White House writers get speech invitation

Associated Press

Washington – — Who says it doesn’t pay to send a letter to the president of the United States?

It did for eight people from around the country who told President Barack Obama how his policies helped them overcome personal hardship. The White House invited all eight to sit with first lady Michelle Obama when he delivered his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Obama also met in the Oval Office on Tuesday with four of the letter writers.

The eight are among 22 people the White House invited to attend the speech, including Alan Gross, the Maryland man recently released from five years of imprisonment in Cuba, astronaut Scott Kelly and CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo.

It has become tradition for presidents to invite people whose stories of tragedy or triumph highlight an issue or public policy.

President Ronald Reagan was the first to do so in 1982 and acknowledge the guests during the speech. Every president since has carried on the tradition, and lawmakers increasingly are bringing guests, too. Among their guests are several Cuban activists, former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, who is afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio.

Gross, a former federal subcontractor, was freed from Cuba last month as part of Obama’s historic announcement that the United States would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Kelly, of Houston, is preparing to blast off in March on a yearlong space mission, the longest of any U.S. astronaut. His twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, is married to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Scientists will compare medical data from the Kelly brothers to study how the human body responds to longer durations in space.

CVS Health pulled cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products from its store shelves last year, a move that was applauded by Obama, a former smoker. The decision earned Merlo, the drugstore chain’s top executive, a seat in the first lady’s box for the speech.

The letter-writers, as identified by the White House, are:

■ Malik Bryant, of Chicago. The 13-year-old wrote a letter to Santa over the holidays asking for safety. Instead of forwarding the letter to the North Pole, a nonprofit organization redirected it to the White House.

■Rebekah Erler, of Minneapolis. The wife and mother of two young boys wrote to Obama about how her family suffered after her husband’s construction business folded. Both parents are working again and recently bought their first home.

■ Victor Fugate, of Kansas City. Fugate told Obama how he went from being an unemployed new father to getting his degree and helping low-income patients obtain medical care. Fugate says he and his wife are benefiting from an Obama program that caps monthly student loan payments.

■ Retired Army Staff Sgt. Jason Gibson, of Westerville, Ohio. Gibson wrote to thank the president for visiting him as he recovered from injuries, including the loss of both legs.

■ Katrice Mubiru, of Woodland Heights, California. Mubiru, a career-technical education teacher in Los Angeles, encouraged Obama in a letter to support K-12 adult and career technical education.

■ Astrid Muhammad, of Charlotte, North Carolina. Muhammad, a wife and mother of two, wrote to thank Obama for signing the Affordable Care Act. She obtained coverage under the law last year and had surgery to remove a potentially fatal brain tumor that was diagnosed when she had no health insurance.

■ Carolyn Reed, of Denver. Reed described for Obama how she expanded her submarine sandwich shop business with a government loan.

■Ana Zamora, of Dallas. A student at Northwood University, Zamora was brought to the United States illegally as a child and has benefited under Obama’s program to defer deportations for eligible immigrants. Zamora wrote Obama about her experience.