Stacey Abrams accused US president Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans of abandoning working Americans and fomenting partisan and cultural discord as she delivered the Democratic response to the State of the Union address.
The Georgia Democrat introduced herself to the nation months after narrowly losing her bid to become America’s first black female governor.
Instead, she became the first black woman to deliver a State of the Union response.
Speaking from a union hall in Atlanta, Ms Abrams combined her party’s vision of a more unified society with her personal story as a black daughter of the Deep South.
“These were our family values: faith, service, education and responsibility,” she said, arguing for “this uncommon grace of community”.
“We do not succeed alone,” she added. “In these United States, when times are tough, we can persevere because our friends and neighbours will come for us.”
Ms Abrams identified Mr Trump as the architect of a 35-day partial government shutdown that ended last month, though a possible reprise looms in the coming weeks.
“The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States,” she said, “one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values”.
Ms Abrams’ selection by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was a nod to her rising political fortunes despite her defeat last year.
Encouraged by her ability to push Republican-run Georgia toward battleground status, Mr Schumer is trying to persuade Ms Abrams to run for a Republican-held Senate seat in 2020 — two years after she won more votes than any Democrat in Georgia history, including presidential candidates.
It was also a symbolic nod to the power and influence of black women — and all women — in anchoring the Democratic base, a reality also on display as Mr Trump delivered his address.
He looked out on the largest contingent of women ever assembled in Congress, many of them clad in white to honour the suffragists of the early 20th century.
Responding to the president’s most high-profile speech is one of the toughest jobs in politics.
Ms Abrams appeared to avoid the pitfalls that have left burgeoning young politicians subject to ridicule: Republican Marco Rubio for repeatedly drinking water, Democratic Joe Kennedy III for his excess ChapStick, then-Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal for a sing-song delivery.
Ms Abrams spoke in her hometown of Atlanta, with an audience that included workers, activists, labour leaders, health care professionals, educators, entrepreneurs and voters who her aides say had trouble casting their ballots in 2018.
“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,” she said. “We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a ‘power grab’.”
Republicans are not sparing Ms Abrams, with party operative lambasting her for a “radical liberal agenda”.
In his speech, Mr Trump offered nods to unity and bipartisanship, with rhetoric about America’s place as the world’s leading capitalist democracy. Yet he also maintained his hard-line stand on immigration, continuing to cast the southern border as a porous and fundamental threat to Americans’ economic security and personal safety.
Ms Abrams argued that a bipartisan immigration overhaul is possible.
She did not broach the multiple investigations dogging Trump, inquiries the president called “ridiculous partisan exercises”.
She said she was “very disappointed by the President’s approach to our problems”, but added: “I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and the extraordinary diversity that defines America.”