Former House Minority Leader for the Georgia General Assembly Stacey Abrams in her office in Atlanta in 2016.
Melissa Golden / Melissa Golden/Redux
On a recent sleepy afternoon inside the Georgia State Capitol, Stacey Abrams was wearing a meticulous twist-out and standing near the well of the house. She was speaking to 35 black students, mostly teenagers.
The 43-year-old legislator had the students participate in a mock debate over a bill she named “HB1,” which proposed to outlaw peanut butter from school grounds. Abrams slow-walked through the particulars of the bill, halting when floor procedure was broken. (A complicated sequence confused one of the young students, and Abrams leaned her six-foot frame leaning down to tell her not to worry. “You've got people who have been here for four years who still don't understand that.”) The “bill” was killed on the floor and the kids applauded.
“OK, questions,” she said. No, she doesn’t have kids. She likes reading and pasta, yes. Has she passed any bills? Abrams slipped into a version of her stump speech, and when she got to “and now I'm running for governor of Georgia” they cheered louder than when the peanut butter bill died. Pleased, her smile was visible for a moment.
Someone asked who she was running against. Abrams pointed to a spot elsewhere in the chamber: “She sits right there.”
A mere 11 black women have been independently elected to statewide executive office in the history of the United States — Abrams wants to be the 12th. In recent years, Georgia has become a state perpetually on the verge of theoretically turning blue on the strength of the state’s influx of affluent, diverse, and college-educated voters. If Republicans continue to win in Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Michigan, Democrats will need to reliably win states like North Carolina and Arizona to stay competitive. Under this vision for Georgia, Abrams seems like a potentially strong candidate: National progressives like her but she has an ability to work with state Republicans (until she stepped aside a few weeks ago to run for governor, she was the minority leader of the Georgia Assembly, a body dominated by Republicans), along with a vision for the state and a history of helping register hundreds of thousands of minority voters.
Her colleague and challenger for the nomination, Stacey Evans — the pair share the same first name in a parable-like twist about the short-term direction of Democratic politics — represents a slightly different vision for the party’s future. Evans, who is white, is less experienced than Abrams. But a powerful rendering of her life story got the attention of prominent Democrats, and decisively shifted the trajectory of the primary, once considered Abrams’s to lose. Titled “16 Homes,” the ad features Georgia-born Evans sitting alone and explaining that she'd grown up poor, and once experienced the trauma of watching her mother be physically abused. Her life changed when she received the state’s HOPE scholarship, and now, she explains, she simply wants to make her story possible in Georgia again. The Democratic strategist Paul Begala watched, then tweeted, “This. This. This. This is why I'm a Democrat.”
The race between the Staceys comes at a tense time for the party. After an unexpectedly raw presidential primary and Hillary Clinton’s stunning defeat, Democrats are still sorting out the party’s ideological and organizational direction, on everything from whether supporting abortion rights should be a candidate requirement to whether white-working-class voters or suburbanites should be targeted. The Georgia primary is a microcosm of that existential crisis, bringing delicate but explosive questions about race and party politics to the fore. What kinds of candidates should the party favor? What kinds of voters should they seek? Abrams is banking on an outpouring of black voters inspired by the possibility of making history, and Evans on the prospect of peeling off moderate, and some conservative, whites. How, exactly, should Democrats in Georgia be trying to win statewide elections?
“We’re a black party, that’s kind of the deal. But you don’t put [Ossoff’s] number up without white folks voting for you.”
The primary is already causing anxiety in the party at places like Manuel’s Tavern, a Democratic watering hole where it’s considered impolite not to go drink-for-drink, and the conversation often goes back to old campaigns. (One recent afternoon, Jon Ossoff, the young candidate who lost a close special election in the state’s sixth congressional district, ambled in and had a few with Evans’ campaign chairman.) Lots of these Georgia-based Democrats still long to reach white voters that abandoned them. Georgia last went blue in a presidential election in 1992, when southerner Bill Clinton ran the first time (but not the second); the state’s last Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, left office 14 years ago.
“I think there's a debate about Democratic base turnout versus persuasion, but that's a false debate because we have to do both,” said Jeff DiSantis, one of the state’s top Democratic strategists. “I don't see how you [win] without both increasing the Democratic base turnout and winning over some people that we’ve lost over that last few decades.”
At Manuel’s, people are quick to note the silver lining in Ossoff’s loss: He swung the Republican-leaning district by 20 points, months after Hillary Clinton improved on Barack Obama’s performance there by double digits. “We’re a black party, that’s kind of the deal,” one strategist who asked not to be named so he could speak freely told BuzzFeed News. “But you don’t put [Ossoff’s] number up without white folks voting for you.”
