Area lawmakers use issues and friendships to select guests for president's final State of the Union | St. Louis Public Radio

Area lawmakers use issues and friendships to select guests for president's final State of the Union

Jan 12, 2016

While the most prominent seat at Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech is likely to be the one left vacant in First Lady Michelle Obama’s guest box to remember victims of gun violence, several area lawmakers have invited constituents to join them for the historic event.

The White House says the empty seat will serve as a reminder of those “who no longer have a voice — because they need the rest of us to speak for them,” and will reinforce the president’s effort to reduce gun related homicides and suicides.

Pediatric cancer research

On Christmas Eve, 8-year-old Jonny Wade of Jerseyville, Ill., died from brain cancer. Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, a member of the Congressional Childhood Cancer Caucus, has invited Jonny’s mother, Kimberly Wade, to join him for Tuesday’s speech to help the family continue its campaign to increase pediatric cancer research.

Jonny Wade is to the left of Rep. Rodney Davis. Jonny's twin brother, Jacky Wade, is on the right in the striped shirt.
Credit Rep.Rodney Davis' office

To help raise awareness, Wade set up the “Project Team Jonny” Facebook page — now with more than 65,000 followers nationwide. Earlier this month thousands of followers watched online as Jonny was laid to rest.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter, Davis is asking lawmakers to wear a “Team Jonny” wristband to Tuesday night’s speech to show support for increased pediatric cancer research. “The House has made significant strides for cancer and rare disease research by increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and passing the 21st Century Cures Act, but I believe more can be done to help eradicate childhood cancer,” Davis said in the letter.

Student loan debt

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has invited Sable Givens, a native of St. Louis, who is attending Howard University in Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the “enormous amount of debt facing America’s college graduates.”

Sable Givens is a St. Louis native studying at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Credit Sen. Claire McCaskill's office

Even with federal financial aid, McCaskill says Givens expects to graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. “Sable is a Missourian who’s doing exactly what we want our young people to be doing — going to a great college and working herself to the bone to earn a degree.”

According to information from McCaskill’s office, nearly two-thirds of Missouri graduates from four-year public, or private non-profit schools, face an average debt of nearly $26,000.

McCaskill is backing legislation to allow individuals to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates. She says once Givens graduates and starts paying back her loan, “every dollar she has to pay toward student loan debt is a dollar that won’t go toward buying a home, or starting a business.” McCaskill said the legislation she’s backing will help reassure families that their “kids can go to college without being financially handcuffed for years after graduation …”

Honoring those who serve

Continuing a 10-year tradition, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has invited a member of the armed services to join him for the speech.

This year’s guest is Major Gerry Sharp, who has spent the last 26 years in the service and now directs the Warrior and Family Coordination Cell at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. “Major Sharp has dedicated his life to the service of others,” Durbin said.

Durbin says Sharp first served as a radio officer and then as a combat nurse, in two separate conflicts. “Major Sharp is now using those experiences to help to address his fellow soldiers' ongoing, unseen wounds of war in his (current) position. … I am humbled and honored to have Major Sharp join me … at President Obama’s final State of the Union.”

Since 2005, Durbin has invited either a service member or a veteran from his home state to join him for the State of the Union speech. In that time, Durbin has hosted nearly 20 service members or veterans. His first guest, a decade ago, was then Army Major Tammy Duckworth, now a member of Congress and candidate for U.S. Senate from Illinois.

Divine friendship

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, Ill., has invited Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville to be his guest for the speech. A spokesman for Bost, says the two developed a friendship after Bost, invited the bishop to attend Pope Francis’ address to Congress last year.