© 2024 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Biden's State of the Union guests include Bono, Tyre Nichols' parents and more

Brandon Tsay (left), who disarmed the gunman in Monterey Park, Calif., in late January, with first lady Jill Biden and Bono at the State of the Union address.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Brandon Tsay (left), who disarmed the gunman in Monterey Park, Calif., in late January, with first lady Jill Biden and Bono at the State of the Union address.

Updated February 8, 2023 at 6:50 AM ET

As President Biden gave his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he was joined by a handful of VIPs who watched with first lady Jill Biden from a viewing box in the Capitol. Collectively, they illustrate different themes that Biden will highlight in his speech.

Among the guests: a cancer survivor, an activist fighting for clean water, a mother who doubles as a caregiver to her disabled veteran husband and a Holocaust survivor.

The most recognizable names

Tyre Nichols' mother and stepfather

RowVaughn and Rodney Wells are the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old unarmed Black man who was brutally beaten by police and who later died while hospitalized in his home city of Memphis, Tennessee.

Graphic footage of the incident was released at the end of January by Memphis authorities, bringing a renewed sense of national outrage over police brutality. Biden called the incident "horrific" and a "painful reminder" of the need for law enforcement reform to ensure incidents like this never happen again.

The president is calling on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would end qualified immunity for law enforcement officers, so that he can then sign the bill.

Brandon Tsay, who disarmed the Monterey Park shooter

Brandon Tsay, 26, disarmed the gunman who had killed 11 people and injured another 10 in Monterey Park, Calif., in late January.

The initial attack happened near the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, owned by the Tsay family and located in Alhambra. When the gunman entered the family's studio to carry out a second attack, Tsay did what he had to do and wrangled the assault-style handgun from the shooter.

Alhambra's police chief presented Tsay with a medal of courage for his actions.

Singer-songwriter Bono applauds alongside Paul Pelosi, husband of Nancy Pelosi.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
Getty Images
Singer-songwriter Bono applauds alongside Paul Pelosi, husband of Nancy Pelosi.

Paul Pelosi, the former House speaker's husband, who was attacked at home

Husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Paul Pelosi was attacked in his San Francisco home last October by an intruder wielding a hammer. The uninvited guest was looking for the California lawmaker and instead came across her husband and attempted to detain him against his will.

The police arrived at the Pelosi residence and saw the two men struggling over a hammer. Then the assailant struck Pelosi in the head, fracturing his skull and injuring his right arm.

The politically motivated attack was an attempt to kidnap and harm Nancy Pelosi, who was the House speaker at the time.

Bono, singer and HIV/AIDS activist

The lead singer of U2, Bono is a longtime activist dedicated to raising awareness about the fight against HIV/AIDS and extreme poverty. He has worked with other advocates over the past 20 years to build public and political support, including the creation of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, announced by President George W. Bush in his State of the Union address 20 years ago.

The relief plan is credited with saving 25 million lives worldwide by providing lifesaving HIV medications in poorer countries. Bono is also the co-founder of the ONE Campaign, a nonpartisan group that works with governments to fight poverty and preventable diseases and that has raised over $700 million to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa.

First lady Jill Biden applauds her guest Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova.
Pool / Getty Images
Getty Images
First lady Jill Biden applauds her guest Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova.

Recognition of Ukraine's year of war

For the second year in a row, the first lady has invited Ambassador Oksana Markarova of Ukraine to join her in the District of Columbia. The invitation is a recognition of sustained U.S. support nearly a year after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Biden has long promised his unflinching support, having recently sent battle tanks and assorted armored vehicles abroad to help turn the tide of the war.

The Biden administration has committed over $24 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded Ukraine last February.

Guests representing health care initiatives

Maurice and Kandice Barron live in New York City with their 3-year-old daughter, Ava, who survived a rare form of pediatric cancer. The Barrons wrote to Biden to thank him for reigniting commitment to the Cancer Moonshot initiative, which aims to halve the number of cancer-related deaths in the next 25 years.

Lynette Bonar is a member of the Navajo Nation who served as an Army medic before rejoining the civilian sector as a registered nurse and hospital executive in her hometown of Tuba City, Arizona. She helped open the first cancer center on a Native American reservation, offering oncology services to tribal members who otherwise would have to travel far and wide for care.

Deanna Branch of Milwaukee has been fighting for a lead-safe environment for her community after one of her sons, Aidan, suffered from lead poisoning due to unsafe levels in their drinking water. Branch and her two sons had to move out of their home after she realized it was no longer a safe place to raise a family.

Doug Griffin's 20-year-old daughter, Courtney Griffin, died from a fentanyl overdose in 2014. Doug Griffin is now raising awareness in his home state of New Hampshire and supporting other families struggling with opioid addition and loss.

Harry Miller is a former Ohio State University football player studying mechanical engineering. In 2022, Miller discontinued his football career to focus on his mental health and is now an advocate for mental and emotional wellness.

Rodney Wells and RowVaughn Wells, parents of Tyre Nichols, are applauded.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
Rodney Wells and RowVaughn Wells, parents of Tyre Nichols, are applauded.

Biden's guests representing economic and infrastructure efforts

Saria Gwin-Maye is an Ohio ironworker and union member in Cincinnati who introduced Biden at the Brent Spence Bridge in Covington, Ky., in early January.

Jacki Liszak is the president and CEO of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce and the elected fire commissioner for the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District in southwest Florida. Biden and the first lady met Liszak while surveying the damage on the ground in the wake of Hurricane Ian last fall.

Paul Sarzoza is the owner of a cleaning business in Phoenix that services a semiconductor manufacturing company. He has to bring on nearly 200 employees in the next year to meet demand following the tech expansion attributed to the president's CHIPS and Science Act.

Representing veterans and their families

Kristin Christensen and her daughter, Avarie Kollmar, are caregivers to Christensen's husband, a disabled Navy veteran who was medically retired due to combat-related injuries. Christensen, a 2021 Elizabeth Dole Foundation fellow, and her daughter advocate for military family caregivers.

The fight against hate and antisemitism

Ruth Cohen, a special guest of second gentleman Doug Emhoff, is a survivor of the Holocaust. She and her family were forced from their home by the Nazis, and she later found herself in the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. She was liberated from the camp in 1945 and immigrated to the U.S. three years later, and she now volunteers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Representing the Biden-Harris administration's education agenda

Maurice "Dion" Dykes is training to become a teacher through a no-cost pathway apprenticeship program in Knoxville, Tenn., after spending 25 years as a graphic designer.

Kate Foley is a 10th-grade student at Rolling Meadows High School in Illinois, where she's specializing in computer-integrated manufacturing. She hopes to become a biomedical engineer someday.

Other social issues: same-sex marriage, abortion and immigration

Gina and Heidi Nortonsmith were plaintiffs in the Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health case, which led to Massachusetts becoming the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage. They got married in 2004 on the first day same-sex marriage licenses were issued by the state.

Amanda Zurawski was just 18 weeks pregnant when her water broke. She and her husband, Josh, rushed to the hospital, but doctors were unable to help because they worried it could violate Texas abortion laws. She almost died from a life-threatening sepsis infection due to a delay in treatment.

Mitzi Colin Lopez was only 3 years old when her parents brought her to the United States from Mexico. As a DREAMer, she applied for and received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2015 and is now an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.

Read the full descriptions from the White House here.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.