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Obama: Hadiya, victims of violence ‘deserve a vote’ on gun reforms

First lady Michelle Obamstands with CleopatrCowley-Pendeltbefore President Barack Obama's State Uniaddress during joint sessiCongress Capitol Hill WashingtTuesday Feb. 12 2013.

First lady Michelle Obama stands with Cleopatra Cowley-Pendelton before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) ORG XMIT: CAP112

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Updated: March 14, 2013 6:47AM

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night reached a dramatic climax as he pushed members of Congress to vote on gun reforms, singling out our nation’s recent tragedies of violence — including the slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton “just a mile away from my house.”

“Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote,” Obama repeated, raising his voice as the packed chamber rose to its feet as he evoked memories of Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo., and other communities hit by tragedies.

Obama’s anticipated remarks on gun violence, including its impact on his hometown, came toward the end of his address to a Joint Session of Congress, which spanned about one hour and hit themes meant to appeal to a “rising, thriving middle class,” while vowing not to create a larger government but a “smarter” one.

In Obama’s first State of the Union address since his re-election, the president laid out a far-reaching agenda, also calling for comprehensive immigration reform, promising to end the war in Afghanistan by the end of next year and pledging to “maintain the best military the world has ever known” even as “we reduce waste and wartime spending.”

At least two dozen Americans whose lives were upended by gun violence were in the chamber Tuesday night. That included relatives of the girl who has grown into a symbol of Chicago’s raging street violence.

“One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend,” Obama said. “Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.”

As Obama singled out victims and survivors, he told members of Congress to call the issue for a vote, even if they wanted to vote “no.”

“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote,” he said, raising his voice to compete with the din in the room. As he grew louder, the crowd applauded louder. “The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence — they deserve a simple vote. They deserve a simple vote.”

Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who survived an assassination attempt but is still recovering, was in the room, holding one hand over another and bouncing them together, trying her best to share in the applause.

Hadiya’s parents were sitting in the same box as first lady Michelle Obama.

But there was a representative of another Chicago tragedy.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s guest was Denise Reed, who knows of the violence ravaging Chicago all too well.

On March 3, it will be seven years since her daughter, Starkesia Reed, a 14-year-old Englewood student, was shot dead by a random bullet that went through a wall in her home.

“For my family and myself, she is very much alive in our hearts,” Denise Reed said. “We don’t want her passing to just go away. This was a child who lost her life, to senseless violence.”

Reed said she’s hoping Obama will succeed in efforts to control the flow of illegal guns on the streets, saying it would work to curb inner-city violence, adding that the weapon used to kill her daughter was a so-called “assault” military-styled weapon. “It wasn’t due to gangs,” she said of the shooting. “It was due to an altercation over a girl.”

“There are so many of these young people whose futures are so bright,” Duckworth said of Starkesia, who wanted to be a doctor. “This is the cream of the crop. These were going to be the kids who were the leaders.”

Obama focused much of his speech on middle class initiatives, pushing for a higher minimum wage, affordable early childhood education and scorecards for colleges, while promising a reduced deficit through spending cuts and tax hikes.

“Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour,” Obama said.

Obama proposed a “Fix-It-First” program that he said aimed “to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.”

Obama said broadening affordable early childhood education would boost graduation rates, reduce teen pregnancy and possibly drive down violent crime.

“I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” he said. Obama also proposed a college scorecard, where families could gauge which universities were worth attending. Colleges would also not qualify for federal grants if they weren’t performing up to standards.

One high-ranking Republican from Illinois called Obama’s remarks another “campaign-style speech” filled with promises that would amount to more government spending.

“For families struggling to make ends meet, tonight’s rhetoric did little to allay their concerns for the future,” said U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) “What they got instead was another campaign-style speech touting government spending as the engine of our economy, and no real plan to ensure a strong private sector that will grow jobs and make America globally competitive again.”

In one lighter moment of the night, Obama stopped on his way into the chamber when he saw another Republican from Illinois – U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who returned to work in January after recovering from a 2012 stroke. The two exchanged a bipartisan fist-bump and hugged.

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