ATLANTA – Stacey Abrams stepped onto the biggest stage of her political career Tuesday and accused President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans of abandoning working Americans and fomenting partisan and cultural discord.
The Georgia Democrat introduced herself to the nation months after narrowly losing her bid to become America’s first black female governor. Instead, she became the first black woman to deliver a State of the Union response.
Speaking from a union hall in Atlanta, Abrams combined her party’s vision of a more unified society with her personal story as a black daughter of the Deep South.
“These were our family values: faith, service, education and responsibility,” she said, arguing for “this uncommon grace of community.”
“We do not succeed alone,” she added. “In these United States, when times are tough, we can persevere because our friends and neighbours will come for us.”
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Abrams identified Trump as architect of a 35-day partial government shutdown that ended last month, though a possible reprise looms in the coming weeks. “The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States,” Abrams said, “one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values.”
Abrams’ selection by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was a nod to her rising political fortunes despite her defeat last year. Encouraged by her ability to push Republican-run Georgia toward battleground status, Schumer is trying to persuade Abrams to run for a Republican-held Senate seat in 2020 – two years after she won more votes than any Democrat in Georgia history, including presidential candidates.
It was also a symbolic nod to the power and influence of black women – and all women – in anchoring the Democratic base, a reality also on display as Trump delivered his address. He looked out on the largest contingent of women ever assembled in Congress, many of them clad in white to honour the suffragists of the early 20th century.
Responding to the president’s most high-profile speech is one of the toughest jobs in politics. Abrams appeared to avoid the pitfalls that have left burgeoning young politicians subject to ridicule: Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for repeatedly drinking water, Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy III for his excess ChapStick, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal for a sing-song delivery.
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Abrams spoke in her hometown of Atlanta, with an audience that included workers, activists, labour leaders, health care professionals, educators, entrepreneurs and voters who her aides say had trouble casting their ballots in 2018. Abrams abandoned her governor’s race without a formal concession, asserting that Kemp used his last post as secretary of state to make it harder for people, particularly minorities and the poor, to cast ballots. Kemp defended his job performance, but Abrams has still emerged as a leading voting rights advocate nationally.
“This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country,” Abrams said. “We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a ‘power grab,”‘ she added, a reference to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s description of House Democrats’ efforts to overhaul U.S. election law.
Running for governor, Abrams talked often of her parents and the challenges they faced as children of the segregated Jim Crow South. She also spoke unabashedly about her personal debts, which Republicans used as an attack. Abrams often said her student loans and other debts amassed caring for family members left her more empathetic than most politicians to what the majority of U.S. households experience in day-to-day life.
“My family understood firsthand that while success is not guaranteed, we live in a nation where opportunity is possible,” she said.
Republicans are not sparing Abrams, with party operative lambasting her Tuesday for a “radical liberal agenda.” Trump resisted any shots at Abrams leading up to their prime-time juxtaposition. But last fall, as he advocated for now-Gov. Brian Kemp, the president called Abrams “unqualified” for statewide office.
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On Tuesday, Trump offered nods to unity and bipartisanship, with rhetoric about America’s place as the world’s leading capitalist democracy. Yet he also maintained his hard-line stand on immigration, continuing to cast the southern border as a porous and fundamental threat to Americans’ economic security and personal safety.
Abrams argued that a bipartisan immigration overhaul is possible.
Abrams did not broach the multiple investigations dogging Trump, inquiries the president called “ridiculous partisan exercises.”
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She said she is “very disappointed by the President’s approach to our problems.” But she added: “I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and the extraordinary diversity that defines America.”
Abrams wasn’t be the only Democrat weighing in Tuesday night. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a staunch Trump critic, delivered the party’s Spanish-language response.
And independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont delivered his own response broadcast on his social media platforms once Abrams has concluded.
The past and potentially future presidential candidate has done the same thing previously, but he’s been criticized this year for trying to upstage or take attention away from Abrams and her historic speech. Sanders struggled with black voters in his 2016 primary fight against Clinton.
The Working Families Party tapped Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who, like Abrams, is black, to speak after her official response.
Schumer said Tuesday that he has no problem with the added voices. Once Abrams and Becerra are finished, he said, “then every other member is free to do whatever they want.”