Stacey Abrams was 17 years old in 1991 when she was first told she couldn’t enter the governor’s mansion in the affluent Buckhead district of Atlanta. She and her parents stepped off the MARTA bus stop nearby and walked toward the guards booth, where they were met with the blunt response.
“You can’t come in here,” she remembers the guard on duty telling them.
As one of Georgia’s high school valedictorians, Abrams had been invited to meet the governor, along with other students across the state. The other valedictorians and their parents gained entrance without delay.
“Just think about being 17 years old, standing at these gates, one of the most important days of your life, and you’re told you don’t belong here,” she tells The Root. “That brands you. That stays with you.”
Her father, Robert, was able to convince the guard that they had been invited to the event, and the family eventually got in, but neither Abrams nor her parents remember being inside. They just recall being told they weren’t welcome. The experience expanded Abrams’ appreciation of how power, or proximity to it, could harm or exclude people.
“I did not know until much later that this was a memory that really propelled her to make sure that things were equal, that there is a level playing field for everybody else,” Abrams’ mother, Carolyn, said in a phone interview.
Abrams, 44, tells that story wherever she goes. It won over audiences at each event at which I saw her speak in December when I trailed along on her campaign stops. It’s the story that fuels her resolve to become Georgia’s top politician. Last summer, Abrams gave up her seat and position as minority leader in the Georgia Statehouse to run for governor—and if she wins, she would become the first black female governor in U.S. history.
She’s betting on the progressive people of Georgia who have been ignored: immigrants and the working poor of all races. Her critics say the votes she’s pursuing are simply not there—that conservative Georgia will never elect a progressive candidate, let alone a black woman, as governor.
Her Democratic primary rival, Stacey Evans, a former Georgia legislator, is also formidable and is sure to give Abrams a run for her money all the way up to the primary election in May.
For those who suspect that Georgia won’t go blue, consider this: By 2025, Georgia is expected to become a minority-majority state; U.S. census data has Georgia’s current white population at 61 percent (recent data says that white registered voters dropped from 59 percent of Georgia’s electorate to under 57 percent in 2016), while black population stands at 32 percent, Latino at 9.4 percent and Asian at 4.1 percent.
Abrams believes that there’s a growing, multiracial coalition of Georgians who are ready to elect her.
“The goal that I have is to ensure that we build a coalition that reflects that opportunity,” she says. “Because we are so close to [racial] parity, and no other state is positioned where we are in terms of the composition of that parity. We have the voters ... to build a brand-new coalition we haven’t really seen in a Southern state.”
Abrams’ run is really a defining moment for the Democratic Party as a whole. Given that black women pretty much elected Alabama Democrat Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate, some national observers believe the party owes them Abrams.
The Democrats have long been the more progressive of the two dominant parties, but that means they have come to rely on the black vote while still mostly running white candidates. Now is the hour of reckoning for the Democrats to step up and live up to their supposed ideals of being for the working class and minorities.
“They have an opportunity to support a candidate who embodies what the future of the party should be,” says L. Joy Williams, chairwoman of Higher Heights. “The question is whether or not the party, and not just the DNC [Democratic National Committee], the Democratic Governors’ Association, all of the fundraising apparatuses, will have the wherewithal and the guts to stand up and work their hardest to ensure we have a victory in Georgia.”
Or, put it this way: Black people have always believed in white Democrats and vigorously voted for them. No matter how imperfect. In Georgia, will white Democrats, statewide and nationally, believe in Stacey Abrams?
Two weeks before Jones upset Roy Moore in Alabama, I’m speaking with Abrams in her small office at her campaign headquarters in Atlanta. Tax-law books are stacked on shelves by her desk. Before winning her seat in the Georgia Legislature in 2006, Abrams was the deputy attorney for the city, a position she held 2003-2006. Wearing her signature twist-outs and brimming with a confident calm, she tells me why she’s primed to win the governor’s race this year.
She points out that in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton lost the state to Donald Trump by 5 percentage points, a 3-point improvement on Barack Obama’s showing in 2012. Obama and Clinton could have won Georgia, Abrams believes, had they devoted more resources to her state.
“Those are all communities ripe for engagement if we respect them enough to do the same work for them that we’re willing to do for the other side,” she says. “One of the reasons I’m running is that I have a long history of unapologetically progressive values. I have stood in my truth and done the work, and I know that it is time to bring that to a broader swath of Georgians.”
