State of the Union: Democrats’ Response

Source: Meg Kelly,NPG

Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race in November, is delivering the Democrats’ response to President Trump’s State of the Union address. Reporters across the NPR newsroom are annotating her remarks, adding context and analysis.

Good evening, my fellow Americans, and happy lunar new year.

I’m Stacey Abrams, and I’m honored to join the conversation about the state of our union.

Stacey Abrams is the first black woman to give the State of the Union response and is widely considered a rising star within the Democratic Party. She is not currently holding political office, after narrowly losing her bid last year to become Georgia’s governor, but she is being courted as a potential Senate candidate in 2020.

A number of 2020 presidential hopefuls campaigned in Georgia for Abrams. Jamie Harrison, the associate chair of the Democratic National Committee, told NPR’s Scott Detrow before the midterms that the attention paid to Abrams didn’t surprise her “at all.”

“I think she has come up with a recipe for success and a model that many other Southern states can replicate and follow going forward,” Harrison said. “And I think, in that, it puts Georgia squarely in the column of a battleground state for the 2020 presidential election.”

Growing up, my family went back and forth between lower middle class and working class. Yet even when they came home weary and bone-tired, my parents found a way to show us all who we could be.

My librarian mother taught us to love learning. My father, a shipyard worker, put in overtime and extra shifts, and they made sure we volunteered to help others.

Later they both became United Methodist ministers, an expression of the faith that guides us.  These were our family values: Faith, service, education and responsibility.

Now, we only had one car, so sometimes my dad had to hitchhike and walk long stretches during the 30-mile trip home from the shipyards. One rainy night, my mom got worried.  We piled in the car and went out looking for him, and we eventually found my dad making his way along the road, soaked and shivering in his shirtsleeves. When he got in the car, my mom asked if he’d left his coat at work. He explained that he’d given it to a homeless man he’d met on the highway. When we asked why he’s given away his only jacket, my dad turned to us and said, “Ï knew when I left that man, he’d still be alone, but I could give him my coat because I knew you were coming for me.”

Our power and strength as Americans lives in our hard work and our belief in more. My family understood firsthand that, while success is not guaranteed, we live in a nation where opportunity is possible.

But we do not succeed alone. In these United States, when times are tough, we can persevere because our friends and neighbors will come for us. Our first responders will come for us.

It is this mantra, this uncommon grace of community, that has driven me to become an attorney, a small business owner, a writer, and most recently, the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia.

My reason for running was simple. I love our country and its promise of opportunity for all.

And I stand here tonight because I hold fast to my father’s credo: Together we are coming for America, for a better America.

Just a few weeks ago, I joined volunteers to distribute meals to furloughed federal workers.  They waited in line for a box of food and a sliver of hope since they hadn’t received paychecks in weeks.

Making livelihoods of our federal workers a pawn for political games is a disgrace. The shutdown was a stunt, engineered by the president of the United States, one that betrayed every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people but our values.

Before the shutdown began, with cameras rolling, President Trump did tell Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that he would be proud to shut the government down. “I’ll be the one to shut it down. I will take the mantle. And I will shut it down for border security,” Trump said. Later, he sought to shift the blame to Democrats, who refused to negotiate with him on the $5.7 billion in border wall funding he wanted until the government was reopened.

For seven years, I led the Democratic party in the Georgia House of Representatives. I didn’t always agree with the Republican speaker or governor, but I understood that our constituents didn’t care about our political parties, they cared about their lives. So when we had to negotiate criminal justice reform or transportation or foster care improvements, the leaders of our state didn’t shut down. We came together, and we kept our word.

In Georgia, Republicans and Democrats didn’t shut the state down over criminal justice reform because it was something both parties wanted. In 2011, under Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, the state launched a multiyear project to change its criminal justice system, putting more emphasis on alternative courts, re-entry programs for released convicts and “accountability” over “punishment.” Republicans backed the effort for its cost savings; Democrats focused on the importance of curbing the state’s spiraling prison population. Republicans have been on the forefront of criminal justice changes in some other states, too, most notably Texas.

