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By Janell Ross
When Stacey Abrams delivers the official Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, she will become the first black woman, and one of just a handful of people of color, to make such a nationally televised address in U.S. history.
Abrams, 45, already made history last year when she came within 55,000 votes of being elected governor of bright red Georgia. In the process, Abrams proved a nimble politician capable of connecting with a broad swath of a deep South electorate, willing to champion unabashedly liberal policies in ways that expanded rather than contracted her support.
She ran with, not away from, a state legislative record that features plenty of compromise with Republicans long in control of Georgia politics. She navigated revelations about her outsider politics and personal finances, which have felled other political careers. And she bolstered her advocacy for voting rights while doing battle for the governor’s office with the state’s chief election administrator.
Abrams lost the election but, it seems, won a front in America’s ongoing war over the distribution of power. She’s rapidly become a kind of living symbol, a woman who on the eve of a historic speech is seen as the embodiment of the nation’s only meaningfully diverse political party.
“Stacy, a black woman, brings an understanding of the law,” said Marilyn Davis, an associate professor of political science at Abrams’ alma mater, Spelman College, ”an understanding of American values, her values, a respect for democracy and every other skill one could need.”
The task of rebutting Trump requires a blend of argumentative and storytelling skills, preparation and the capacity to speak with authority about the contents of a lengthy speech moments after its delivery. It is a task likely to be watched by only the most politically obsessed Americans, an estimated minimum of 600,000 people.
Adding to the pressure, in the the 53 years since the official opposition response began, it has helped to propel some rising stars to higher office, including the White House, and redirected the trajectories of those who have not handled the job with aplomb.
“It’s a high-pressure 10 minutes, very high-pressure,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan and author of a book about some of the best State of the Union addresses. He added that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “picked her for a lot of advantageous reasons both for the Democratic party and her political career. But there’s no question it’s a serious challenge. There have been a lot of bad ones.”
Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schumer, who alternate picks each year they are in power, are interested in appearing responsive to leftward pressure in the party and attentive to its diversity in a way that extends beyond lip service, Kall said. And, while Pelosi wants to keep her majority position, Schumer wants Democrats to seize control of the Senate in 2020, which Abrams may help the party do. (Some political insiders expect her to announce next month that she plans to run for Senate from Georgia.)
Born in Gulfport, Mississippi, Abrams is the second of six children in her family. Her parents, the first in their own families to go to high school, moved the family to Georgia when Abrams was 16. Both ministers, her parents attended Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, placing the religious family in a city that has what The Guardian described as dueling progressive and Confederate identities, a center of social good and commercial gain.
After high school, Abrams stayed in Atlanta, attending Spelman College, one of the nation’s oldest historically black women’s institutions.
“There’s nothing about what Stacey has done, where she has gone, that I would think would be a surprise to anyone who really knows her,” said Andrea Lewis, who has known Abrams since the two were in college.
Abrams became president of the student government association and, among other things, made a practice of bringing area politicians to campus to address students not as acolytes or mentees, but as voters.
“Sometimes when you speak to someone who knew a politician in the past, they speak to how the person has changed,” said Lewis, who is an associate professor and chair of Spelman’s education department. “But Stacey is very much the same. Her interests and values have not shifted. She’s always, to my memory, been interested in voting rights, interested in fairness and being a voice for the marginalized.”
In the hours before her official response to Trump’s State of the Union address, Abrams’ staff described her as hard at work on a speech she would deliver from Atlanta surrounded by activists, labor leaders, health care professionals, educators, entrepreneurs, voters who struggled to cast a ballot in 2018 or who watched their communities struggle to do so, her family, and more. The speech will touch on health care, the economy and education, aiming to provide a roadmap for unity and prosperity, Abrams’ staff said.
Unlike most of the men and small group of women who have delivered the official opposition response since it became a tradition in 1966, Abrams is not a member of Congress. So, for Abrams there is also the possibility of elevation to the national political stage in a way that extends beyond her gubernatorial run. Well, that, and failure.
Three men who delivered the official opposition response, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, became president. One previous response has been described as the moment when the national political prospects of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., actually died. And a mention of Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and water still generates laughs, Kall said.
Then, there’s the fact that Abrams will, in essence, contradict the president, challenging his facts, his ideas and, if necessary, even his values. Given prevailing stereotypes about black women and gendered notions of propriety, it’s possible that no matter how well Abrams delivers or how long she goes without a drink of water, some people will react negatively to her address.
“We live in a world where you can present the model speech, the model policy or something far from that and yes, people will respond, based in some large part on who is saying it,” said Davis, who has known and remained in contact with Abrams since Abrams enrolled at Spelman in the early 1990s.
“There will be attacks — that is part of politics,” Davis said. “But when the dust has settled, the question will be: Did you put out substantive arguments? Did you speak with conviction and authority about the mores and traditions of the United States? And knowing Stacey as I do, I suspect she’ll exceed that.”