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

Cedric Rowland

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama delivers his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, a Chicago man and a Schaumburg woman will be sitting in first lady Michelle Obama’s guest box.

And one of the 24 seats in Mrs. Obama’s box in the House of Representatives will be left empty. That’s to pay tribute to victims of gun violence, who, according to the White House, “no longer have a voice.”

As did prior presidential administrations, the Obama White House typically uses the annual exercise of selecting guests for the first lady’s box to put a human face on policies and to acknowledge heroes or individuals who in the past year had endured tragedy.

This year, Obama will spotlight two people who inspired him when he first ran for president in 2008, including the South Carolina woman who coined the famous “Fired up, ready to go” slogan.

Obama also wants to cement his legacy, particularly with his Affordable Care Act, which Republicans in Congress have tried dozens of time to dismantle, and saving the American auto industry.

“It’s very surreal,” Cedric Rowland said Saturday about being selected to sit in the first lady’s box during the speech.

An Austin resident who helps enroll people in the Obamacare program, Rowland is a lead “navigator” for the Near North Health Service Corporation in Chicago.

Rowland’s attendance at Obama’s final State of the Union to Congress is most likely the result of his having met Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett when she visited the Komed Holman Health Center on the South Side last November to promote health insurance enrollment under the Affordable Care Act.

Rowland was there to highlight his work to find health insurance for Stephanie Lucas, a diabetic from the South Side who lost her Medicaid eligibility. With assistance from Rowland, Lucas found a policy for $62 a month for her after tax credits, according to the White House.

On Tuesday, Obama will give Rowland, 28, a shout-out before Republican members of Congress who have been trying for years to repeal Obama’s signature health-care law.

On Friday, Obama vetoed a measure — passed with Republican votes — to repeal part of the Affordable Care Act, saying in his veto message that the legislation “would reverse the significant progress we have made in improving health care in America.”

The White House invited Rowland Monday for what will be his first visit to the city.

“I just think that I am blessed, and thank everyone for the opportunity because I definitely would never have thought this would happen to me,” Rowland said.

“I am not the only one in Chicago who does this work, and I know there are a lot of people who do the same things as me,” he said. “I know everybody is trying to do their best out here to try to enroll as many people as they can because, with this being his last year in office and everything, everybody wants to do their best, basically make sure everyone gets insured.”

Rowland is a specialist in the Army Reserves who holds two full-time jobs. He also is employed nights at Garfield Park Behavioral Hospital, where he works with kids between the ages of 5 and 17.

Another guest in Mrs. Obama’s box will be Gloria Balenski, a Schaumburg resident who got the attention of the White House after she wrote the president a letter last year “thanking him for the economic priorities he pursued at a time of turmoil, which Gloria credits with helping her family to bounce back” from economic hard times,” according to the White House.

Balenski is a former facility manager at Matsushita Panasonic who was laid off in 2007. The White House said her husband Norb’s job at Chevrolet was “threatened when the auto industry cratered.” Obama will highlight a happy ending to the Balenski family story.