Some in the white liberal political class here worry about something they would never say publicly: If Abrams wins the nomination, they think she’s going to lose some of the 23% to 25% (Democrats vary on this number) of white voters who vote Democrat every election. National progressives watching the state argue that number isn’t going to budge — and that Abrams could improve on previous Democrats’ performance with especially black voters, but also Latino and Asian voters. After all: Georgia is one of the most diverse states in the country: Statewide, nearly 45% of Georgians are people of color, and the states’ 1.5 million black people make up a third of the total population (and more than half of those people of color live in suburban or rural areas).
The fraught tensions around the primary, and the feelings among some black progressives that Democrats aren’t giving Abrams enough support, bubbled up last weekend at Netroots Nation convention. The event has become a landing place for protest; at Phoenix’s 2015 gathering, protesters famously interrupted and challenged appearances by Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, pressing the candidates on the recent death of a black woman, Sandra Bland, in prison following a routine traffic stop.
This year, in Atlanta, as Evans took to the lectern, protesters shouted “Trust black women” and “Support black women” as Evans attempted, unsuccessfully, to address the audience. The protesters distributed fliers comparing Evans to Betsy DeVos; they argued that Evans was moderate speaking at a progressive conference; and said that Evans’ views on education are harmful to black children. (A specific point of contention is that Evans has voted in support of charter schools and backed a plan that would have given the governor more power to make dramatic changes to troubled schools.)
Evans asked the protesters to let her talk, asking for a dialogue with anyone who would listen as they shouted her down. She eventually chose to power through her speech, and at one point even chanted back, “HOPE! HOPE! HOPE!”
Protesters disrupting a speech by Stacey Evans at the morning plenary session at the Netroots Nation annual conference.
Christopher Aluka Berry / Reuters
In response to a series of questions regarding the protest and whether the Abrams campaign supported the action or knew about it in advance, a spokesperson said, “The campaign received a call on Friday night from Netroots staff indicating that a protest against Evans might take place. Regarding participants, as we were not present, we know what was publicly reported.”
The Evans campaign declined to comment further, referring to remarks she made to the Atlanta Journal Constitution that the protesters deserved to heard, and so did she. In a series of tweets, Abrams defended the protest, saying her commitment to public education and opposing privatization “stands in stark contrast to all my opponents” without naming Evans. “My parents were civil rights protestors [sic], and taught me to lead peaceful demonstrations against apartheid, the Confederate flag, and in support of the LGBT community. I will not condemn peaceful protest. From what I observed from Savannah, activists in Atlanta peacefully protested this morning on the critical issue of preserving public education for every family in our state. The mantra of ‘trust black women’ is a historic endorsement of the value of bringing marginalized voices to the forefront, not a rebuke to my opponent's race.” On Aug. 14, she wrote on Facebook, “I will never engage in any form of campaigning designed to ostracize my opponents based on race.”
“I don't look like what people expect. And that expectation often is transmuted into whether they think I can be successful.”
Meanwhile, Patrick Husbands, the vice president of the Young Democrats of Atlanta, said matters of race won’t matter, at least as much as everyone thinks. “In Georgia, they’re ready to have real people run for office,” he said. Husbands thinks it's a narrative being pushed by the national media — and members inside Abrams camp agree. “We’ll let the press do that,” said Marcus Ferrell, a former Bernie Sanders hand who drove his Jeep to Atlanta from Phoenix to help Abrams. “Building a new coalition is what excites us, and I think if you ask anyone on our campaign, if we execute the plan to the best of our ability it won’t matter what the press says.”
Even if everyone says they don’t want to talk about it, it’s clearly weighing on Democratic minds here in Georgia. And for her part, Abrams has thought a lot about the role race plays in chatter surrounding the primary. “I am always aware both internally and often externally that I don't look like what people expect,” she said in July. “And that expectation often is transmuted into whether they think I can be successful.”
Abrams urges people to vote during a visit to a Piccadilly Cafeteria at the Gallery at South DeKalb in Decatur, Ga., Oct. 26, 2016.
Kevin D. Liles / The New York Times
Over the last decade, the “rising star” label has been attached to Abrams possibly more than any other Democrat in American politics. In some ways, she’s emerged as progressives’ answer to, say, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger: accomplished, charismatic, and possessing at a young age the quality of having A Future in politics, even if what that future in American politics should be wasn't quite clear.
Born in Madison, Wisconsin, to parents who were then a library sciences student and a who later became shipyard worker, Abrams grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi. She gets laughs when she says that her mother, Carolyn, called their family the “genteel poor” — “We had no money, but we had class. We watched PBS and read books.” Carolyn and Robert emphasized public service for their children.
