Monday, January 26, 2015

Gov. Scott's First Big Challenge of New Term: A Legal Scandal



PHOTO: Gov. Rick Scott answers reporters' questions, and there are a lot of them, amid allegations of improper oversight of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Photo credit: Sara K. Brockmann, State of Florida/Wikimedia Commons.
PHOTO: Gov. Rick Scott answers reporters' questions, and there are a lot of them, amid allegations of improper oversight of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Photo credit: Sara K. Brockmann, State of Florida/Wikimedia Commons.

 Just months after being elected to a second term, Florida Gov. Rick Scott is embroiled in a controversy surrounding his handling of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).

A nonpartisan, government watchdog group, Integrity Florida, is asking for an investigation, claiming Scott improperly used the FDLE to do some political dirty work.

Integrity Florida's executive director, Dan Krassner, explains why the governor and his advisers are being accused of federal civil rights violations.

"Former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey alleged that Gov. Rick Scott and his top advisers conspired to falsely name Colleen Reilly, who was then acting Clerk of Courts in Orange County, the target of a criminal inquiry," Krassner explains.

Reilly had been in the spotlight after two prison inmates escaped in 2013 with forged papers allegedly from her office.

Scott responded "absolutely not" when asked if his office had conspired to make Reilly look bad, and has denied any wrongdoing.

Allegations of improper oversight of the state policing agency surfaced after Bailey, FDLE's longtime commissioner, was ousted last month.

Bailey has publicly called Scott a liar and says his December resignation wasn't voluntary, but political retribution for refusing to help fund-raise for the governor's reelection campaign last year.

The Florida Constitution requires an FDLE commissioner's removal be approved by the entire state cabinet, but Krassner says Scott acted on his own.

"A political agenda should never interfere with the authority and responsibility of FDLE to protect and serve the public trust,” Krassner stresses. “And Floridians deserve answers about whether Gov. Scott and his top aides attempted to abuse the authority of FDLE."

The State Attorney's office says it sees no need for a state level investigation, but Krassner says that doesn't rule out a federal probe.

President Obama's State of the Union proves he's not going to end his presidency quietly


 President Obama's State of the Union proves he's not going to end his presidency quietly
"For a guy whose party lost both the House of Representatives and the Senate less than 80 days ago, President Barack Obama sure didn't act like it when he delivered his sixth and second-to-last State of the Union on Tuesday night,"writes Mic's Mark Kogan on Obama's Tuesday address to the nation, in which the president laid out an ambitious agenda covering policy issues from community college to tax cuts for the middle class.

"With his last election behind him, Obama appears comfortable to once again serve as chief standard-bearer for the liberal left that catapulted him into office in 2008," writes Kogan. "The only thing that both Democrats and Republicans can be certain of is that Obama won't spend the last two years of his second and final term quietly planning his presidential library."

+ This is all well and good, but Obama's ambitious agenda resembled past addresses — full of promises, but short on specifics.

+ Republicans certainly aren't cowering in their boots. In defiance of the president, House Speaker John Boehner announced that he's invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stand before Congress and push for new sanctions against its archenemy Iran.

+ It doesn't seem that America was paying attention, either: This year's State of the Union had the smallest audience since 2000.

+ The Republican "enhanced webcast" of the State of the Union also tried to edit out Obama's references to climate change.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bill Maher Reviews The GOP 2016 Clown Show So Far




“The field is more crowded at an earlier time than ever because each of these corporate a*s-lickers wants to sign up mega-rich donors like Sheldon Adelson before one of the other guys in the pack blows him first,” Maher explained, before presenting the upside and downside to each candidate.
For example, Mitt Romney’s best attribute was his determination.
“Mitt wants to be president wants to be president like your dog wants that half a Slim Jim you dropped down inside the couch,” Maher argued. “On the downside, Mitt’s speeches are so boring, Bill Cosby uses them to knock out aspiring actresses.”
At least Romney had an upside, according to Maher, who couldn’t find one for Tea Party Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
“He’s what you’d get if Ayn Rand had half a sex change and moved to Waco,” he said.
Maher also offered some advice to former neurosurgeon and Fox News contributor Ben Carson.
“I know you don’t practice anymore, but if you still have your brain tools, here’s what I suggest,” Maher offered. “Lie down, put a mirror over your head so you can see what you’re doing, and start cutting, because you’re an insane, paranoid liar who will say absolutely anything — or as Fox News puts it, ‘When can you start?’”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), Maher said, faced an uphill battle if he entered the race, given his brother George W. Bush’s abysmal 22 percent approval rating when his presidential tenure ended. That instantly gave an advantage. By comparison, he explained, Bill Clinton left the presidency with a 68 percent approval rating, which instantly gives his wife, ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a leg up.
“In terms of brand loyalty, Hillary’s like if your last car was a Camry,” Maher said. “Jeb is like if your last car was a clown shoots you out of a cannon.”
Watch Maher break down the GOP’s contenders, as posted online on Friday, below.



