Georgia lawmakers aim to send political messages at State of the Union

One plans to bring a wounded Rincon veteran, another a Home Depot employee from Forsyth County. An Atlanta-area former presidential candidate will accompany one local congressman, while the state’s longest-serving lawmaker plans to skip altogether.

Many Georgia officials are aiming to use President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address on Tuesday as an opportunity to send a message about the current state of American politics.

Members are each allowed one guest to look on as Trump speaks to a joint session of Congress from the House chamber. Several Georgia lawmakers plan to give their plus-ones to local residents who can help them illustrate a political point.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, has invited Robbie Salemi Jr., who started at Home Depot 17 years ago as a part-time flooring associate and worked his way up to a managerial position.

“Robbie’s story illustrates the opportunities that we want to promote for every American by cutting taxes across the board,” said Collins, one of the House GOP’s designated messaging gurus.

Citing the recently passed tax overhaul, Atlanta-based Home Depot announced last week that it would pay out one-time bonuses of up to $1,000 to its hourly workers.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, plans to bring Army veteran and Effingham County native Winston Hencely as his guest. Hencely was critically injured in Afghanistan in 2016 after a suicide bomber attacked Bagram Airfield.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s office said the Republican’s guest will be Dunwoody jeweler and former 6th Congressional District candidate Bruce LeVell, who headed Trump’s diversity coalition. And Monroe Republican Jody Hice has invited former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, a pal from his conservative talk radio days, as his plus-one. (Cain and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution share the same corporate parent company.)

Boycott planned

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, is looking to send a different type of message Tuesday.

He is one of more than a half-dozen Democratic lawmakers who have announced plans to boycott Trump’s speech altogether.

“I’m convinced now more than ever before that I shouldn’t attend,” Lewis told the AJC last week, referring to Trump’s vulgar comments about immigrants from Africa and Haiti.

A political foil to Trump who has tangled with the president since before his inauguration, Lewis skipped Trump’s swearing-in and first address to Congress. He also canceled a planned trip to the ribbon-cutting of a new civil rights museum in Mississippi last month after the president RSVPed.

“I don’t want to be associated with him,” Lewis said last week.

Some Georgia Republicans on Monday were critical of such boycotts.

“Candidly, everyone has to make their own decision, but I think it is extraordinarily disrespectful to, quote, boycott the president,” said U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell, who did not mention Lewis by name. “At the end of the day, President Trump was elected as the president of the United States of America.”

Other Democrats in Congress have announced plans to attend Trump’s speech but to protest in other ways, such as inviting Dreamers as their guests to register their opposition to president’s immigration policies. Some plan to wear black in honor of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, echoing similar displays at Hollywood awards shows.

At least some Georgia Democrats are not planning to follow Lewis’ lead and protest Trump’s speech.

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany, a moderate, plans to attend and bring a constituent as a guest. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, perhaps the state’s most liberal Democrat, said the Lithonia resident has yet to make up his mind about whether to attend the speech.

‘Conciliatory message’

Handel, who will experience her first-ever State of the Union address as Georgia's newest member of Congress, said she is looking to hear the president delve into more details about the federal response to the opioid crisis, which has hit Fulton County particularly hard.

“I expect that it’s going to be very people-focused and focused on individual stories of success and overcoming adversity,” Handel said of the speech.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., an ally of Trump’s, said the president will celebrate some of the party’s biggest accomplishments since he took office, including overhauling the tax code and cutting government regulations, as well as discuss his priorities for 2018 such as trade and immigration.

“I think it’ll be a conciliatory message,” he said. “I think we’ll hear a little of the tone we saw in Davos (Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum last week), that America is open for business again.”

Trump’s speech comes at a particularly polarized moment in Washington. The two parties remain at loggerheads over the politically radioactive issue of immigration just over a week after ending a shutdown showdown.

Most Georgia Republicans indicated they would be in a celebratory mood Tuesday.

“By all accounts, it was a very, very successful year,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Evans.

Allen and several other Republicans, including Handel and Perdue, are planning to bring their spouses as their dates to the speech. Allen said that even after three years in Congress, State of the Unions are still special evenings of which to be a part.

“If it doesn’t give you butterflies,” he said, “something’s wrong with you.”

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