Stacey Abrams used the biggest speech of her political career Tuesday to shine the light on Georgia-style bipartisanship and slam President Donald Trump and his Republican allies for a federal shutdown “disgrace” that devastated American families.
Abrams laced the Democratic rebuttal to the State of the Union with calls for political leaders to embrace a vision that offers struggling families a chance at middle-class prosperity, saying that “hopes are being crushed by Republican leadership that ignores real life or just doesn’t understand.”
And the former gubernatorial candidate said she was outraged after joining a group of volunteers in Georgia a few weeks ago to help distribute meals to furloughed workers who needed financial help amid the 35-day federal shutdown, which ended after Trump relented on a demand for funding for a wall on the U.S. border.
“Making their livelihoods a pawn for political games is a disgrace,” she said. “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.”
Presenting a contrast to Washington’s gridlock, Abrams touted Georgia as a sterling example of how to work across the aisle. She spoke of allying with Gov. Nathan Deal and other GOP leaders while she was the state House’s top Democrat to pass a criminal justice overhaul and infrastructure improvements.
“The leaders of our state didn’t shut down — we came together. And we kept our word,” she said.
“It should be no different in our nation’s capital,” Abrams said. “We may come from different sides of the political aisle, but our joint commitment to the ideals of this nation cannot be negotiable.”
But she said none of those ambitions can be possible without guaranteeing “the bedrock of our right to vote” — reinforcing her demand to expand ballot access after a race for governor clouded by long lines at polling sites and criticism of the cancellation hundreds of thousands of “inactive” voters.
“Let’s be clear: Voter suppression is real,” she said. “From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.”
‘Rigged the system’
The first black woman to deliver the rebuttal, Abrams was awarded the assignment less than three months after her narrow defeat to Republican Brian Kemp in the race for governor. It is also one of the most difficult speaking gigs in politics, and several of her predecessors squandered the opportunity.
For Abrams and her allies, the prime-time stage offered the chance to elevate her national profile and promote a new voting rights group, Fair Fight Action, which is challenging Georgia’s electoral policies in court.
It could also pave the way for a possible challenge to first-term U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive fiercely loyal to Trump. Shortly before Abrams gave her speech, Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico, who lost her bid for lieutenant governor last year, launched a “draft Stacey” fundraising campaign to run.
There was no mention of that possibility in the speech. Instead, she talked of growing up in Mississippi and Georgia with parents who fostered her dream to run for public office, sparking her bid to become the nation’s first black female governor.
She lost that race by a slim margin but ended her campaign without formally conceding, accusing Kemp of using his role as state’s top election official to make it harder for people to vote. Kemp and his allies said they were enforcing laws, some of them supported by Democrats, meant to block illegal ballots.
Abrams has emerged as her state party’s leader-in-exile since then, at once the most prominent Democrat in Georgia and a national figure loathed by some Republicans. Top Democrats are feverishly courting her to run for the Senate next year against Perdue, while Republicans are readying for the race.
Shortly before her remarks, the Republican National Committee branded Abrams “Sore Loser Stacey” and the National Republican Senatorial Committee blasted out a 30-second video featuring snippets of her campaign-trail remarks that infuriated conservatives.
Abrams reflects a changing Democratic coalition that’s responded to Trump’s presidency with a more liberal approach. To keep pace with voters, the party is embracing politicians who focus on expanding its base rather than winning back moderates.
That was at the heart of Abrams’ bid for governor. She staked her campaign on energizing liberal voters with calls for new gun restrictions, an urgent appeal to expand Medicaid and more tax credits for lower-income families.
Her speech Tuesday echoed that platform. She blasted a GOP tax cut she said “rigged the system against working people,” urged lawmakers to protect the Affordable Care Act and called on Congress to fight climate change.
But she put expanding ballot access in a paramount role, saying that all those policies can’t be enacted if there are threats to “undermine our right to vote.” Surrounded by supporters who faced troubles casting ballots, she called the fight over voting rights the “next battle for our democracy.”
“We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a ‘power grab,’ ” she said.
“The foundation of our moral leadership around the globe is free and fair elections,” Abrams said, “where voters pick their leaders — not where politicians pick their voters.”