Source rawstory.com

Friday, January 23, 2015

VETERANS HOMELESSNESS: MARSHALING EFFORTS TO END HOMELESSNESS FOR OUR VETERANS



Through the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, local leaders across the country are ending Veteran homelessness in their communities. Since First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Mayors Challenge on June 4, 2014, 313 mayors and 101 county and city officials have signed on to the challenge. On August 26, 2014, President Obama announced a 33 percent decrease in Veteran homelessness since 2010. This progress includes a 43 percent decrease in the number of veterans sleeping on the streets.
·         New Orleans, LA Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D) one of the first Mayors to answer the First Lady’s call and sign on to the Mayors Challenge, fast-tracked local efforts to connect every homeless veteran with permanent housing. On January 7, 2015 New Orleans became the first major U.S. city to end homelessness among Veterans.
·         Houston, TX Mayor Annise Parker (D), Phoenix, AZ Mayor Greg Stanton (D) and Salt Lake City, UT Mayor Ralph Becker (D) are poised to reach their goal by the end 2015.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

President Obama presents ambitious agenda at State of the Union



President Barack Obama used the second-to-last State of the Union address of his presidency to defiantly demand his Republican adversaries in Congress “turn the page” on the improved economy by supporting an expensive domestic agenda aimed at improving the fortunes of the middle class.

Released from the political constraints of a sagging economy, overseas wars and elections — and faced with the prospect of an intransigent Congress, Obama declared that “the shadow of crisis has passed,” proposing an ambitious agenda addressing domestic policies from tax cuts for the middle class to free community college for all Americans.

+ You can read the full text of Obama's State of the Union address here.

+ You can also read the full text of freshman Republican senator (and fledgling GOP darling) Joni Ernst's response to Obama's address here.

+ Honestly, it's incredibly unlikely that anything in Obama's address will actually happen.

+ If you're a woman, there are six lines in particular from Obama's SOTU address you need to know.

+ Obama made history by declaring that same-sex couples' right to marry is a "civil right." 

+ With "your life matters," Obama also changed the national debate on race and violence.

+ If all of this policy analysis feels boring to you (and if it does, well, may God have mercy on your soul), check out this sick ad-libbed burn Obama dropped on Republicans mid-speech. 

+ House Speaker John Boehner's review? Two thumbs down.

Five Years Since Citizens United: Has FL Seen the Real Impact Yet?

PHOTO: Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission case, experts still are examining its effects on elections at all levels. Photo credit: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons.
PHOTO: Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission case, experts still are examining its effects on elections at all levels. Photo credit: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons.


Five years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court made a milestone decision in the case of Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission. The high court reversed a four-decades-old rule prohibiting corporations, associations and labor unions from making unlimited contributions to political campaigns.

There's a common misconception that it was the Citizens United ruling alone that changed election laws, said Robert Jarvis, law professor at Florida's Nova Southeastern University. He said another decision two months later called "Speech Now" in a U.S. District Court of Appeals played an even bigger role.

"That really changed everything because that legalized super-PACs," he said, "and the money that is flowing is really flowing through the super-PACs and not through the corporations and labor unions that was the focus of Citizens United."

Super-PACs are political action committees that can raise unlimited amounts of money from all forms of donors. Super-PAC money already is believed to have swung one Florida election in 2014, when Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson contributed $5 million of his own money to help defeat a ballot initiative that would have made medical marijuana legal in the state.

Looking ahead to 2016, Jarvis said Citizens United and other related rulings five years ago won't affect the "big race," but he predicted they will impact the smaller ones.

"When you are talking about a national race like the presidency, you have to contribute so much money," he said. "On the other hand, when you are talking about local races and even statewide races, you can move the needle with a reasonable amount of money contributed."

Jarvis said the full effects of the high court's decisions and other rulings will be much clearer after the 2016 presidential election.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Excerpts of the President’s State of the Union Address

As Prepared for Delivery

“We are fifteen years into this new century.  Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world.  It has been, and still is, a hard time for many. 
           
But tonight, we turn the page.”