It should be no different in our nation’s capital. We may come from different sides of the political aisle, but our joint commitment to the ideals of this nation cannot be negotiable. Our most urgent work is to realize Americans’ dreams of today and tomorrow, to carve a path to independence and prosperity that can last a lifetime.

Children deserve an excellent education from cradle to career.  We owe them safe schools and the highest standards, regardless of ZIP code. Yet this White House responds timidly while first graders practice active shooter drills and the price of higher education grows ever steeper.

The first anniversary of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., is next week. The survivors led a national movement pushing for gun safety, but the Federal Commission on School Safety formed after the shooting largely avoided the topic, instead taking the opportunity to rescind Obama-era guidance meant to ensure racial fairness in school discipline. Experts say school violence can be reduced with a focus on mental health and social and emotional support as well as gun safety.

From now on, our leaders must be willing to tackle gun safety measures and face the crippling effect of educational loans, to support educators and invest what is necessary to unleash the power of America’s greatest minds.

Democrats running for president in 2020, including Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, have spotlighted the idea of reducing or even eliminating student loan debt. The current Education Department, by contrast, has faced scrutiny and upwards of a dozen legal challenges for the way it is administering or failing to administer various forms of student loan relief, including for teachers, other public servants and borrowers defrauded by their colleges.

As for Abrams’ call to “support educators,” last year six states saw teacher labor actions. So far in 2019, Los Angeles teachers have walked out, successfully, for increased pay, smaller classes and more nurses, counselors and librarians, and Denver teachers also voted to authorize a strike.

Supporting educators and giving schools more resources sounds anodyne. But the actual policies behind those phrases have shifted, subtly, among Democrats. Former President Barack Obama and his first education secretary, Arne Duncan, pushed for stricter teacher evaluations and more charter schools, most of which do not have unions. By contrast, prominent Democrats and 2020 candidates, like Warren, Harris and Bernie Sanders, all spoke out in support of striking Los Angeles public school teachers.

In Georgia and around the country, people are striving for a middle class where a salary truly equals economic security.  But instead, families’ hopes are being crushed by Republican leadership that ignores real life or just doesn’t understand it. Under the current administration, far too many hard-working Americans are falling behind, living paycheck to paycheck, most without labor unions to protect them from even worse harm.

The Republican tax bill rigged the system against working people. Rather than bringing back jobs, plants are closing, layoffs are looming, and wages struggle to keep pace with the actual cost of living.

We owe more to the millions of everyday folks who keep our economy running, like truck drivers forced to buy their own rigs, farmers caught in a trade war, small business owners in search of capital, and domestic workers serving without labor protections — women and men who could thrive if they only had the support and freedom to do so.

We know bipartisanship could craft a 21st century immigration plan, but this administration chooses to cage children and tear families apart. Compassionate treatment at the border is not the same as open borders. President Reagan understood this. President Obama understood this. Americans understand this. And Democrats stand ready to effectively secure our ports and borders.

But we must all embrace, that from agriculture to healthcare to entrepreneurship, America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants, not walls.

And rather than suing to dismantle the Affordable Care Act as Republican attorneys general have, our leaders must protect the progress we’ve made and commit to expanding healthcare and lowering costs for everyone.

A federal judge in December struck down the Affordable Care Act. The decision, which is being appealed, came as the result of a lawsuit filed by a group of Republican attorneys general who argued that the law is unconstitutional after Congress eliminated the tax penalty on people who don’t have health insurance.

My father has battled prostate cancer for years. To help cover the costs, I found myself sinking deeper into debt because while you can defer some payments, you can’t defer cancer treatment.

In this great nation, Americans are skipping blood pressure pills, forced to choose between buying medicine or paying rent. Maternal mortality rates show that mothers — especially black mothers — risk death to give birth. And in 14 states — including my home state, where a majority want it — our leaders refused to expand Medicaid, which could save rural hospitals, save economies, and save lives.

