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Capitol Staff Gearing Up for Annual Address

House chamber prepares for president’s State of the Union

At the State of the Union, it’s all about making an entrance, and the day before the big night, organizers rehearsed the most important entrance of them all.

Under the bright lights of a nearly empty House chamber Monday morning, someone simulated the famous rap of the speaker’s gavel by smacking a fist against a cardboard-bound notebook.

The knocking signaled House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving. Walking down the center aisle, he stopped at the third row from the back and deliberately extended his arm to push the button that activated a microphone poised delicately on the seat at his left.

“Mis-ter Speak-er?” an amplified Irving boomed, his voice rising at the end, as if in a question. “The President. Of the. United States.”

The videographers and photographers who will document Tuesday evening from the ground level began to move backward slowly, practicing their reverse course through the well of the House as they snapped pictures and maneuvered cameras for effect.

Irving was joined by his counterpart, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, and they stood on either side of a Barack Obama stand-in: a mustachioed gentleman in a denim shirt with an ID badge hanging on a lanyard around his neck. He smiled and waved at the empty visitor galleries above him and shook hands with the staffers who were standing at seats by the aisles and in the front rows.

Then they did it all over again.

This is probably the closest these State of the Union coordinators will get to the spotlight of the highly anticipated, annual presidential address, with the exception of the sergeants-at-arms and Irving’s deputy, Kerri Hanley, who introduces the arrivals of senators, the dean of the diplomatic corps, the Supreme Court justices and the president’s Cabinet.

Without their work behind the scenes, the pageantry of the event wouldn’t be remotely possible.

Bill Sims, the director of House Chamber Security, has been helping run the show since 1987, when he became the director of Doorkeepers. That office oversaw State of the Union logistics until 1995, when the task became the jurisdiction of the House Sergeant-at-Arms, and Sims was hired to take on a similar role under then-Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood.

Sims is in charge of coordinating all the entrances and communicating with his team via radio to bring in groups of very important people from the holding rooms connected to the House chamber.

He also helps ensure that first lady Michelle Obama’s entrance doesn’t coincide with other arrivals to allow the crowd to give her its undivided attention.

He works in tandem with the House Sergeant-at-Arms’ special events division to send out invitations and take a head count, which helps the Architect of the Capitol know how many extra chairs to bring onto the floor.

“We clean the building to our usual high standards,” AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said, describing her agency’s contributions to the event. “We also provide support for the press by installing the media stands as well as providing extra power supplies … throughout the Capitol — in particular in the gallery, chamber and Statuary Hall.”

In a way, it’s all about choreographing and timing the many moving parts, maintaining the dignity and decorum of the chamber and respecting the formal traditions of past addresses.

But in the midst of the fanfare, there’s also security to consider.

“The entire government is sitting in the House of Representatives all at once … and you have to make sure that’s protected,” Assistant Capitol Police Chief Tom Reynolds said. “They are all there in one place. It’s kind of like out on the platform on the day of the inauguration.”

Gainer, a former Capitol Police chief, said the State of the Union can be less nerve-wracking than the inauguration, from which officers are only just recovering.

“You have complete control over everybody who comes into the building and, even further, everyone who can get into the chamber, the floor or the gallery,” he pointed out.

Planning for the event starts a month out to coordinate the many moving parts and get everybody on the same page.

But for an occasion so grounded in formula and precedent, Sims reflected that the 25-odd State of the Unions he’s helped orchestrate haven’t changed much from year to year.

Even the list of members who stake out aisle seats hours in advance of the address to shake the president’s hand has stayed mostly the same.

“Obviously security has changed, but other than that, I think, if you looked at one from 1987 and looked at the one [tonight] on television, they would probably pretty much look the same,” Sims said.

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