“At this moment – with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production – we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth.  It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.

Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?  Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”


“So the verdict is clear.  Middle-class economics works.  Expanding opportunity works.  And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way.”


“In fact, at every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances, and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot. We set up worker protections, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to protect ourselves from the harshest adversity.  We gave our citizens schools and colleges, infrastructure and the internet – tools they needed to go as far as their effort will take them.

That’s what middle-class economics is – the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”


“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership.  We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.  That’s exactly what we’re doing right now – and around the globe, it is making a difference.”


“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance.  Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.  We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.  This effort will take time.  It will require focus.  But we will succeed.  And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”


“No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids.  We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism.  And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information.  If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable.  If we do, we can continue to protect the technologies that have unleashed untold opportunities for people around the globe.”

The state of the union is...

The state of the union is...
Weak? Strong? In dire jeopardy? On a path to prosperity?|

President Barack Obama will deliver the annual State of the Union address from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday. Since Republicans took back control of Congress in November, Obama has proposed a series of major policy proposals, from unilateral immigration reform to free community college to a historic change in relations with Cuba — and his State of the Union address, while somewhat fruitless in the face of a Republican legislature, is expected to be no different.

+ Obama plans on detailing a new tax increase on the wealthiest Americans meant to fund a new, expansive tax cut for middle-class families and students.

+ Obama will also provide new details on his proposal for free community college for American students. Naturally, lawmakers are less than thrilled.

+ Given that the Supreme Court may finally decide the fate of same-sex marriage in the U.S., Obama may also attempt to cement his civil rights legacywith regards to LGBT rights.

+ Apart from touting his recent executive actions on immigration and diplomatic relations with Cuba, Obama will probably also brag about the relative success of the health care reform package that bears his name.

+ This remarkable selection of charts from Politico details how Obama's State of the Union priorities have changed since he took office:


 

Push for New Law Cites Cheaper Solar Power for Sunshine State

PHOTO: Florida is one of only five states in which people have to buy their solar power equipment from electric utilities instead of other types of vendors. A coalition has formed with the goal of a 2016 ballot measure to change that. Photo courtesy Floridians for Solar Choice.
PHOTO: Florida is one of only five states in which people have to buy their solar power equipment from electric utilities instead of other types of vendors. A coalition has formed with the goal of a 2016 ballot measure to change that. Photo courtesy Floridians for Solar Choice.

An unlikely alliance of environmentalists and political conservatives is banding together to bring more solar power choices to the Sunshine State.

The newly formed political action committeeFloridians for Solar Choice is gathering signatures for a constitutional amendment to allow businesses and homeowners to generate their own solar energy and sell it directly to consumers.

Currently, Florida is one of only five states that mandates solar power be bought and sold only through electric utilities.

Tory Perfetti, chairman of Floridians for Solar Choice, says there are many different reasons why Floridians should support a change.

"This is about freedom of choice,” he maintains. “This is about the free market. And it's about protecting the environment – with commonsense, free market principles involved."

Florida receives more solar radiant energy than any other state east of the Mississippi. The group claims that utilities, allied with the State Legislature, have blocked others from harnessing that power.

Perfetti says the proposed amendment seeks to break the hold that utilities have on solar, and make the expensive solar panels more affordable for businesses and homeowners to install.

"What this ballot initiative is going to do is to allow you to go in to contract, and have that company that you contract with, install that solar at their cost – fronting the cost – then purchasing the energy ‘backwards through,’ thus over time, lowering your utility bills and saving you money overall," he explains.

Perfetti is also the Florida director of the group Conservatives for Energy Freedom, although he says in his view, energy freedom isn't a political issue.

"Free market principles are conservative principles,” he stresses. “This is good policy for the consumer. This is good policy for businesses. This is good policy for Florida."

The political action committee needs 700,000 signatures to place the initiative on the 2016 ballot. It would then need voter approval of at least 60 percent to become law.


Phil Latzman, Public News Service (FL)

Florida Tops Nation in Obamacare Signups

PHOTO: At health fairs and other events, groups are ramping up bilingual efforts to assist uninsured Latinos in Florida in signing up for health insurance before this year's Feb. 15 enrollment deadline. Photo credit: Luigi Novi/Wikimedia Commons
PHOTO: At health fairs and other events, groups are ramping up bilingual efforts to assist uninsured Latinos in Florida in signing up for health insurance before this year's Feb. 15 enrollment deadline. Photo credit: Luigi Novi/Wikimedia Commons

Since the latest enrollment period began in November, nearly 1.2 million Floridians have signed up for health insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act or "Obamacare." Florida's numbers are the largest of any of the 37 states using federally-run health exchanges.

