Guest Blog by PMA Member Erick Ajax: What it’s like to attend the State of the Union

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to attend the State of the Union Address as the guest of your home state senator?

PMA Erick Ajax got that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and he wrote all about it to share it with you.  Read his memories of that very special day below.

Last week I attended my first State of the Union Address. I was invited by Senator Al Franken - our first term Democrat Senator from Minnesota.  Despite the fact that we disagree on many major political issues, the Senator asked me because we clearly see eye to eye on our most important public policy issue, education and workforce development. I’m a third generation business owner in the metal forming industry.  And I was honored to attend as the Senator's guest.  

I have traveled to Washington, DC dozens of times over the past two decades. Most of my meetings on Capitol Hill are with 20-something legislative assistants. I can count the number of times I have had a face-to-face 15 to 20 minute meeting with a US Senator on one hand.   Moving between appointments on the Senate and House side, I normally have to exit the building and walk or taxi around the US Capitol to clear security one more time before my next meeting. After 9/11, the public is not allowed to walk in the tunnel or use the train that runs under that US Capitol between the House and Senate office buildings.  All of that changed for me last Tuesday.

My morning started early with a VIP tour of the White House arranged by the Senator’s staff.  I was the first one in line and, after clearing security, I walked right into the east wing. After a few steps, I came face to face with Bo. I tried to work up the courage to ask his handler if he was really paid $160k a year to walk the President’s dogs. It’s always a thrill to see the historic  presidential photos on the walls of the east wing and the past presidents' china on display.  I like Abe Lincoln’s the very best. 

One of my favorite rooms is the east room, the largest in the White House.  A Lansdown portrait depicting George Washington, is in that room.  It's the oldest possession in the White House and was painted by Gilbert Stuwart in 1797.  It was rescued from fire by Dolly Madison in 1814.  A companion portrait of Martha Washington painted by Eliphalet Andrews in 1878 hangs beside it.

I was met outside of the White House by Maggie Rousseau, one of Senator Franken’s aids. She brought me directly back to the Senator's office where I was given a desk, telephone and computer right outside the office of Casey Aden-Wansbury, the Senator's Chief of Staff.  Franken’s staff had carefully scheduled my entire day and provided me with my itinerary.

My first meeting was with the Senator’s Chief of Staff and Ed Shelleby, the communications director. We discussed my day and how the Senator and I were going to respond to the Minnesota media interviews later that afternoon. Since we knew the President was going to talk about education and the long term unemployed, we had plenty of common ground and first hand examples of what is working well in Minnesota.

Then, Maggie provided me with a tour of the US Capitol. For the first time in over a decade I was able to ride the underground congressional train from the Hart Senate office building to the US Capitol. Maggie explained that the Senator can make it from his office to the Senate chamber for a vote in less than 5 minutes.  I learned some of the history of our beautiful Capitol including the empty cript built for George Washington directly below the dome and the painting of our first President on the top of the dome ascending into heaven.

After the tour, I went back to Senator Franken’s private office for a 30 minute meeting with the Senator and Jake Schwitzer, the legislative assistant working on workforce development to discuss some of our recent success with several of our sector partnerships and career pathways. We agreed that the  Senator’s Community College to Career Fund Bill has the potential to replicate what has been achieved in Minnesota.

Then it was time for lunch in the Senate private dining room in the Capitol with three members of Senator Franken's team - Casey, Jake and Maggie.  Jake and Maggie mentioned that this was the first time they ever had lunch in this special room.  I kept pinching myself asking how a little metal bending pip squeak like me ever get invited up here!

Back on the train to the Hart Office building I begin to think about joining the Senator for 45 minutes of media interviews that will air back home on the 6:00pm Minnesota news stations tonight.  What am I going to say, I wondered.  And what if a draw a complete blank while on camera? 

While waiting in my “Washington office for a day,” I checked my e-mail and learned that the White House allowed me to transfer my invitation to join other workforce development folks from around the country for a meeting with the President, Vice President and several Cabinet members on Friday. Jane Samargia, Executive Director of HIRED, one of our long term sector partners with M-Powered, confirmed that she can attend in my place.

