Amir Hekmati has been held in Iran since 2011 on charges of spying.
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Michigan, invited Kurdi’s wife, Sarah, the sister of Hekmati, a Flagstaff native and former Marine. The House agreed to let the couple sit together in the gallery during the speech, according to a statement from the office of Salmon, a Mesa Republican.
“We want them to do everything, and the least of which is to mention his name,” Kurdi said before the speech. “We’re here to just turn over every stone and do it diplomatically.”
While Salmon hoped to deliver a message with Kurdi’s presence, the White House was making its points with guests in the first lady’s box, including the two from Arizona.
The president has made criminal justice reform a priority for the coming year, and the first lady invited Allen, who co-founded Gina’s Team, a nonprofit that helps female inmates re-enter society. Allen, who served seven years in prison for securities fraud, named the organization in honor of a cellmate who died in prison.
Mrs. Obama also invited Vazquez, a former DREAMer who is now a U.S. citizen, who was on hand to highlight immigration reform efforts throughout her husband’s presidency.
“I feel honored and very excited for what it means to be here,” said Vazquez, who was surprised when the White House called the Texas home where he lives with his wife and two kids.
Born in Mexico, Vazquez moved to Phoenix when he was 12, according to a White House press release. He took science and tech courses in high school and led a small group of classmates in an underwater robotics competition where they beat out a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He graduated from Arizona State University in 2009 with a degree in mechanical engineering but his legal status prevented him from getting a job, according to the White House, and he moved back to Mexico to apply for a green card. He got it in 2010, with the aid of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and subsequently enlisted and did a tour in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army.
Vazquez, who has since become a U.S. citizen, now works as a business analyst for a web app development team at Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railways.
For the second year in a row, Rep. Martha McSally, R-Tucson, invited a different kind of guest, bringing a member of the Boys and Girls Club of Tucson to Washington for the event.
“I think it is so important to have our young people come to Washington, D.C., see what their government is all about, come to these historical places and participate in something so meaningful as the State of the Union address,” McSally said as she stood with Guadalupe “Lupita” Romero, 17, a Rincon High School senior.
Teens are selected for their leadership, commitment to academics and involvement in the community, said Lorraine Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Boys and Girls Club of Tucson. Last year, that teen was Gilbert Valenzuela, an Alta Vista High School student and Roy Drachman Clubhouse member; this year it was Romero, who has been a member of the Holmes Tuttle Clubhouse for seven years, according to McSally’s office.
“These are inner-city kids that don’t have a lot of opportunity to experience the things Lupita is experiencing right now,” Morgan said, who praised McSally for giving students the opportunity.
Romero was recently named “Youth of the Year” for her leadership. She has been involved in projects such as Money Matters, Career Launch, Smart Girls, Help-A-Kid and Keystone, according to the McSally’s office.
“I go to (the Boys and Girls Club) to do my community service hours, which is not obligatory,” Romero said. “I like to do it and give back to my community through the Keystone club.”
Romero said she hopes to go to law school one day and aspires to hold a seat on the Supreme Court – in which case she would be back sitting in the front row at a future State of the Union address.
McSally said she hopes the experience “would be inspiring and life-changing for her and as she goes on her journey from now forward.”
“If she goes through difficult times and feels like she can’t make it to the next goal she has or she can’t get through the semester, she can ground herself back in this experience, that she was privileged to be my guest and got to participate in this,” McSally said.
– Cronkite News reporters Katie Bieri, Lauren Clark, Marisela Ramirez, Wafa Shahid, Jessica Swarner, Sara Weber and Samantha Witherwax contributed to this report.