But there's a catch, according to Monica Rodrigues-Smith, Latino communications director with the South Florida chapter of Enroll America, a nonprofit that's leading efforts to get people insured. She says research shows Latinos are more likely than other ethnic groups to be uninsured, because of language barriers, misinformation and concerns about cost.

"The Latino community is one of the largest groups in America to go without healthcare coverage," says Rodrigues-Smith. "We will continue to go out into the Latino community and let them know we do have Spanish-speaking representatives to help them through the process and that financial assistance is available."

Nationally, some progress is being made. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports 2.6 million Hispanic Americans between ages 18 and 64 have signed up for Obamacare in the past year alone.

Rodrigues-Smith points out there are plenty more people who don't have health insurance with less than a month left to sign up.

"It's great news that nearly 1.2 million Floridians have accessed quality, affordable care," she says. "However, there are still hundreds of thousands of Floridians that need access to affordable, quality care."

She says Enroll America will ramp up its efforts, particularly in the Latino community, before the current enrollment period ends on Feb. 15.Phil Latzman, Public News Service (FL)


BP Faces Billion-Dollar Fines as Oil Spill Penalty Phase Begins



PHOTO: Oil began washing ashore on Okaloosa Island in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, following the BP spill in 2010. Photo credit: Drew Buchanan/Wikimedia Commons.
PHOTO: Oil began washing ashore on Okaloosa Island in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, following the BP spill in 2010. Photo credit: Drew Buchanan/Wikimedia Commons.

 The third and final phase in the civil trial over the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico begins Tuesday, and will determine the penalties which British Petroleum (BP) will ultimately receive for violations of the Clean Water Act.

The company was already found "grossly negligent" and largely responsible for the environmental disaster. Now, the trial turns to how much the British oil giant will be fined. David Muth, director of the Gulf Restoration Program for the National Wildlife Federation, says the range is from about $3 billion to a maximum of just under $14 billion.

"Because the judge has ruled gross negligence, one would expect something moving toward the higher end," he says. "You spill it, you clean it up. You pay for the cleanup, you pay for the response."

The amount will be based on evidence presented during this phase on BP's response to the spill, along with the judge's determination that more than three million barrels of oil ended up in the Gulf.

Eighty-percent of the fines levied will be sent to Florida and the other Gulf Coast states for recovery efforts under the RESTORE Act. Muth says among the most notable local impacts are the economic effects of the spill on eight panhandle counties.

"Those counties are highly tourist-oriented," he says. "Some of the most beautiful, white sand beaches in the world. They took a direct hit, and that tourism is based upon their natural resources."

The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster happened on April 20, 2010, when 11 people lost their lives in the explosion and fire aboard the offshore oil platform.

Also found to be liable, although to a much lesser extent, were BP contractors Transocean, which owned the mobile drilling rig, and Halliburton, which was responsible for the rig's cementing operations.

The RESTORE Act acronym stands for Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies.


Phil Latzman, Public News Service (FL)

Monday, January 19, 2015

King: Man Of Peace In A Time Of War


Guests in First Lady's Box -- State of the Union Address


 The following individuals will be seated in the box with the First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden and Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, at the State of the Union Address on Tuesday. Information about these guests and news about the State of the Union is available atWhiteHouse.gov/SOTU.

Malik Bryant (Chicago, IL) 
Letter Writer
Thirteen-year-old Malik Bryant sent a letter to Santa over the holidays, but rather than request the usual gifts, Malik wrote: “All I ask for is for safety I just wanna be safe.” And, rather than mail the letter to the North Pole, a non-profit organization – moved by Malik’s plea for the fundamental right to feel safe in his community – redirected the letter to the White House. The President wrote back to Malik, encouraging him and underscoring that Malik’s “security is a priority for me in everything I do as President.” Malik lives with his mother Keturah and his two sisters in a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. He is in seventh grade
, and his favorite subject is math.

