FACT CHECK: Will Stacey Abrams Be The First Private Citizen To Respond To The SOTU Address?

Aryssa Damron | Fact Check Reporter

Freelance reporter Scott Nover claimed Tuesday that former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams will be the first private citizen to deliver the opposition response to the State of the Union address.

“I believe this is the first time a private citizen has delivered the opposition response to a State of the Union,” Nover tweeted. “Correct me if I’m wrong.”

Verdict: True

Since the tradition began in 1966, the opposition party had only invited public officials to deliver the official opposition response to a State of the Union address.

Fact Check:

Abrams recently accepted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s invitation to give the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s Feb. 5 address. The address had been rescheduled due to the partial government shutdown.

Abrams lost the 2018 governor’s race in Georgia to Republican Brian Kemp by less than 2 points. She is a novelist, lawyer and founder of Fair Fight Georgia, an organization focused on election reform and voter turnout. She formerly served as the House minority leader in the Georgia legislature.

“Stacey Abrams is a great spokesperson, incredible leader,” Schumer tweeted Tuesday. “She has led the charge for voting rights.”

The first coordinated, televised response to the State of the Union address occurred in 1966, when Sen. Everett Dirksen and Rep. Gerald Ford gave the Republican response to President Lyndon Johnson’s address. Historians with the House of Representatives keep a record of opposition responses since 1966.

Prior to 1966, opposition responses were informal. “Opposition members might comment on the State of the Union and offer an opposing view in the Congress or at home but it was not coordinated and not considered an ‘official’ party response,” Peter Ubertaccio, associate professor of political science at Stonehill College, told The Daily Caller in an email. “As the State of the Union moved into prime time and commanded a larger audience, the opposition party began to demand ‘equal time’ to offer an official response.”

The format of the opposition response initially varied. The 1985 broadcast, moderated by then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, was held in a focus group setting where voters engaged in informal discussions. Others featured question-and-answer sessions with members of Congress. In some years, there was no opposition response at all.

The opposition party eventually started to select only one or two members of the party to deliver a televised response each year. Speakers are usually considered to be important figures in national politics or rising stars.

Abrams, who is reportedly considering a Senate run, will be the first ever private citizen to give a response to the State of the Union address. All other respondents have been sitting members of Congress or state governors.

Past broadcasts have featured multiple future presidents, including George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, as well as many future presidential candidates, such as Bob Dole and Marco Rubio.

The Democratic Party did choose one other private citizen to deliver an opposition response – former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear – but the response was to Trump’s first address to Congress in 2017, which occurred less than two months after he assumed office and is not technically considered a State of the Union speech. Nover acknowledged this caveat in his tweet.

It appeared that former Vice President Walter Mondale also gave an opposition response in 1984 as a private citizen, judging by a list compiled by the Senate Historical Office. However, TheDC contacted experts, including a biographer of Mondale, and couldn’t find corroborating evidence. After an inquiry from TheDC, the Senate Historical Office confirmed that Mondale did not give the opposition response that year and corrected its record.

Abrams is not only the first private citizen to give the opposition response, she is also the first black woman.

The Constitution mandates that the president provide periodic updates to Congress, though it does not require an in-person address or even an annual update. Article II, Section 3 states that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.”

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Aryssa Damron

Fact Check Reporter