Sitting in a television studio doing a satellite interview into a HD camera speaking to a reporter 1/2 way across the country is a bit intimidating for me.  Especially sitting shoulder to shoulder with a US Senator who spent 15 years in front of the camera as a comedian on SNL!  Our interviews with the local Minnesota media went very well. You can download video from these interviews here.  

After the interviews, having two hours of down time to freshen up and take a quick nap back at my hotel on Capitol Hill before dinner was a welcome break!

Then the real fun began went I met Senator Franken back at his office at 6:00pm.  We rode the train over to the Capitol for the private Senate supper. The Senator and I were some of the first to arrive. We served ourselves generous servings of shrimp, black beans and chicken pot pie. The Senator said the first time he had all you can eat shrimp he knew that he had made it big.

Shortly after sitting down to enjoy our meal together Senator John McCain asked, "Al, can I join you and your guest?”

Of course we said, "Yes, that would be just fine!"

The next Senator I met was Charles Grassley.  Senator Franken jokes that he met Senator Grassley on the train on his very first day in the Senate.  Senator Grassley said that Senator Franken looks just like he does on TV but only shorter and Franken shot back with the same comment but that Grassley actually looks taller in person.  My conversation with Senator Grassley quickly moved to his 700 acre farm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  He even invited me to bring my dad down for some pheasant hunting after the harvest next fall.

Our next guest to join us at our table was Dr. Brian Monahan the Attending Physician of the United States Congress. (the 435 Representatives, five delegates, Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, and 100 Senators) and the nine justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Dr. Monahan explained that he is also tasked with emergency care for thousands of staff, security personnel and dignitaries, and implementation of the environmental health, public health, and occupational health programs of the Capitol Hill region.   The Attending Physician is instrumental in security planning and works with the Architect of the Capitol, Senate Sergeant at Arms, House Sergeant at Arms, United States Capitol Police, and other congressional officials to ensure medical support during contingency operations. I would see some examples of his planning later in the evening.

PMA Member Erick Ajax with Senator Al Franken (D-MN)
Just then, Minnesota’s senior Senator, Amy Klobuchar, arrived at our table and introduced us to her guest.  Dr. John Noseworthy, the President and CEO of the Mayo Clinic.  Senator McCain jumped to his feet and profusely thanked Dr. Noseworthy and his colleagues for saving his life, he said that he would not be alive today if it was not for the advanced care that he had received during his stay at Mayo.

Before I knew it, someone came by our table reminding us that the Presidents SOTU address was going to start in a little more an hour.

I spoke with pride to Senator McCain about the dozen veterans my company had hired in the last 3 years. I also shared that my snowbird parents were on their way to Sunny Arizona for the rest of the winter. Soon it was time to head towards the House Chamber to find our seats. When I shook senator McCain’s hand for the night he asked me to do two things. “First, thank each of your veteran colleagues back at work for their service to our country. Second, send my personal welcome to Arizona to your Mom and Dad.”

Before saying good night to Senator Franken he brought me into one of the more ornate rooms in the Capitol for a photo of the two of us before showing me his desk in the Senate chamber. I was so overwhelmed at this point that I asked him where he was going to sit in the in the Senate Chamber tonight for the SOTU!  Oops!  You can download this photo of the two of us here.

As I walked towards the House Chamber, I frequently found myself trying to place a face, trying to recall whose jowls had just passed me, whose vaguely familiar face I had once seen on Meet the Press.

While nearing my gallery, I began to notice some of Dr. Monahan’s contingency planning - dozens of first responders staged in the wings of the top floor of the Chamber with gas masks, hard hats, medical supplies,  and body armor.  I began discussing the concept of the designated survivor with another guest walking beside me.  You know the member of the Cabinet who’s not at the State of the Union in the event that the building blows up?  Last week, the designated survivor was again the secretary of energy, Ernest Moniz. (In 2013, it was then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.)  So if the unthinkable happens, it looks like our country is going with the Energy guy.  I felt that the US Capitol was the safest place on earth that night.