Chelsey Davis (Knoxville, TN)
Student, Pellissippi State Community College
A native of Jefferson City, Tennessee Chelsey Davis decided that community college was the best path to re-enter her collegiate career with the ideal support and resources. In May 2015, Chelsey will graduate from Pellissippi State Community College with plans to pursue a B.A. in Nutritional Science. Chelsey currently serves on the Student Activities Board and as a New Student Orientation Leader at her community college. She also participates in the Knoxville Food Policy Council meetings and tutors elementary and middle school children in reading and mathematics at The First Tee of Greater Knoxville Learning Center. She has an interest in national and international humanitarian work and is excited to have an opportunity to study abroad in Segovia, Spain with the Tennessee Consortium of International Studies (TnCIS) this summer. After graduation, Chelsey plans to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Chelsey met President Obama, Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden earlier this month at Pellissippi State Community College when the President announced his "America's College Promise" proposal. It makes two years of community college free for responsible students. As someone who understands the benefits of community colleges first-hand, Chelsey hopes to encourage high school graduates to take full advantage of the opportunity.

William Elder, Jr. (Englewood, CO)
Medical School Student
William Elder, Jr. graduated from Stanford, and is currently a third year medical student at the Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State University in Ohio.  Bill was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was eight years old, at a time when most cystic fibrosis patients were only expected to live to early adulthood.  But thanks to a unique collaboration between the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, patients, researchers, and a pharmaceutical company, Bill, now 27, expects to live a long, full life.  He benefits from a medication that targets the underlying cause of the disease for a small subset of cystic fibrosis patients. Inspired by his doctors and care team, Bill plans to become a family practitioner with a focus on preventative care.  Bill’s story is a testament to the promise of precision medicine, an emerging approach to treatment that takes into account patients’ individual characteristics, such as their genetic make-up, to improve treatment.

LeDaya Epps (Compton, CA)
Laborer Apprentice
LeDaya Epps never had things handed to her. Born in Compton and raised in the Los Angeles foster care system until she was a teenager, LeDaya graduated high school but found it difficult to secure a stable job, bouncing from job to job as a medical assistant for years. She hit a few roadblocks in life and couldn’t find the reliable work and pay that she needed to provide for her three children. That changed when she was afforded the opportunity to complete a union apprenticeship in construction. She became one of only two women to complete the program, which included a rigorous boot camp that only one other woman completed, and now she has a good job – a union job – on the crew building the new Crenshaw/LAX light rail line with Walsh/Shea Corridor Constructors as a member of Laborers Local 300. LeDaya lives in Compton with her three children, ages 15, 11, and 3.

Rebekah Erler (Minneapolis, MN)
Letter Writer
Rebekah Erler, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a 36-year-old working wife and mother of two preschool-aged boys. Rebekah’s family was hit hard by the downturn in the housing market when her husband’s construction business went under. After relocating from Seattle to Minneapolis and a number of difficult jobs, Rebekah’s husband is now back in the re-modeling industry, gets home in time for dinner each night with their family, and is enjoying continued professional growth. Rebekah took out student loans to go to a local community college for career re-training and is now back in the workforce as an accountant. Rebekah and her husband recently bought their first home. Rebekah told her story to the President in March when she sent him a letter. But, Rebekah’s letter was more about her family’s future than it was about her past and the struggles they’ve overcome. Rebekah detailed the rising cost – from groceries to student loan payments to child care – of doing right by your family. Rebekah’s story is representative of the experiences of millions of resilient Americans: While our economy has made a strong comeback, too many middle class Americans families with two hardworking parents are still stretched too thin. That’s why the President spent a day in Minnesota with Rebekah, and that’s why he’s chosen to lift up her story again.

Victor Fugate (Kansas City, MO)
Letter Writer
Victor Fugate first wrote to the President three years ago, sharing how he went from being an unemployed new father continuing his education to obtaining his degree and working with low-income patients to obtain medical care. In July, the President had the opportunity to meet Victor when he visited Kansas City, and Victor thanked the President for his focus on the economy, health care and student loans – issues Victor personally knows are central for hard-working Americans trying to build a decent life for their families. In his current position with an agency of the Missouri Department of Mental Health, Victor sees firsthand how the Affordable Care Act is helping people’s lives, and he personally benefited from the ACA – using an exchange to get health care when he was laid off from his job as a financial counselor. Victor credits the flexibility from the Income Based Repayment Plan for allowing him to complete his education. He and his wife are able to pay off their student loans at a rate his family can afford. Victor is married and has a four-year-old daughter.

