After winning the state’s Democratic primary, Abrams tells Lucia Graves about her uphill battle to win in Georgia, a state with a history of segregationist governors
For Stacey Abrams to become the first black female governor – and in Georgia, no less – would take a miracle. Then again, according to the politics of convention, it already took one for her to get this far.
“We have to be hopeful enough and courageous enough to believe in the unexpected,” said LaTosha Brown, cofounder of Black Voters Matter, at Abrams’ primary victory party Tuesday night at a hotel ballroom in downtown Atlanta. Abrams easily defeated her fellow former Georgia state legislator, Stacey Evans.
Already Abrams has made history, becoming the state’s first black nominee for governor and the first black female major party nominee for the job in America.
She will go on to face the victor of the state’s Republican runoff election in July. In a state that hasn’t seen a Democratic governor elected since 1998, she’ll be fighting uphill battle.
But when Abrams took the stage Tuesday, before throngs of volunteers and a large group of schoolchildren who had gathered, as one chaperone put it, “to come see history being made”, her emphasis was less on her own barrier-breaking than on how far the state had come.
“We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s future where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired,” she said in her opening remarks.
That’s an important page-flip in a state with a history of segregationist governors whose state flag featured the Confederate emblem until 2001. Even now, just 8% of the state’s officeholders are women of color, even though they constitute 23% of the population.
On stage Tuesday, Abrams was equally at ease quoting the book of Esther and policy particulars, describing what she’s called the “Georgia of tomorrow”. It was clear, even in the first moments of the new phase of the election, that there would be no pivot to the political center.
As she later explained in an interview: “My job is not to worry about the Republicans. They are going to try to out-Trump each other and prove who can be more xenophobic and more pro-gun. That’s not my narrative.”
As the Georgia state senator Nan Orrock put it: “We know what the other side’s about and good golly, they have no shame.”
Abrams’ election will test her belief that Democrats don’t have to adopt moderate views to have widespread appeal. A handful of special-election Democratic primaries this week presented a mixed picture for the party across the board.
But Abrams isn’t interested in reading tea leaves.
Her strategy is grounded in voter engagement for historically under-engaged demographics and her underlying philosophy that changing ideology is much harder than changing behavior. That means getting more people to the polls, and Abrams, who’s argued Georgia isn’t purple, “it’s just blue and confused”, has been working assiduously on voter enfranchisement efforts for years.
This could just be the year she proves her claim. Georgia’s never been considered a swing state, but Abrams likes to point out that states aren’t “swing states” until they swing.
“We have the numbers in Georgia,” she told me. And though she allowed that it had taken years to build that electoral capacity, “I know if we talk about those issues and if we do the ground game of reaching voters and explaining to them why this election matters, we will see not only the historic turnout that we saw in the primary, but we’ll see historic turnout in the general.”
Electioneering won’t necessarily bear that out. But Abrams’ campaign is equal parts voter registration numbers and belief – specifically, a belief that someone with her face and her heart can win.
On Tuesday night, such believers were in abundance.
“Five or six months from now, she’s going to make history,” said the Atlanta deacon Henry Moon. “I believe,” he said, thumping himself over the heart for emphasis. “You’ve got to believe.”
Abrams’ life story is a study in pushing the boundaries of the possible.
Born one of six children to poor parents in Mississippi, Abrams was not a victim of her circumstance. She graduated magna cum laude from Spelman College, was a Harry S Truman scholar and went on to become the first in her family to buy a house. She received a master’s degree from the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from Yale.
She also wrote numerous romance novels, under the the nom de plume Selena Montgomery, and when we first met over coffee, she delighted in details of how she once wrote an ex into prison as vengeance.
As both a writer and a politician, Abrams has made an art of imagining what does not yet exist.
As the Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous recalled in a tweet after her election, when he first met Abrams at an event for student organizers 25 years ago, “she told me then she would be the first black governor of Georgia. I told her I believed her.”
It’s a confidence, Abrams said, born of her upbringing. Her parents grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi and had to fight for the right to vote before they were old enough to cast a ballot.
“They raised us to believe we were capable of anything,” she said. “My dad told us, ‘You don’t tell yourself no – let everyone else do that. You go for what you think you can have.”
And she did.
Abrams would go on to become the youngest deputy city attorney in Atlanta, according to the mayor who hired her; she was elected to the Georgia state house in 2006 and became Democratic leader in the state house in 2011.
That she set her sights so high is all the more remarkable given what America tells women about ambition. Hillary Clinton was lambasted for it in the 2016 presidential cycle, and sure enough, an early ad from the Republican Governors Association (RGA) accused Abrams of the same.
Asked to respond, she didn’t deny a thing.
“I have the ambition we can actually make life better for people. I have the ambition that politics and policy can work together to make things good. We shouldn’t want leaders who don’t have ambition,” she said, “who can’t dream beyond the moment.”
And no one can accuse Abrams of that failing.
Unfortunately for the RGA, her ambition is contagious, according to the woman who was elected to Abrams’ state house seat after she resigned to run for governor. “She really shows women and people of color that our goals and our ambitions – our possibilities don’t have a ceiling,” said Bee Nguyen, who has broken some records of her own as the first Vietnamese American woman elected to the state general assembly.
“Stacey’s vision for Georgia includes all of us,” Nguyen said. “She’s the only candidate who even talks about Asian Americans as being a part of our electorate in Georgia.”
Seeing unseen or minority constituents, listening to their concerns and elevating their voices are some of Abrams’ sweet spots, according to many who took the stage Tuesday night.
Abrams’ own identity, she has said, gives her “a complex understanding of America”. But mostly, it gives her a propensity to listen.
“I believe there are more Democrats who are ready to lift their voices,” she said. “And that’s what our campaign is about.”
She also thinks, in an era when Americans are hungry for authenticity in politics, there’s no substitute for telegraphing values of her own.
“There’s no one who’s going to convince me that reproductive access should not exist. That civil rights are a danger. They’re never going to convince me that I should not stand up for labor unions. Those are ideological beliefs that I hold,” she said.
So no, she said, there will be no pivot in the general. And she’s not worried about losing votes over it. “They’re going to know that because I was consistent throughout the campaign, I would bring that same consistency and authenticity to the governor’s office.”
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