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Stacey Abrams, the first black woman to deliver a State of the Union response, rebukes Trump's border wall stance

Washington Post

Stacey Abrams delivered a sharp rebuke of President Donald Trump in the official Democratic response to the State of the Union address Tuesday night, castigating Trump and the GOP over immigration, voting rights, health care and the economy, in a preview of the battle lines that could shape the 2020 election.

Abrams, the first African-American woman to give the official rebuttal, cast the recent government shutdown as a "stunt" by Trump. She dismissed the critique by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., of a proposed voting overhaul from Democrats. And she accused the GOP of disregarding or failing to understand middle-class Americans.

"America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants, not walls," Abrams said, referring to Trump's determination to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

In a roughly 11-minute speech, Abrams sought to sharpen the contrast Democrats are seeking with Trump and the GOP ahead of the next election, as well as introduce herself to a broad audience ahead of a possible Senate run in here in Georgia, a potential 2020 battleground.

The speech was risky in a sense, since the track record of recent responses to the annual address has been spotty. Some drew ridicule while others left no lasting impact.

Trump's address mixed bipartisan notes - "Victory is not winning for our party, victory is winning for our country" - with polarizing themes, such as his renewed pitch for a wall. Abrams also infused her speech with nods to unity, noting that she had worked with GOP leaders in the Georgia state legislature.

The excitement surrounding Abrams's speech, which she gave from here in the Atlanta area, was hard to miss in recent days. Abrams, 45, has become a marquee figure in her party after nearly being elected the nation's first black female governor in Georgia in November.

For many Democrats, Abrams, a former state legislative leader, provides an appealing snapshot of what the party is offering as it gears up to take on Trump and the Republicans in the next election. She lives in a state that has leaned conservative but is changing demographically and becoming more competitive in statewide races.

As Democrats seek to elevate fresh faces, women and minorities, Abrams is a woman of color who has never held federal office and does not currently hold an elected position.

She took aim at the recent government shutdown, which polls suggest was unpopular with the public and stemmed from the partisan dispute over a border wall. "The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people - but our values," Abrams said.

The partial shutdown was the longest in U.S. history, spanning 35 days. Trump demanded money for a border wall, refusing to sign legislation to reopen government before caving to pressure from both parties. A new shutdown deadline looms on Feb. 15.

Abrams joined a list of other promising politicians tapped to offer a response to a president of the opposing party. For some, things did not turn out as well as they had hoped.

In 2013, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., gave a speech remembered most for his awkward attempts to swig from a water bottle without breaking eye contact with the camera.

Four years before Rubio, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, R, responded to then-President Barack Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress. Jindal's address was widely panned by his own party.

Abrams is one of a trio of Democrats who became stars within the party by performing well in the midterms - albeit losing - in states not traditionally friendly to Democrats. The others are former Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke of Texas and former Florida gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum.

Abrams has long stressed voting rights and registration, an issue increasingly important to Democrats, who have made the case nationally that GOP officials are placing obstacles in the paths of minority and other voters.

In her speech, Abrams addressed the recent comment by McConnell that a Democratic proposal to make Election Day a federal holiday, along with other voting overhaul measures, amounts to a "power grab."

"We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a 'power grab,' " said Abrams.

As she did in her campaign for governor, Abrams aimed for a personal touch at the top of her speech, talking about her family "went back and forth between lower middle class and working class" when she was growing up.

She also sought to distinguish her party from the GOP when it comes to the economy, arguing that "families' hopes are being crushed by Republican leadership that ignores real life or just doesn't understand it." The GOP tax bill "rigged the system against working people," she said.

Abrams challenged Republicans to embrace stonger gun control measures, delcaring, "this White House responds timidly while first graders practice active shooter drills."

During her campaign, Abrams rarely mentioned Trump by name, instead focusing on such policy ideas as extending Medicaid eligibility, increasing spending on public education, creating new jobs and encouraging small business.

Abrams used the occasion of her speech to promote her new political group, Fair Fight Action, which is seeking to call attention to concerns about the state's election system and has filed a lawsuit alleging that officials "grossly mismanaged" the 2018 contest in violation of Georgians' rights.

Fair Fight Action hosted watch parties in Georgia and elsewhere across the country.During one such gathering at Noni's, a restaurant and bar in Edgewood, a gentrifying neighborhood here, a young and racially diverse crowd gathered to watch Trump and Abrams speak. A burst of boos erupted when Trump first appeared onscreen. They repeatedly called out "liar!" as he spoke.

In 2018, Trump backed Republican Brian Kemp, who narrowly defeated Abrams. Trump said last week that he respected Abrams and hoped she would do "a good job" in her address.

Many Washington Democrats are hoping Abrams will challenge Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., in 2020. Abrams met with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, last month, according to a Democrat familiar with the conversations.

"Georgia is definitely in play and is a battleground state, and I am excited that the rest of the country is realizing that and putting us in the spotlight," said state Sen. Nikema Williams, newly elected chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party.

Abrams has yet to declare her next move. Other possibilities include another run for governor in 2022 or even a bid for higher office. The reception to her speech could help determine her future.

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