PALM HARBOR — Chelsey Gutierrez remembers growing up in a Republican household in California and her parents watching each State of the Union speech on television.
Tuesday night, when President Donald Trump speaks for a second time, they'll be paying even closer attention than usual.
That's because Gutierrez, 30, of Palm Harbor, will attend the event live as guest of U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist. She was chosen because her husband Chris, 33, is one of more than 1,100 area Coast Guard members who missed a paycheck during the longest-ever government shutdown.
Gutierrez' parents, Pam and Craig Daniger, are impressed.
"They're floored and really proud," she said. "They think it's really cool that I get to see a part of that tradition and history."
Gutierrez, mother of two young boys, was selected after responding when Crist's office asked about the impact of the shutdown.
Even without a paycheck, the Gutierrez family had to double up its food purchases to provision her husband for a deployment to a small island outpost.
"We don't know when that reimbursement is coming through," she wrote to Crist, the St. Petersburg Democrat. "We don't know when our paycheck will come. We have spent hours calling our mortgage lender, the credit union for our car, and utility companies. We have just enough in our savings to make it through February first- and then we'll be out. I can't get a job, because he's deployed right now and I don't have anyone to watch the children."
What's most frustrating, she wrote, "isn't even the fact that he's working and the paycheck is on hold, or that he's deployed and I'm scratching and clawing to make ends meet here, or that I'm completely helpless to work and help us afloat — it's that the Coast Guard is still denied the respect and recognition as part of the military."
In her response, Gutierrez avoided taking sides on the contentious battle between Trump and House Democrats over funding for a border wall. But she said the political machinations have taken an unfair toll.
The government may shut down again depending on whether negotiations wind up by a Feb. 15 deadline.
"We feel like pawns in a political game and we're sick of it," Gutierrez wrote. "Fund the wall or don't, but come up with a way to pay those who are working to keep us safe. It is mind boggling to me that TSA, border patrol, and the coast guard are not being paid or are furloughed right now. If this fight is over homeland and border security, why are they the very ones being sacrificed? My husband is proud to serve and I'm proud to stand behind him, but we need those paychecks to survive."
In an interview, Gutierrez was quick to point out that she speaks for herself and not the Coast Guard.
The wife of a Petty Officer 3 who maintains rescue helicopters at Air Station Clearwater, Gutierrez finds it difficult to accept the tremendous outpouring of public support, including food from emergency pantries set up by the Sun Coast Chief Petty Officer's Association and a woman in Plant City.
"Accepting help has been hard, because we are used to being the helpers," Gutierrez said. "It was like this weird mixture of feeling embarrassed and ashamed and most of it feeling like we were taking away from people who really needed it."
Gutierrez said she was shocked when Crist's office reached out to her Wednesday night to invite her to the State of the Union.
"I'm terribly excited and just totally floored," she said. "I am extremely honored by it and totally nervous. I am just a stay-at-home mom."
The excitement will eventually wear off, but not the worry. On Friday, the family received a regular paycheck but they know the next ones are up in the air.
"We act like it's still in shutdown. My husband is working on our budget right now, actually. We stash and save in case it happens again."
Contact Howard Altman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.