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Five Arizonans among 24 people sitting with first lady for State of the Union

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WASHINGTON – When she got a call Friday inviting her to come to the White House and meet with first lady Michelle Obama, Gilbert resident Amanda Shelley “thought I was being pranked by my friends.”

But the call was for real and Shelley was one of five Arizona residents scheduled to sit with the first lady in the Capitol Tuesday evening to watch President Barack Obama deliver his sixth State of the Union address.

The five Arizonans made up a disproportionate share of the 24 Americans invited to join Mrs. Obama because they “exemplify the themes and ideals laid out in the State of the Union,” according to the White House announcement of the guest list.

The Arizona residents included a wounded soldier and his dad from Phoenix, an inventive high school student from Anthem, a Phoenix resident who went on a hunger strike to push for immigration reform and Shelley, a physician’s assistant who was able to get health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

They were joined by a group that ranged from business executives to elected officials, teachers to firefighters, survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing to one of the first openly gay players in the National Basketball Association.

Inviting special guests to the State of the Union is a tradition going back to the administration of President Ronald Reagan, said Towson University political science professor Richard Vatz in an emailed statement.

“It is invariably to make a political point and to make certain issues and perspectives salient to the viewing audience,” Vatz said.

While it’s traditional for first ladies to invite such issue-related guests, it it not typical to see “five different families or five different individuals from one state being invited,” said Dave Wakeman, principal of the Wakeman Consulting Group.

He agreed that guests are in the gallery to “put real names and faces” to issues that will be highlighted.

“Since there are five Arizonans invited, that leads me to believe that President Obama is going to … push one of two issues: comprehensive immigration reform and/or the successes that the Affordable Care Act has begun having on Arizona families,” Wakeman said in an email.

Those topics are important to at least two of the Arizona guests.

Cristian Avila, for example, was on a hunger strike on the National Mall with a group of immigration reform advocates when they were visited by the Obamas in November.

“The first lady and the president were genuinely concerned for us,” Avila said Tuesday in Washington. “It was like they weren’t just our president and first lady, it was like they were our father and mother.”

The Phoenix resident, who ended his fast after three weeks, said he’s still getting over a cold he caught during the fast. But he was “honored to be one piece of something much greater” and said he looked forward to Obama giving the issue of immigration reform “more of a face from his speech.”

Shelley is a success story about the Affordable Care Act, which didn’t have many successes in its early going last year. She said a pre-existing medical condition had made it difficult for her to get health insurance but, after some struggles with the healthcare marketplace website, she was finally able to enroll and get coverage on Jan. 1.

Within days, that coverage was put to the test.

“I started having stomach pains on the third” of January, said Shelley, who usually avoided medical treatment because she lacked coverage. Worried that her health care enrollment might not have been successful, she called “just to make sure I was covered” and was assured that she was.

Shelley wound up in the emergency room the next day and was undergoing surgery two days after that. When National Public Radio did a brief interview with her, it got the attention of the White House, which called her Friday.

She was invited to tour the White House, attend a reception with Mrs. Obama and, finally, sit in the first lady’s box for the president’s speech to Congress Tuesday, when Shelley said she hopes to the rollout of the Affordable Care Act will continue to be trumpeted.

“I was frustrated in the beginning. But I was patient and tried again,” Shelley said of her experience. “Everyone who had a hard time needs to try it again. It’s worth it.”