WASHINGTON -- When President Barack Obama turns to gun violence during his State of the Union speech Tuesday, he will likely look up at Michelle Obama's box in the House chamber and acknowledge the grieving Chicago parents of slain teen Hadiya Pendleton.
Pendleton's folks, Cleopatra and Nathaniel, through tragedy, are the latest symbols of why Obama is pushing Congress to take measures to stop gun-related bloodshed.
Hadiya, 15, was gunned down Jan. 29 at Harsh Park about a mile from the Kenwood home of the Obama family, a little more than a week after traveling here for Obama's inauguration.
Other members of the Pendleton family are expected to be on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, attending a Senate Judiciary Subcommitee hearing chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin on how Congress can respect Second Amendment rights to bear arms, while at the same time take steps to curb gun violence.
The hearing will feature a Chicago witness, Sandra Wortham, the sister of slain Chicago Police Officer Thomas Wortham IV, an Iraq War vet shot and killed by a handgun at the age of 30 on May 20, 2010, during a robbery attempt in front of his parents' Chatham home.
The audience will include more than 100 victims of gun violence, including Chicago's Annette Nance-Holt who was at the White House last month when Obama unveiled his comprehensive package of proposals to curb gun violence. Her son, Blair, was 16 and a student at Julian High School in Chicago when he was gunned down by a reputed gang member while on his way home from school in 2007.
Mrs. Obama -- whose daughters are 14 and 11 -- took a very unusual action for a first lady last Saturday, returning home to the South Side for Hadiya's funeral -- someone she did not know but nonetheless felt a deep personal connection toward.
Asking Hadiya's folks to be her State of the Union guests in her box is extraordinary follow-through -- but makes perfect sense, because at her core, Mrs. Obama is very, very proud of being a South Sider, albeit one with a remarkable trajectory. Hadiya was killed on Mrs. Obama's turf and she is doing something about it.
Rep. Bobby Rush -- whose son, Huey, was shot and killed during a 1999 holdup -- was also at Hadiya's funeral and he told me Monday, "I saw the face of the first lady and I saw the pain in her face."
Former President Ronald Reagan started the tradition of inviting everyday citizens or heroes to State of the Union speeches when in 1982 he asked Lenny Skutnik to be his guest in the House gallery after Skutnik rescued a woman from the Potomac River after an Air Florida plane crash.
Presidents, through the guests they invite to the State of the Union, "want to dramatize the human element in the policies they are proposing," Towson University presidential scholar Prof. Martha Joynt Kumar told me.
A major theme of Obama's speech will be boosting the economy, and guests of the president and Mrs. Obama in the gallery will put human faces on his proposals on job creation, immigration, energy and, of course, guns.
Then Obama hits the road to sell his State of the Union plans: Asheville, N.C., on Wednesday, the Atlanta area Thursday and home to Chicago on Friday, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been wrestling with the city's soaring murder rate.
Hadiya, as her parents know --and the nation will see on Tuesday night -- is not a statistic. She is a teen we should not have lost.
RAHM FOOTNOTE: Emanuel is scheduled to be in Washington on Thursday; among his meetings will be a lunch with Illinois members of Congress in the Capitol.