North Bay congressional representative Mike Thompson was notably absent from this year's State of the Union address. That's because he was a designated survivor, meaning the congressman took in the speech from a secure location in case of a catastrophe at the U.S. capitol.
KRCB spoke with Thompson’s guest attendee about her experience.
"I love America," Jennifer Gray Thompson said. "So I was very honored to go and it was an amazing experience."
Gray Thompson - no relation to Congressman Thompson - is leader of After the Fire USA and the Rebuild North Bay Foundation, two groups focused on wildfire recovery and resiliency work.
She said sitting in the gallery for the State of the Union is a wholly different and interesting experience to watching the television coverage.
"Yes, you recognize that there are people who are booing or who are being dramatic, but that's really not the focus when you're actually there," Gray Thompson said. "The news actually focuses a lot on people like Marjorie Taylor Green or other people's bad behavior."
"But when you're up there, really what you're focusing on is what is the president saying?" Gray Thompson said. "Who are the people around me? So I didn't notice it as much until I watched the news."
An early arrival to the address due to Thompson’s role as designated survivor, Gray Thompson said the extra time allowed her to make meaningful connections with other guests.
"We started having a conversation about community organizing and he was Corey Booker's guest and he has been doing community organizing around police reform for 25 years," Gray Thompson said. "And you know, we had this great conversation about how he approaches communities and how I approach communities as a wildfire disaster person and how similar our approaches are."
She said a big part of the experience is simply seeing who’s in attendance.
"It is the best people watching ever," Gray Thompson said. "And the other thing is we're always told we live in a very divided country, and in many ways that's true, but you know, we're all sitting there as people who are investing our time in America and in the dream of America."
Gray Thompson, who was in DC to help push for tax relief for recipients of wildfire settlements as well as attend the State of the Union, said the simple act of sitting and speaking with other attendees left her full of hope.
"The other side of me was a big Utah donor for the GOP, and we didn't necessarily align politically, but we had a great conversation and there was really no friction at all," Gray Thompson said. "I think people really need to understand that, again, while we're sold the idea that we're all divided, I just don't think we're as divided as we are told we often are."