I watch Abrams tell a conference table of 12 leaders of the Muslim community in Clarkston, Ga., as much one Saturday afternoon. Sitting at the head of the table, she fields questions about how she would take on Islamophobia if elected governor of Georgia in November. One man mentions the anti-Islam rally held on the steps of the state Capitol in Atlanta last year.
“If you’re the governor, how would you respond to that?” he asks.
Abrams, without hesitation, says she would condemn the rally and tell any Muslim working that day that they could go home.
“You don’t have to subject yourself to that kind of abuse,” she adds.
Heads nod approvingly.
Another attendee tells Abrams that there is a lot of rhetoric dividing the country. “What will you do to unite Georgia?” she asks.
“We’ve allowed divisive nationalism make us forget who we are as Americans,” Abrams responds. “And our responsibility is to be, not just a haven, but an incubator for good ideas and opportunity. Having communities that are able to integrate, not assimilate, but to integrate into the broader community is a healthy thing for a community.”
One of Abrams’ aides politely rises and cautions it is time for the candidate to sit for her interview with a local radio station across the hall in the same building. The host thanks Abrams and insists that she return. Abrams says she will.
Clarkston is just 30 minutes outside Atlanta and takes in 1,500 refugees a year and has welcomed as many as 25,000—especially those from Africa and Southeast Asia—over the past 25 years. Many of these residents are now citizens who can vote. As Abrams explains, there are enough Clarkstons to pull her through. She has more than 200 volunteers knocking on doors and making phone calls throughout the state to reach them.
She raised half-a-million dollars for the race by June of 2016 (her campaign will release campaign filings for the remainder of the year in March) and has picked up some major endorsements, including those of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution. Nationally, she has rock-star appeal. At each of the campaign events I visited, lines formed, with folks wanting to frame themselves in history before a history-making event potentially happens: a black women in the governor’s mansion.
The DNC indicates that it understands the symbolism of Abrams’ run. Though the DNC doesn’t engage during primaries, the body’s Black Caucus Chair Virgie M. Rollins said in an email to The Root that it invested nearly $1 million in the Alabama general election to mobilize that state’s black voters.
“Our victories in Virginia, New Jersey and our historic win in Alabama with the election of Doug Jones, which wouldn’t have been possible if we had not invested in the Alabama’s African-American community,” Rollins added.
Abrams knows that there are doubters who feel her candidacy is nothing more than wishful thinking.
White folks in Georgia would never vote for a black person for governor. Especially a black woman.
People are too stuck in their ways.
It’s just not her time yet.
State Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway), one of Abrams’ early supporters, pushes back against such assertions, saying that one advantage Abrams has is that she is running statewide and not out of a district, where she’d have to contend with gerrymandered voting areas that make it hard for black people to compete.
“There’s not a better time to have a Stacey Abrams running for governor than now,” he says. “Republicans are singing the same old song, most times playing to people’s fears. Georgia is in change mode. A whole lot of people who moved here since the last governor’s race are not hard-core red or blue. They’re looking for true leadership.”
A Yale-trained lawyer, Abrams says that she registered 200,000 people to vote in Georgia in 2008 through her organization, New Georgia Project. She was the minority leader of the state Assembly 2011-2017. She doesn’t run away from being a black woman. She embraces it, in fact. But she doesn’t want it to be the only marker that defines her, either.
“I’m not running because I’m a person of color, I’m not running because I’m a woman. But because of both of those parts of who I am, I have to navigate challenges that a lot of other folks haven’t had to deal with,” she tells me. “I have to answer questions that others aren’t asked.”
On the evening of Dec. 2, I go to Gainesville, Ga., just 35 minutes outside of Atlanta, to see Abrams speak at a meeting organized by the Hall County Democratic Party. She tells that story about being denied entry to the governor’s mansion to a racially diverse crowd of people, young and old. Some cover their mouths in shock. Some of the older black women sitting in the back shake their heads.
One of them writes a check to Abrams’ campaign soon after she finishes her remarks.
In the same speech, Abrams talked about having been born in Wisconsin and growing up in Gulfport, Miss., before moving to Decatur, Ga., with her family. She was a star student, and most of her five siblings did well for themselves, too. One, Leslie, is a federal judge; her older sister Andrea is a tenured professor. Janine, her younger sister, is an evolutionary biologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her brother Richard is a behavioral health counselor who works with foster kids down in southwest Atlanta.
Then there is Walter, who dropped out of Morehouse College and is currently serving prison time in Mississippi. He has mental health issues and feels his recidivism issues stem from his lack of access to mental health care, a reason Abrams is so passionate about expanding Medicaid.
