The State of the Union is not just an opportunity for the President. Members of Congress can also make a statement about the issues they care about with their invitations.
Every member of Congress is permitted to bring one guest, and their selections often occupy chatter on Capitol Hill in the days preceding the address. Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made waves after announcing she was bringing one of the women who confronted former Sen. Jeff Flake in an elevator during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Two Florida lawmakers on different sides of the aisle, Rep. Ted Deutch and Sen. Rick Scott, are bringing parents whose children were murdered in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last February.
But since it is the year before a presidential election, all eyes will be on the handful of Democrats who have already announced they are either running for President or exploring the possibility. The guests they have selected are widely varied. They not only reflect the range of policy priorities in the Democratic Party, but provide some clues into the candidates upcoming campaigns.
Here is who these contenders are bringing.
The New Jersey senator is bringing Edward Douglas, a former prisoner who was released last month. Douglas was given a lifetime sentence in 2003 for selling 140 grams of crack cocaine. After President Trump signed the First Step Act into law last December, he became eligible for release.
Booker was an original co-sponsor of the First Step Act, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate. His role highlights his ability to work effectively across the aisle, a trait he will no doubt champion on the campaign trail.
Hawaii Rep. Gabbard, the only member of the House of Representatives to announce a presidential candidacy this cycle, announced Tuesday she was bringing Syrian Kurdish leader Ilhan Ahmed. Ahmed is co-President of the Syrian Democratic Council.
Gabbard was criticized in 2017 after she traveled to Syria and met with the country’s President, Bashar Al-Assad. In a statement announcing her guest, she took aim at President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw troops from Syria, arguing that it would make the Kurds susceptible to attacks from Turkey.
Blake Dremann, a decorated transgender Navy Lieutenant Commander, will accompany Gillibrand to the State of the Union. The announcement comes less than a month after the Supreme Court lifted two injunctions against President Trump’s restrictions on transgenders serving in the military, allowing the policy to partially take effect.
“Transgender service members like Lieutenant Commander Dremann make extraordinary sacrifices every day to defend our freedom and our most sacred values, and President Trump’s decision to ban them from military service is cruel and undermines our military readiness,” Gillibrand said in a statement.
With her choice, Gillibrand chose to directly challenge the President. But, like Booker, this selection also points to her ability to work with Republicans. She was among a group of bipartisan Senators, including the late Sen. John McCain, who introduced legislation in 2017 attempting to block Trump’s ban on transgenders serving in the military. She is planning on introducing additional legislation this week that will protect current and future transgender members of the military.
Harris is bringing Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik, who lost her home in a 2017 California wildfire and was forced to evacuate their rental home in 2018 because of heavy flooding. But both Pesiri-Dybvik and her husband were also affected by the recent government shutdown. An air-traffic control specialist, Pesiri-Dybvik was furloughed during that 35-day period. Her husband, an air traffic controller and Navy veteran, worked without getting paid.
“As my family and I have begun to rebuild after losing our home in the Thomas Fire, the hardship we faced during the government shutdown—and the looming uncertainty of another potential shutdown — have added a further layer of stress to our already challenging situation,” Pesiri-Dybvik said in a statement through Harris’ office.
Like Harris, Warren is bringing a worker from her home state who was furloughed during the government shutdown. She will be accompanied in the Capitol by Sajid Shahriar, who works for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and was not working during the shutdown. But he is also a leading advocate in Massachusetts for issues Warren has championed for years and will continue to do so on the campaign trail: unions and workers’ rights.