I handed my ticket (Gallery 6, Row D, Seat PC 2) to a guard and was informed to flip it over and “read the rules”.  On the back of the ticket were, indeed, five rules:

1.      Nothing may be taken into the Galleries other than articles of clothing and handbags.
2.      Guests must remain seated, and refrain from reading, writing, eating, drinking, applauding, smoking, or picture taking.
3.      Front railing must be kept clear of all objects and guests must not lean on railings.
4.      Appropriate hats may be worn by gentlemen for religious purposes only.
5.      Any disturbance or infraction of these rules is justification for expulsion from the Galleries.

Walking into the chamber is an unusual experience. The room is about the size of a Broadway theater, but with much better lighting. The space is cramped—there are only four rows in the gallery—and you have as much personal space as you do flying coach.

There's a lot of awkward chatter in the gallery as guests introduce themselves and try to sort out each other's politics. Do I like the people next to me or loathe them? To my right was James Mason, Jr. a retired insurance executive from Omaha who was once Warren Buffets’s insurance guy before Warren “bought the company.”  To my left was Paul Rieckhoff from New York.  He is the Founder and CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I asked my neighbors if we will be able to stand and applaud when the President says something good. They said they were not sure since this was also their first SOTU.

Galley 6 is about as good as it gets, directly facing the President, Vice President and the Speaker of the House.  Soon the place went wild when the first lady arrived. Not long after that, her husband entered.

As Obama made his way down the aisle directly beneath us through a sea of handshakes toward the dais, he shook the hand of Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.  One of my neighbors joked with me, “Did you just see that, I bet they were not talking about the Vikings!”

Before last week’s speech, I wondered how many times I'd feel compelled to stand. I told my new friends that I really hoped we would be able to stand and cheer. But, again, we debated that our tickets had informed us that we were prohibited from standing. And applauding.  And most forms of hat-wearing!

We soon found ourselves clapping when others were clapping, standing when others were standing. In 2013 there were 31 standing  ovations, (this year there were 44) I carefully watched my hero John McCain for the cue to jump to my feet and applaud. I also noticed the former comedian from SNL was peeking over his shoulder checking on his guest up in the peanut gallery for his reaction when he was standing in presidential approval. I am sure that I found reason to stand and applaud at least 25 times!

When the speech was over, we all stood and waited for the president to exit the building. Then we waited some more. Eventually, perhaps 15 minutes after the speech had ended and the networks were edging toward their return to regularly scheduled programming, we were allowed to exit the gallery. Just then we noticed Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty (guest of Louisiana Representative Vance McAllister) trying to climb up and sit in the speaker’s chair before being asked by the Capitol Police to get down from there! 

While leaving the gallery, I met and thanked several wounded warriors for their service to our country and they responded with, "Any time, sir.”

I exited the Capitol stepping out into the snowy night and started to descend Capitol Hill. I immediately noticed the dozens of Capitol police officers in every shadow surrounding me, armed with fully automatic weapons.  I made a point of thanking each of them for keeping all of us safe tonight. Most responded with a crisp, "Yes sir!"  

Upon reaching the bottom of Capitol Hill, I realized that I still was inside of several security fences that had been erected around the US Capitol. I was glad that I still had my official SOTU ticket in my pocket as I easily passed through even more security and a maze of fence.  All of the streets were closed for blocks as I walked alone in the snow away from the Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue looking for a cab to hale. After walking past many Capitol Police road blocks at every intersection I was suddenly ordered to “HALT!”  I stopped in my tracks as I turned to see the Presidential motorcade flying down Pennsylvania Avenue taking the President and his family back to the White House.

After returning to my hotel room, my host for the day had already issued the following statement to the media in response to President Obama's 2014 State of the Union address. “I know Erick Ajax, my guest for the State of the Union tonight, shares my concern about the skills gap. And we both know that workforce development accomplishes so many things—it creates jobs, it makes the U.S. more competitive globally, and it helps address college affordability.”

It’s not often that you get invited to the President’s SOTU address.  If you ever get the opportunity, I highly recommend attending, regardless of  your political affiliation or who invited you. It's is a once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget.


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