Michelle Obama invites 102-year-old Miami woman to State of the Union address

The Miami HeraldFebruary 12, 2013 

— At age 102, it’s possible Desaline Victor is the oldest guest ever to attend a State of the Union address.

But the North Miami woman, known as "Granny" among the city’s Haitian community, was chosen less for her age than what she stands for.

As a naturalized U.S. citizen who waited for more than three hours to cast her ballot on Nov. 6, say White House officials, Victor represents what President Barack Obama wants to highlight most in his second term. So Victor will sit in the First Lady’s box, along with military families, people who are championing immigration reform, and victims of gun reform.

"I know I’m going to sit with the president’s wife. I did not think I would get here," she said. "I am proud."

As an immigrant, former farm worker, and respected elder and minority from one of the poorest parts of South Florida, Victor and others like her stand to benefit most from the policies the president will discuss during his speech, say White House officials.

Victor came to the attention of the White House through the Advancement Project, which was tracking problems at the polls after Florida lawmakers cut early voting days.

The White House describes Victor as "a spirited and independent centenarian," who was born in Haiti in 1910 and arrived in the U.S. in 1989. She enjoys attending church services and cooking her own meals.

Victor voted at a library on the first day of early voting when waits were as long as six hours. She stood in line for three hours until some voting rights activists complained that an elderly woman was struggling on her feet. A poll worker asked Victor to return later. She did so, emerging that evening from the building with an "I Voted" sticker.

That prompted the crowd to erupt into applause — and encouraged many to wait their turn instead of giving up on voting, the White House said.

“The line was shorter at night,” she said. “I wanted to voted for my guy, my son President Obama.”

"She said even if she got dizzy or collapsed on the line, ’This is something I have to do,’" said Philippe Derose, a North Miami Beach councilman who met Victor after her challenges during early voting.

For South Florida, Victor symbolizes thousands who endured long lines during a reduced early voting schedule and on election day.

Local activists and observers expect Obama to address voter’s rights during the State of the Union address. During his election night speech Obama said “we have to fix that” in referring to those who waited hours to vote.

He echoed a similar sentiment in his inauguration speech. “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote," he said.

Two Florida House members are also making a political statement with their guests at the State of the Union address. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston and Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach both invited those impacted by gun violence.

Frankel’s guest, Lynn McDonnell, is the mother of Grace, 7, who died in December in the shooting spree that killed 26 people, mostly children, at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. McDonnell’s husband, Chris, will attend the State of the Union with Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Calif.

"The reality is that it’s going to be pressure from the public that’s going to move some of our colleagues, and that’s the reason so many of us are bringing guests from Newtown," Frankel said. "I want my colleagues to look these parents in the eye, and tell them that we can get this done, that we can do something. You cannot look these parents in the eye and say ’I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do.’ That’s why these folks are going to be there."

Frankel sits on the Democratic Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, which recently outlined several gun-control measures. They include a ban on high capacity magazines; requiring criminal background checks for all firearms purchased at gun shows; banning assault weapons; requiring universal background checks and closing loopholes that allow gun purchasers to avoid a background check altogether; and strengthening mental health programs.

Grace’s father gave Obama one of his daughter’s paintings, which Obama keeps in his private study just off the Oval Office.

"Every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace, and I think about the life that she lived and the life that lay ahead of her," Obama said recently. "And most of all, I think about how when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we must act now...for all the Americans who are counting on us to keep them safe from harm."

Wasserman Schultz invited Megan Hobson, 17, of Hialeah, who in May was the victim of a drive-by shooting.

She was hit by a bullet that entered through the trunk of a car and helped save the life of a two-year-old passenger, according to the congresswoman’s staff. Hobson spent three weeks under intensive care at Memorial Regional Hospital.

Hobson, now a senior at Miami-Dade’s American Senior High, will join Wasserman Schultz at a news conference Tuesday morning before traveling to Washington for the president’s speech.

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

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