pocan baldeh SOTU

Ald. Samba Baldeh, a Muslim American, was among more than a dozen guests invited to the State of the Union because of their faith. The invitations were meant to show support after a wave of anti-Muslim events and rhetoric across the country.

At one point during Tuesday night’s State of the Union, northeast Madison Ald. Samba Baldeh was near tears.

“The feeling was very powerful,” Baldeh said of listening to President Barack Obama’s comments about recent anti-Muslim incidents and rhetoric across the country. “Looking at him and hearing how passionate he is about keeping this country united ... it was very touching, very moving.”

Baldeh, an immigrant from the west African country of Gambia, where the population is about 90 percent Muslim, was invited to join Rep. Mark Pocan, a Madison Democrat, at the address because of his religious beliefs and leadership in Madison.

More than a dozen members of Congress invited Muslim Americans from their communities to be guests at the State of the Union.

The invitations, spearheaded by Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, were meant to make a statement against the recent increase in anti-Muslim incidents and rhetoric across the country, including high-profile remarks from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer,” Obama said in the address. “That’s not telling it like it is, it’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world.”

“I think he made that message very clear to everybody,” Baldeh said of the president’s remarks. “I think it's a comfort to the Muslim community to know the leadership of this country doesn’t reflect what the Republican presidential candidates are talking about in their primaries.”

Pocan said audience members were hushed during the second half of Obama’s speech, when he touched on themes like religious discrimination, partisanship, fear and demonization.

“There weren’t the normal ‘applause lines,’” Pocan said. “I think some of his message was directly to the American people, not just the Congress.”

“What his speech was attempting to do was be more aspirational and look at things in a bigger, broader way, the way America should be looking at things,” he added.

Baldeh, who was elected to represent District 17 on the Madison City Council in 2015, said he never imagined having the opportunity to attend a State of the Union address, and is very appreciative of Pocan’s gesture.

“That’s one thing I never thought I would have the opportunity to do,” he said.

In addition to his work on the City Council, Baldeh volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County and the AIDS Network, is a member of 100 Black Men of Madison, a nonprofit advocacy and mentoring group, and serves among the leadership of the local Senegambia Association and African Association.

He said from Washington on Wednesday that he was looking forward to getting back to work in Madison and collaborating with other public officials, including Pocan, to foster a spirit of inclusion and support for Muslim Americans in Madison and all of Wisconsin.

“Hopefully, I can make the community better,” he said.