Staff Sergeant Jason Gibson, U.S. Army, Ret. (Westerville, OH)
Letter Writer, Wounded WarriorJason Gibson, a wounded warrior, first met the President in 2012 at Walter Reed while recovering from injuries he sustained serving his country in Afghanistan. In October, Jason wrote a letter to thank the President for visiting him as he recuperated and to underscore that “there is life after a traumatic event and good can come of all things.” Jason detailed the year he spent in California after his 21 surgeries: despite losing both legs and being unable to use prosthetics, he took up surfing and skiing, completed multiple marathons on a hand cycle, and even obtained his pilot’s license. Back home in Ohio, a non-profit group helped build Jason and his wife Kara a house specially designed for their needs. And Jason filled the President in on something else too – soon their needs would change as Kara was pregnant and due the next month with their first child, a baby girl. Quinn Leona Gibson was born on November 21, 2014.

Alan and Judy Gross (Washington, DC)After five years of wrongful imprisonment in Cuba, USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross was reunited with his wife Judy and his family on December 17. That same day – with Alan’s unjust captivity resolved – the President announced to the world that the United States was changing its relationship with the people of Cuba. In the most significant changes in policy in more than 50 years, the President directed that we would begin to normalize relations between our two countries. While in Cuba, Alan wrote the President letters and since returning has expressed his support for the actions the President’s taken with respect to Cuba. For five years, from thousands of miles away, Judy fought every day for Alan’s release and never gave up hope. Today, Alan and Judy are reunited in Washington, DC, spending time with their daughters and friends. “It’s good to be home,” Alan said.

Nicole Hernandez Hammer (Southeast Florida)
Mother and Sea Level Rise Researcher
Growing up in South Florida, Nicole Hernandez Hammer knows firsthand the impacts of climate change and sea level rise and is raising awareness to the disproportionate effects felt along the coast and beyond. As a sea level researcher she has studied how cities and regions most vulnerable to the effects of climate change also have large concentrations of Hispanics. She immigrated from Guatemala and also has Cuban heritage, and now Nicole works to mobilize the Latino community to understand and address the devastating effects that disproportionately affect the health of Hispanics and their families. To that end, Nicole works with Moms Clean Air Force to further the public’s awareness of climate change on children’s health. Nicole lives in Southeast Florida with her husband and her son.

Scott Kelly (Houston, TX)
American Astronaut
This March, Astronaut Scott Kelly will launch to the International Space Station and become the first American to live and work aboard the orbiting laboratory for a year-long mission. While living on the International Space Station, Kelly and the rest of the crew will carry out hundreds of research experiments and work on cutting-edge technology development that will inspire students here at home in science, technology, engineering and math. Additionally, scientists will compare medical data from Scott and his twin brother, Astronaut Mark Kelly, to gain insight into how the human body responds to longer durations in space. This research will support the next generation of space exploration and President Obama’s goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s. Prior to becoming an astronaut, Kelly was an accomplished pilot who served his country as a naval aviator. He was selected by NASA to become an astronaut in 1996 and has logged more than 180 days in space. He served as both pilot and commander on space shuttle missions as well as serving as commander for a long-duration mission on the International Space Station. Scott lives in Houston, Texas, and has two daughters.

Anthony Mendez (Bronx, NY)
Student, “Reach Higher” Initiative
Growing up in the South Bronx with his mother and three siblings, Anthony Mendez names two experiences from his formative high school years. In ninth grade, his best friend was murdered in his neighborhood, and the next year his family was evicted from their home and moved into a homeless shelter. Living two hours away from school, for six months Anthony had to wake up at 4:30AM to continue his education. Overcoming these experiences, he became the first high school graduate in his family – his story of perseverance represents the core of First Lady Michelle Obama's Reach Higher initiative. In July he met the First Lady and fellow students who never took their education for granted, and he said he learned to be proud of his past and never hide from it. Today Anthony is a freshman at the University of Hartford -- where he plans to study Political Science – on a partial track and field scholarship.

Larry J. Merlo (East Greenwich, RI)
President and Chief Executive Officer, CVS Health
Larry Merlo, 59, is President and Chief Executive Officer of CVS Health, which serves 100 million people each year through its 7,800 retail pharmacies, 900 walk-in medical clinics, and a pharmacy benefits manager with nearly 65 million plan members. As part of the company’s commitment to public health, in 2014 Merlo announced the landmark decision to be the first major retail pharmacy to eliminate tobacco sales in all of its stores. To reflect this broader health care commitment, the company subsequently changed its corporate name to CVS Health. Merlo has prioritized the company’s commitment to creating economic opportunities for current and future colleagues at all levels. CVS Health recognizes the value of military service and has a long-standing commitment to hiring qualified veterans and military spouses. The company has also established programs to hire long-term unemployed workers, create summer jobs for youth and transition workers off public assistance. CVS Health also trains pharmacy technicians through apprenticeship programs, offers scholarships to future pharmacists, and engages diverse students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. Merlo, a pharmacist by education, joined CVS/pharmacy in 1990 through the company’s acquisition of Peoples Drug, and he and his wife of 36 years, Lee Ann, live in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and have a daughter, Kristen.

