Written by Sheryl Gay Stolberg
Rep. 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 Kavanaugh.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is bringing a climate change scientist. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a Somali refugee, is bringing a Liberian refugee who is threatened with deportation. And all will be wearing white.
When President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address 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 Obama addressed Congress on health care.
The new Democrats — many of them women, and many of them people of colour — are planning to send their own pointed messages to the president with their choices of guests and attire. Many women will wear white — the colour of the women’s suffrage movement — to spotlight issues like reproductive rights and equal pay. Rep. 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 Monday that 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,” Jayapal told reporters on a conference call 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.”
State of the Union addresses are almost always remembered as much for their theatrics as for their policy announcements. 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 Rep. Nancy Pelosi presiding as speaker. Pelosi, D-Calif., 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 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 Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., 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,” 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.
Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., 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, father of Maura Binkley, 21, who was killed last year in a shooting at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida.
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., is bringing Manny Oliver, whose son Joaquin Oliver was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 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,” Deutch said in a statement, “and live up to his previous promises to stand up to the NRA and support meaningful policies to make our communities safer.”
Trump’s immigration policy is also top of mind for Democrats this year.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., is bringing Victorina Morales, an immigrant in the country illegally who spoke out about her work at Trump’s golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., has invited Yeni González, a mother who was separated from her three children at the border, while Rep. Veronica Escobar, a freshman Democrat from Texas, is bringing an immigrants’ rights advocate whose father has been deported to Mexico.
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 Trump’s decision to end special protections for thousands of Liberian immigrants.
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 Flake to call for an FBI investigation into accusations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted a women when they were in high school.
In an interview, 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.”