WASHINGTON -- Among the invited guests to sit in the First Lady's box at Tuesday's State of the Union address is Minneapolis mother Rebekah Erler, who had lunch with the president last summer after writing an inspiring letter to him.
Erler will sit with other guests -- DREAMers, students, small business owners and a couple other letter writers -- and First Lady Michelle Obama tomorrow night at the U.S. Capitol to hear the president deliver the annual address to Congress.
Erler wrote a letter to Obama last year detailing run-of-the-mill middle class struggles of a 36-year-old mother of two.
Erler and her husband moved to Minneapolis from Seattle after the housing crash, because her husband was struggling to find work as a construction worker. In Minnesota, her husband found a job in the re-modeling industry. Erler took out student loans to attend community college and is now an accountant. The two recently bought their first home in St. Anthony. She told the president she felt lucky they were both working, but week to week costs -- from groceries to day care -- were still hard.
The letter resonated with the president, who reads roughly ten letters a night from Americans who write to him. He flew out to Minneapolis for two days last June, had lunch with Erler and delivered two speeches, one on the economy.
From the White House on Monday: "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."
WASHINGTON -- White House officials said Monday they will hold a summit on countering violent extremism next month -- relying in part on the experiences of local Minneapolis/St. Paul officials.
The summit will highlight domestic and international work in preventing violent extremists and their supporters from "radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring" individuals or groups in the United States.
Federal officials will home in on best practices from the Twin Cities, Boston and Los Angeles -- all three are part of a pilot project integrating social services, education and local law enforcement in countering violent messages in vulnerable communities.
"Through presentations, panel discussions and small group interactions, participants will build on local, state and federal government ... to better understand, identify and prevent the cycle of radicalization to violence at home," the White House said.
The summit will be held Feb. 18.
WASHINGTON -- Rep. Tim Walz took on a new committee this week, swapping Transportation and Infrastructure for House Armed Services, which places the 5th-term Democrat on two of the more powerful committees dealing with military and veterans issues.
In a statement, Walz, the highest ranking enlisted soldier to serve in Congress, said he was looking forward to the new challenge.
Only one Minnesotan, Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan, now serves on Transportation and Infrastructure -- a committee historically important to the state, which has a long list of infrastructure needs. The late Rep. Jim Oberstar, who served 36 years in the House, chaired the committee back in the 2000s.
Transpo/Infrastructure was among newly elected GOP Rep. Tom Emmer's top committee choices, but the freshman was placed on Agriculture and Foreign Affairs instead.
Walz's spokesman Tony Ufkin said Friday the committee "isn't what it used to be" with the elimination of earmarks and that Congressman Walz still plans on working on infrastructure needs in his district.
"We kind of feel like you can be a strong transportation advocate, while not being on the committee so I don't think a whole lot has changed here," he said.
Ufkin said his boss getting a slot on Armed Services means he has more venues to push veterans and military reform legislation -- like a personality disorder bill, which looks at veterans who may have been discharged unfairly.
WASHINGTON - Some of Minnesota's U.S.. House delegation crossed party lines to support a bill to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline Friday.
The Republican-sponsored legislation drew yes votes as expected from Minnesota's GOP representatives John Kline, Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer. But a majority of the state's five Democratic representatives - Tim Walz, Rick Nolan and Collin Peterson - also vote yes. They were among 28 House Democrats who supported the bill, which passed 266-153.
In interviews with the Star Tribune, all three said they preferred to ship heavy crude oil squeezed from the tar sands of Canada by pipeline rather than by rail.
But Walz said the pipeline issue should not foreclose a push for more renewable energy sources.
"When you get mired in these issues that become political litmus tests instead of broader-based solutions, it causes you problems," he said. "What I've always said about Keystone is that the people selling it as pushing your gas prices going down are selling you a bill of goods. But those who say if we don't build Keystone, we will not get tar sands crude - that's not going to happen."
With some tar sands oil already being extracted and much more to come, "the question now is what is the safest way to move it," Nolan said.
Peterson had earlier predicted that President Obama would veto the Keystone bill if it passed the House and Senate. The president renewed that veto threat this week.
"I don't know if there will be enough votes to override a veto," Peterson said.
Democrats Betty McCollum of St. Paul and Keith Ellison of Minneapolis opposed the Keystone XL.
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Al Franken called the ride-sharing company Lyft's response to his privacy questions "promising" Monday after the company delivered an eight-page letter vowing they were trying to be honest with customers about how they use personal data.
Lyft's letter comes a couple months after Franken pressed the San Francisco-based company, whose drivers cruise around in cars adorned with pink mustaches, to clarify how it uses customer data, including whether the company shares consumer information with third parties and how long the company maintains riders' personal travel information.
Ride-sharing companies like Lyft, and its larger competitor Uber, work by users "requesting" rides from roaming drivers using cell phones. The drivers find their riders by cell phone GPS tracking devices.
"I appreciate the company's effort to provide thorough answers," Franken said, in a statement on Monday. "I look forward to further discussing these matters."
The second-term Democrat pressed both Lyft and Uber at the end of last year to be more transparent with how they bank and use consumer data after some unflattering stories broke about Uber threatening to publicize personal travel data about reporters writing critical stories about them.
Though Uber responded to Franken in December, the senator was deeply disappointed in that response, and said he wanted more information from the company in the future. Franken said Uber's response fell short in how he expects the company to handle consumers' private travel information -- including when and where customers take cars and how long the company hangs on to personal rider information.
Franken is particularly sensitive about how companies use GPS tracking data and introduced a law last year, which didn't pass in the last Congress and would have to be re-introduced this year, that would give consumers more control over how tracking data is accessed on cell phones.
What comes next is unclear, though Franken said Monday he wanted to continue the conversation in this Congress.