Their daughter jokes she got tricked into going to Spelman by her mother, but was convinced to stay when she saw cute boys at Morehouse. Her career at Spelman, though, belies her drive: Either unable or unwilling to decide on a major, she became the school’s first ever interdisciplinary studies major in school history, all while clashing with the administration as student body president. She convinced the school’s president, Dr. Johnetta B. Cole, to sit in on one board meeting with CEOs and prominent alumni. “The person next to me just slid their materials over,” she said. Soon she was going all the time. They helped shape her understanding of how an enterprise needs funding. (Amid her political career, Abrams has also pursued business in consulting, finance, and bottled water — and is an accomplished novelist under the pen name Selena Montgomery.) She once barged into a meeting of the school’s board of directors. The University of Texas, a Truman Fellowship, and Yale Law School followed.
By 29, she was deputy city attorney for the city of Atlanta under then-mayor Shirley Franklin. When state Rep. JoAnn McClinton decided not to run past 2006, Abrams’ decided to jump in. She ran and won against a pair of opponents. “She was a little bit fearless,” Columbus Rep. Carolyn Hugley recalled, saying that Abrams cared little for deference to the House Speaker. “Everybody knows that it’s not a good idea to challenge the ruling of the chair even if you are correct, but she was all business.” Abrams quickly built a reputation of a legislator who worked harder than most.
Along the way, she also began playing in wider Georgia politics, something that may be causing her some real problems now: She endorsed a candidate in the 2010 gubernatorial race then refused to change alliances when Barnes, the last Democratic governor, decided to run, too. She also backed a challenger to Kasim Reed, the Atlanta mayor who still holds a lot of sway in Georgia politics. (So angered was Reed at Abrams, one source said, that Abrams believed he was using his connections in Washington to keep her out of fundraising networks. Reed, who himself had designs on statewide office, views her as a rival, “and, accordingly, hates her,” a Georgia insider said. “Plus, she's not ‘of’ the Atlanta Black establishment, so they’re sniping and backbiting.” After asking BuzzFeed News about this story, Reed’s office did not return requests for an interview.)
“I am tired of being first. I want to be last.”
Regardless, Democrats elected Abrams to lead their caucus in 2011, and she does have support in the party in Georgia. John Lewis recently endorsed her, for instance — a big time endorsement. In general, though it’s been a tough time to be a Democrat. The party has been slaughtered in state elections — Republicans nearly hold a supermajority. Abrams, however, has made noise on both ends: trying to compromise to hold ground on priorities with Republicans, while leading efforts to protect voting rights through the courts and in registration efforts. Abrams was the chief architect and founder of a plan, the New Georgia Project, that registered thousands of the estimated 800,000 eligible voters of color who lived in Georgia but were not registered to vote.
These kinds of efforts, her role in the assembly, and her appeal have garnered national attention, the kind that can help a state politician become a national politician: The activist Ben Jealous, a notorious networker who is running for governor of Maryland, asked the Democratic activist and donor Steve Phillips to meet with Abrams about four years ago. “It was clear to me that she had the most detailed and sophisticated understanding of her state’s politics and how to win in her state than anyone I’ve ever met in any other part of the country,” said Phillips, who is among the national progressives helping Abrams. “The level of depth and strategic sophistication was a higher level than you find for people in politics.” EMILY’s List — the fundraising group that aims to elect pro-choice women — awarded her the first Gabby Giffords Rising Star Award in 2014. During her acceptance speech, Abrams posited that acquiring power means that you can be the “last” woman to deal with a laundry list of political, sexist, or racist shit. “I am tired of being first. I want to be last,” she said. “We will populate the heavens and we will all become last! And the first to say thank you.” (In July, Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List said that Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi had all spoken that night but all that anyone remembers or talks about is Abrams. “She stole the night.”)
And now she’s running for governor.
Both of Abrams’ parents later became ministers, and Abrams often speaks with the cadence of the ministry. On a recent visit to Columbus, about 90 minutes southwest of Atlanta, she recounted a story about once when she and her older sister had gone searching for their father, who had a habit of walking or even hitch-hiking home, along a highway in the middle of winter. They found him, coat-less, on the side of the highway. No, he hadn’t lost his jacket. He’d given it to a homeless man on the highway. “My dad said, ‘That man was alone and I knew that he'd be alone when I left.’ But he said, ‘I knew y'all were coming for me.’ I'm running for governor because I'm coming for Georgia.”
Too many families are left behind who have what it takes to succeed but “because they're the wrong color or they live in the wrong zip code or they make the wrong mistakes,” things don't always go their way, Abrams said. And though some Georgians have seen progress, “it has not seen them.”
Abrams, she said, wants to be “the governor of the whole state of Georgia.”
Stacey Evans, who is running for governor of Georgia, addresses Netroots.
Christopher Aluka Berry / Reuters