Maternal mortality, which is defined as a woman dying between the start of pregnancy and one year after childbirth or termination, increased about 26 percent in the U.S. from 2000 to 2014. American women are three times as likely to die in childbirth as Canadian women, and six times as likely as Scandinavian women. Black women have higher mortality than white women during the maternal period.

We can do so much more. Take action on climate change. Defend individual liberties with fair-minded judges. But none of these ambitions are possible without the bedrock guarantee of our right to vote.

President Trump didn’t mention climate change in his address, but Democrats in the House of Representatives have quickly made it a top priority since taking the majority there. Hearings have been scheduled on the topic this week, and more are expected in coming weeks. Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., are planning to introduce a “Green New Deal” to prepare the country for more extreme weather while moving to more renewable sources of energy.

In November 2018, 13 federal agencies issued a National Climate Assessment that also called for ambitious efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to stave off catastrophic changes in climate. Federal scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are expected Wednesday to announce that 2018 was the fourth-warmest year on record — only the three previous years were warmer.

Let’s be clear: voter suppression is real, from making it harder to register and stay on the rolls, to losing and closing polling places, to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.

A number of states indeed have reduced the amount of days for early voting and have instituted laws, notably photo ID laws, aimed at cracking down on in-person voter fraud.

Critics say these sorts of laws make voting harder despite there being no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the U.S.

It’s important to note, however, that the 2018 election featured voter turnout that reached 50-year highs for a midterm year. Abrams’ home state, Georgia, in particular, had a 57 percent turnout rate — the highest turnout rate for a midterm in recent history, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

While I acknowledge the results of the 2018 election here in Georgia, I did not — and we cannot — accept efforts to undermine our right to vote. That’s why I started a non-partisan organization called Fair Fight, to advocate for voting rights.

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. We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a power grab. Americans understand that these are the values our brave men and women in uniform and our veterans risked their lives to defend. The foundation of our moral leadership around the globe is free and fair elections, where voters pick their leaders, not where politicians pick their voters.

In speaking on the Senate floor last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Democratic efforts aimed at making voting easier and more accessible a “power grab.”

McConnell was speaking about HR 1, legislation released by House Democrats that calls for — among other things — online voter registration and paper ballots in every state, as well as making Election Day a national holiday.

The legislation is not expected to become law, but the gesture, as well as much of Abrams’ speech, shows that the Democratic Party is planning to make voting infrastructure a policy priority in the coming years.

Abrams’ subsequent comment on “free and fair elections” is a clear reference to gerrymandering, which is the ability of politicians to draw legislative districts to benefit their own party. The issue has become a hot-button issue for Democrats this decade, after Republicans used their success in the 2010 midterms to cement statehouse and congressional majorities in states like Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.

In the 2018 elections, voters in a number of states voted in favor of reining in partisan redistricting.

In this time of division and crisis, we must come together and stand for and with one another.  America has stumbled time and again on its quest towards justice and equality, but with each generation, we have revisited our fundamental truths. And where we falter, we make amends.

We fought Jim Crow with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Yet we continue to confront racism from our past and in our present, which is why we must hold everyone from the highest offices to our own families accountable for racist words and deeds and call racism what it is: wrong.

These remarks are a potential reference to Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who has come under intense scrutiny this week for a racist photo that appeared on his page in his 1984 medical school yearbook.

The photo showed one man wearing blackface and another dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Northam has denied that he is in the photo.

A number of high-profile Democrats, including both Democratic senators from Virginia, have called on Northam to resign.

America achieved a measure of reproductive justice in Roe v. Wade, but we must never forget: It is immoral to allow politicians to harm women and families to advance a political agenda.

We affirmed marriage equality, and yet the LGBTQ community remains under attack.

So even as I am very disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems, I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and respect the extraordinary diversity that defines America.

Our progress has always found refuge in the basic instinct of the American experiment — to do right by our people. And with a renewed commitment to social and economic justice, we will create a stronger America together. Because America wins by fighting for our shared values against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

That is who we are, and when we do so — never wavering — the state of our union will always be strong.

Thank you, and may God bless the United States of America.  (Applause.)