Bringing everyday Americans to the State of the Union address is no new tradition—neither is the political symbolism of these guests. Since 1982, when Ronald Reagan first ushered in the custom by inviting Lenny Skutnik (a citizen hero who jumped into the freezing Potomac River to help rescue a drowning woman in the Air Florida Flight 90 crash) to the address, SOTU guests have included everyone from teachers and music prodigies to Rosa Parks. In 2001, George W. Bush left a seat empty to honor the victims of 9/11. In 2016, Barack Obama left a seat empty for victims of gun violence.
In the wake of such civic affairs as the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, a record-breaking number of women elected to the 116th Congress, and the nation’s longest government shutdown, expect those seats to be filled this year with pointedly political attendees.
After hinting on Twitter that her guest reflected the mantra “well-behaved women rarely make history,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) announced Monday that activist and survivor Ana Maria Archila, who famously confronted Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in an elevator during the Kavanaugh hearings, would be joining her for the address.
Archila is not only one of the representative’s constituents, but also an active community organizer and co-executive director for the Center for Popular Democracy Action. In addition to her advocacy work for sexual assault survivors, Archila, who is an immigrant, has spent the last 20 years rallying for immigrant rights.
The noteworthy roster certainly won’t stop at Archila, however. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is bringing Sajid Shahriar, a Housing and Urban Development employee who organized rallies during the government’s shutdown. Senator Kamala Harris’ (D-Calif.) guest is Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik, a furloughed air traffic controller whose home was lost during the 2017 California wildfires. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) will bring Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann, a trans soldier affected by Trump’s transgender military ban. Freshman class Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) will bring along Linda Clark, an immigrant who fled Liberia during a civil war and is now facing possible deportation as a result of policy changes under the Trump administration.
With eyes held especially close on the throng of Democrat 2020 hopefuls, every movement becomes a political statement, and a chance to highlight ongoing issues and policy proposals. Not unlike Omar’s clever Twitter rebuttal, the House chamber on Tuesday evening will reseble and represent an America whose concerns are typically marginalized.
Well-behaved women rarely make history, indeed.