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Sweet: State of the Union guests make a statement

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WASHINGTON – She didn’t know it then, but the unofficial launch of Tammy Duckworth’s political career came when she was the State of the Union guest of Sen. Dick Durbin in 2005.

That’s when Durbin, D-Ill., started his tradition of asking an Illinois vet or active service member to be his guest at the speech, to be delivered by President Barack Obama for the last time on Tuesday night.

After her helicopter was shot down in Iraq, Duckworth was recovering from her wounds at the Walter Reed military hospital when she came to the Capitol that night in 2005. To make a long story short, that fateful meeting with Durbin led her to eventually being elected to the House – a spot she is giving up for a Senate run.

Presidents and lawmakers use State of the Union guests most often to underscore some political issue or cause.

Before Duckworth, D-Ill., can take on Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., she has to win the March 15 Illinois Democratic primary, where her biggest rival is attorney Andrea Zopp. In a bid to raise her profile, Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., told me Zopp asked him to be his State of the Union guest. He’ll also be taking Zopp around to meet Congressional Black Caucus members and others, he said.

Both Duckworth and Kirk are focusing on their work with veterans in their campaigns.


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Duckworth’s guest is Loretta Coleman, an Air Force vet who served four years on active duty and six years in the Reserve. Coleman is now with AmeriCorps, where she manages the food pantry for vets at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, 820 S. Damen Ave. The Coleman pick is also intended to spotlight Duckworth’s push to create more opportunities for volunteerism in organizations like AmeriCorps.

Kirk’s invitee is Mark Filler, a Highland Park resident who formed the Jordan Michael Filler Foundation, named for the son he lost to a heroin overdose in 2014. Kirk wants to highlight his work in combating heroin use in the suburbs — with suburban females an important demographic for Kirk.

Suburban heroin also comes into play for Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., whose guest is Tim Ryan, a former heroin addict whose son died from a heroin overdose at the age of 20. Ryan now helps families through his work at the A Man In Recovery Foundation and the Banyan Treatment Center.

Durbin is bringing Army Maj. Gerry Sharp, a Buffalo Grove native and Iraq War vet, who is as the director of the Warrior and Family Coordination Cell at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Sweet: Obama to highlight Chicago man, Schaumburg woman in State of the Union speech

Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., also will be hosting a soldier from Walter Reed. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., is also bringing a veteran.

Republicans have been pushing to defund Planned Parenthood and dismantle Obamacare. That’s why Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., invited Carole Brite, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois, to be his guest.

To address the backlash against Muslim Americans, especially since the San Bernardino and Paris terrorist attacks, Democrat Rep. Mike Quigley’s guest is Alaa Basatneh, a Syrian American who lives in Des Plaines, featured for her social media work against the Assad regime in #chicagoGirl, a documentary.

Acknowledging heroism is also part of the State of the Union tradition. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., asked Kendall County Sheriff’s Deputy Tyler Johnson, who helped rescue a motorist from a car sinking in an Oswego pond.

Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., asked Chicago Bar Association president Patricia Holmes. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., is bringing Lonnie Stephenson, named in May to be the international president of the IBEW. Rep. Peter Roskam’s guest is his wife, Elizabeth.

Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., wants to call attention to victims of domestic violence and addiction; her guest is Gary Halbach, the president and CEO of the Rockford-area nonprofit Remedies Renewing Lives.

To shine a light on funding for pediatric cancer research, Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., invited Kimberly Wade, whose 8-year-old son died from brain cancer on Christmas Eve.

When Pope Francis addressed Congress last year, Republican Rep. Mike Bost’s guest was Bishop Edward Braxton, the bishop of Belleville; he will return for the State of the Union.

Sometimes problems arise.

Rep. Bob Dold, R-Ill., initially asked an ex-offender from Lake County who had a bright comeback story, only to revoke the invite when it came to light the man’s former wife had won an restraining order against him. Instead, Dold is bringing YouthBuild Lake County and Zion-Benton High School graduate Lavelle Brown to highlight local and national anti-poverty programs.

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