MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After a delay because of the partial government shutdown, President Trump will deliver the State of the Union address Tuesday night. To give the Democratic response, the party has chosen Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia state lawmaker who came within striking distance of becoming the nation's first African-American woman governor. We wanted to talk about what we might expect on a night that focuses the nation's attention on politics, so we've called Congresswoman Karen Bass of California. She was recently elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Congresswoman Bass, thank you so much for talking with us.
KAREN BASS: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.
MARTIN: Before we get to the State of the Union night, though, I do want to ask you about a story that is very much front-and-center right now, which is the - Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. The Congressional Black Caucus tweeted, an apology now isn't enough. He must resign. Tell me more about why you say that.
BASS: Well, absolutely. I mean, I think the governor just has absolutely no credibility. I mean, one day he comes out and says, I apologize for the photograph that I was in. And then, the next day, he goes, well, no, actually, it wasn't me. But I actually did do blackface that same year. But it was because I was imitating Michael Jackson, and I'm sure you see the difference between the two. No, we don't. And the way he has characterized 1984 - 1984 was an exciting year. Jesse Jackson was running for president. Nelson Mandela was - we were hoping would be released. There was heightened racial consciousness.
And for him to dare say that, during those times, blackface was common is just an outright lie. And so I do not believe that the governor has any credibility at all. I cannot even imagine how he could govern the state. And he needs to stop the pain from this incident. And the way to do it is to resign.
MARTIN: So let's turn now to the State of the Union. You're no stranger to these big events as - particularly, as a former speaker of the California Assembly. So you've been through many of these kinds of bigots. What does an event like this do? What is the importance of it?
BASS: Well, it's very significant. I mean, first of all, you have all of the leadership from the United States in the House of Representatives chamber that evening. From the Supreme Court, Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Senate, the House members, everybody is assembled to hear from the leader of the country what is the state of our union. What is the state of the United States right now? What is our condition?
And, unfortunately, I cannot imagine that it's going to be a positive message because I do not believe that Trump is capable of delivering a positive message. I think it's going to be a message where he is going to bash immigrants. He's going to talk about how much he's helped African-Americans, which I find incredibly offensive. I also hear he's going to rail on abortion.
MARTIN: Well, the president told reporters that it's going to be a speech that covers a lot of territory. But part of it is going to be unity. So we'll have to wait and see what he means by that. But what do you expect and hope that Stacey Abrams will say as part of the Democratic response?
BASS: Let me just respond to the unity thing because I do think he will have a message of unity. It's a message of unity to the 20 to 30 percent of the people that support him. He's used that message in the campaign, and that's when he's bashing immigrants. In terms of Stacey Abrams, first of all, I do think that she was the one that won that race in Georgia. She should be the governor of Georgia.
But I am so excited that she's going to deliver the message because if you followed her campaign or you've heard her speak, she's so inspirational, so hopeful, so inspiring. And I think the unity message is going to come from the person who should've been the governor of Georgia, Stacey Abrams. That will be the Democratic response.
MARTIN: You know, some people would argue that this is not exactly a great thing because very few people have gotten high marks forgiving the other party's response. If a person - his hand is, like, wooden - everybody remembers, you know, Marco Rubio taking the sip of water...
BASS: (Laughter) Yes.
MARTIN: The former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, you know, looking like he was a deer in the headlights. Are the Democrats really helping her by putting her in that position?
BASS: Well, you know, I mean, I do think it's a risk. But it - but I think the main reason it's a risk is because the State of the Union is so high-profile. The world is watching it. And so that's a tremendous amount of pressure. But I have full confidence in Stacey Abrams, that she can rise to the occasion. And I bet she knocks it out the park.
MARTIN: What message do you think the Democrats are sending by asking her to deliver this message?
BASS: Well, I think they're sending - we are sending a message of hope, a message of the future, an acknowledgment of African-American women and the leading role that we play in this country. And I think that she's the perfect person to deliver our message that we want, one, to deal with corruption in Washington, we want to lower the price of prescription drugs, we want to increase the economy and decrease income inequity by focusing on infrastructure and good-paying jobs. And I know that she will deliver that message. I do not believe she will be bashing anyone, unlike the president.
MARTIN: So, finally, what will constitute success for Stacey Abrams and for the Democrats on Tuesday night? How will you know if she's done a good job for herself and for the party?
BASS: I think if she's inspirational, I think if she inspires us and calls for unity, promotes a vision of where we can take our country to and also talks about the future - one of the things that the president does when he goes and focuses on his rallies - he's not looking at America. If you look at the chamber of the House, one side the Republicans sit on, one side the Democrats sit on. If you look at our side, we look like America. If you look at the side where the Republicans are sitting on, it looks like 1950. It's 95 percent white male, no diversity, a handful of women. And so I think she represents the future, diversity, inclusion, the way our country is going.
MARTIN: That was Congresswoman Karen Bass of California. She's a Democrat, and she's also the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West. Congressman, thanks so much for talking to us.
BASS: Thanks for having me on.