Katrice Mubiru (Woodland Heights, CA)
Letter Writer, Career Technical Education Teacher
In January 2012, Katrice Mubiru, a career-technical education teacher for the Los Angeles unified school district, sent a letter to the President encouraging him to support K-12, adult and career technical education. Katrice met and introduced the President in July when he visited Los Angeles Trade-Technical College to highlight programs for citizens to learn the skills that growing technical fields require. As a teacher, Katrice has witnessed how technical education can change lives, and she wrote the President to share stories of students who pursued an education, despite difficult financial odds, on their way to news jobs in the growing health care field. Katrice is a Los Angeles native who graduated from California State University Long Beach, and is married with four children ages 7, 9, 17 and 19.

Astrid Muhammad (Charlotte, NC)
Letter Writer

Astrid Muhammad, a wife and mother of 6- and 10-year-olds, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in May 2013, but at the time she didn’t have health insurance and delayed treatment.  Last year, she enrolled in the Marketplace and obtained health insurance. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies could have refused treatment for her pre-existing tumor, but onAugust 28 – now fully insured – she had surgery to remove the tumor. 
In October, Astrid wrote to the President -- thanking him for passing the Affordable Care Act. Without her surgery, her neurosurgeon said the outcome would have been fatal and that Astrid, 39, could have lost her battle in only two years. She wanted to share her gratitude and new lease on life with the President, writing, “I would love to shake his hand and thank him.”On Tuesdayshe will have that opportunity.
 
Kathy Pham (Washington, DC)
United States Digital Service
Kathy Pham is a computer scientist with a passion for public service. Throughout her career, she has used technology to tackle pressing challenges. From Google to IBM to Harris Healthcare Solutions, she has designed health care interoperability software, studied disease trends with data analytics, and built data warehouses for hospitals. At the United States Digital Service, her background in technology unites with her commitment to service. This commitment is rooted in her family’s story—her parents came to America in pursuit of a better life, her mother received critical cancer treatment thanks to the Affordable Care Act, and her brother earned the Purple Heart for service in Afghanistan. Today, Kathy is applying the cutting-edge skills she honed in the private sector to improve health IT for more Americans, expand veterans’ access to benefits, and transform the way government provides services to families like hers.

Captain Phillip C. Tingirides (Irvine, CA)
Los Angeles Police Department

The south Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts has seen dramatic improvement in the crime rate since the area was tied to the eponymous race riots of 1965 and a spate of gang violence in the ’90s – and Captain Phillip C. Tingirides has worked toward and seen a continued decrease in crime since the start of the Community Safety Partnership (CSP) program in late 2011. Working for the LAPD since 1980, Captain Tingirides has in recent years spearheaded the CSP program, which fosters cooperation between the LAPD and residents of the Watts housing developments scarred from decades of distrust. In recent years, there has been a 50 percent reduction in violent crime thanks in part to the CSP program, which encourages dialogue at community meetings with police who personally engage with residents rather than only make arrests. Captain Tingirides is married to Sergeant Emada Tingirides of the LAPD, and the LAPD coordinator of the CSP program. Together they have six children.

Catherine Pugh (Baltimore City, MD)
Maryland Senate Majority Leader
Senator Catherine Pugh is a small business owner who currently serves as the Maryland Senate Majority Leader and is also President-elect of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. First elected to office in 1999 as a member of the Baltimore City Council, during her time in the state legislature, Senator Pugh has passed more than 100 bills, garnering praise and a reputation as a knowledgeable and passionate advocate for improving the lives of Maryland families. A supporter of raising the minimum wage, Senator Pugh supported and worked with the Maryland’s Women Caucus to pass a $10.10 minimum wage increase in Maryland. A believer that workers should not have to choose between going to work over taking care of themselves and their families’ health, Senator Pugh recently introduced the “Healthy Working Families Act,” a bill that seeks to provide Maryland workers with earned paid sick leave.

Carolyn Reed (Denver, CO)
Letter Writer, Small Business Owner

Carolyn Reed wrote to the President about how she was able to expand her small business and open an additional Silver Mine Subs shop in Denver thanks to a loan from the Small Business Administration. In her note, she also mentioned that she looked forward to benefiting from the Affordable Care Act, and currently she and her husband, David, are enrolled in the Colorado state exchange. Earlier this year in Denver, the President had dinner with Carolyn and other Coloradoans who wrote to him. The day after their meeting, Carolyn and her husband – inspired by the President’s call and the story of another letter writer – announced that they would give their hourly employees a raise to $10.10. Carolyn and David now own seven Silver Mine Subs shops, and they are looking to continue their expansion. They have six children, four of whom work for their growing business.

Dr. Pranav Shetty (Washington, DC)
International Medical Corps
Dr. Pranav Shetty is the Global Emergency Health Coordinator for International Medical Corps, a critical partner in the U.S.-supported effort to bring the Ebola epidemic under control in West Africa. In August 2014, Dr. Shetty deployed to Liberia to establish and oversee two Ebola treatment units, teams of rapid responders that deploy to Ebola hot spots across the country, and a training center for local and international health care workers now working on the frontlines of the Ebola response effort. Dr. Shetty arrived back in the U.S. in late December and will return to West Africa later this week to help establish International Medical Corps’ first Ebola treatment center in Guinea. Prior to the Ebola crisis, he responded to emergencies in Haiti, Libya, South Sudan, Jordan, Iraq, and the Philippines. Dr. Shetty is a U.S.-trained emergency medicine physician with a Masters of Public Health and has worked for International Medical Corps since 2011. He is based in Washington, DC, and serves as the initial health technical lead for International Medical Corps’ major emergency response operations worldwide.

Prophet Walker (Carson, CA)
Watts United Weekend, Co-Founder
While serving a six-year prison sentence for robbery, Prophet Walker, now 27, vowed never to get caught in the revolving door of a life of crime and continued incarceration. He turned his focus to education, starting a program in prison that provides fellow inmates a chance to complete a two-year degree. Once out of prison, Prophet attended Loyola Marymount University's school of Engineering, and more than 100 others in the program he founded have gone on to attend various universities. Ever since, Prophet has enjoyed a career as construction engineer and served the community, working with InsideOUT Writers, a group that teaches juvenile offenders to express themselves through writing, and also as a founding member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which advocates for sentencing reform and supports young men and women after incarceration. Prophet has also worked to strengthen the bonds between law enforcement, community stake holders, parents and the children of local housing projects by co-founding Harold Robinson Foundation's' Watts United Weekend, which provides weekend camp retreats for hundreds of people weekly. Through his work in the south Los Angeles community of Watts, Prophet has worked with Captain Tingirides of the LAPD – also a guest in the First Lady’s State of the Union box. They’ve collaborated on the Community Safety Partnership, which encourages building positive relationships and mutual trust between the community and law enforcement. Prophet credits his young daughter, Pryia, for his continued inspiration when working with young people.

Tiairris Woodward (Warren, MI)
Working for the local school system, Tiairris Woodward, 43, wasn’t making enough money to support herself and her three children, the youngest of whom has special needs. She started working for Chrysler in 2010 on the assembly line, and after doing both jobs full time, working 17 hours a day, Tiairris was in a position to move solely to Chrysler – a union job that makes her a member of United Auto Workers Local 7. After a year on the job, she saved enough to buy a car and rent a new apartment, and through Chrysler’s Tuition Assistance Program, Tiairris is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in business management. Tiairris’ story is one of many made possible through the comeback of Detroit and the American auto industry. The President is focused on ensuring more Americans like Tiairris – not just a fortunate few – share in the benefits of our American resurgence.

Ana Zamora (Dallas, TX)
Letter Writer, Student, DREAMer
Ana wrote to the President in September, “As with any other dreamer, my parents came to this country with a dream of a better future for their children.” And through the Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Ana is closer than ever to fulfilling those dreams. In 2012, she qualified and was granted temporary relief and work authorization – an opportunity Ana credits with getting a job in line with her career path and a better livelihood while finishing up her last year at Northwood University in Texas. Ana’s life has fundamentally changed for the better as a result of DACA. And because she has siblings who are U.S. citizens, her parents, a small business owner and a construction worker, are among the millions of people who are potentially eligible for the new Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program announced by the President last November. She hopes others can learn from her experience and mentors fellow students hoping to request temporary relief through DACA. After college Ana hopes to continue her studies and attend graduate school. She will also remain committed to supporting young students looking for an opportunity like she’s been afforded. Ana celebrated her first birthday in the U.S. and as she wrote the President, “The United States is my country. It is where I grew up, took my first steps, learned to read, write, play, graduated from high school, and will graduate from college.”