“Walter is one of the reasons I’m so committed to expanding Medicaid because it provides mental health insurance,” she says. “It is a critical piece of what happened to him.”
That was what won over Jennifer LaRose, a white woman who brought her two children to hear Abrams speak. LaRose voted Republican until Barack Obama’s second term. One of her sons has health issues and relies on Medicaid to help cover costs. LaRose likes that Abrams wants to expand Medicaid (Georgia’s current governor, Nathan Deal, elected not to expand it). Abrams’ view is something LaRose believes will help the candidate win over lots of people like her.
“It’s going to win over a lot of people on both sides of the aisle,” she says.
Abrams’ desire to expand Medicaid also struck a chord with Deborah Mack, a black woman who once served as Hall County commissioner. She says that Abrams’ story should resonate with enough voters in Georgia to win, but black people need to do their part to make it happen.
“I think a black woman can win in the state of Georgia, but we have to not be so complacent and take it for granted it’s going to happen,” she says. “We have to work, too. We have to get out there and vote.”
As a minority leader, Abrams earned a reputation for being unafraid of taking on GOP leadership and working with them when her hands were tied. The GOP had the state House of Representatives, the Senate and the governorship, making Abrams’ ability to pass progressive legislation nearly impossible. So she had to negotiate with Republicans, often making a bad bill not so bad.
One of them was 2016’s House Bill 941, a bipartisan bill that curtails grand jury privileges for officers who shoot and kill on duty. Prior to this bill, police officers were permitted to be present during the entire grand jury proceedings, make a statement at the end, and be exempt from being questioned. Georgia was the only state that allowed this privilege, Abrams’ campaign says.
Abrams worked with Republicans and law enforcement to make sure cops had to be questioned. However, some lawmakers in her own party felt that she sided with Republicans too much, a charge Carolyn Hugley, who served as minority whip while Abrams was leader, says is unfair.
“When you’re the leader of the minority party, you first have to think about ‘Let’s do no harm or the least harm to the citizens we care about,’” Hugley says. “When you are in that leadership position, sometimes you’re going to take the position others feel is not a pure position. Minimize the harm to be done when you don’t have the power to make the final decision.”
LeDawn Jones, a former state representative and a supporter of Abrams’ primary opponent Stacey Evans, said during a phone interview that she respects both Abrams and Evans and believes that Democrats are in a great position for the general election regardless of who wins the primary. However, while Jones described Abrams as a “genius,” she that said Abrams was not a real progressive. She didn’t do nearly enough to challenge Republicans in power and could have done more to challenge the GOP’s authority, Jones added.
“So many areas that I think we could have made a bigger impact to let people know that we were fighting for them,” Jones said. “She had a very difficult job and no one expected it to be done to perfection. But when you ask if she’s a progressive leader in today’s progressive movement, I think a true progressive leader would have used that position as minority leader to bring light to a lot more progressive social justice issues.”
In an email, Abrams campaign spokesperson Caitlin Highland rejected those claims, saying that Abrams has called for the removal of Confederate monuments as a gubernatorial candidate and led protests against the Confederate flag. As a member of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and as minority leader, Abrams deferred to the leadership of the GLBC, which was debating efforts to remove Confederate monuments, Highland wrote.
Stacey Evans’ campaign said that the candidate was not available for an interview, but her spokesperson, Seth Clark, wrote in an email to The Root that Evans and Abrams worked alongside each other well, even through their disagreements. Evans’ strongest criticism of Abrams comes in how the former minority leader brokered the state’s HOPE scholarship program (Georgia’s tuition-free Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally program) with Republicans. Clark charged that it was “one of the worst pieces of legislation in years.
“Because of the [Georgia Gov. Nathan] Deal-Abrams bill, roughly a quarter of the technical college student body dropped out,” Clark wrote.
In response, Highland said that Abrams’ hands were tied.
“In 2011, Gov. Deal proposed legislation to overhaul Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, a merit-based scholarship program funded by lottery sales that was rapidly approaching insolvency after the Great Recession,” Highland said in an email. “The original HOPE bill funded universal pre-K for 4 year olds, higher education funding and technology. Under Abrams’ leadership, Democrats fought to prevent certain cuts and make sure the bill included funding for remedial classes at technical colleges, a 1 percent low interest loan program, and prevented the use of ACT/SAT testing standards that would have harmed poor students and students of color. In addition, [Abrams] prevented Republicans from cutting a full day of pre-K for 4 year olds to a half day—a key achievement of the compromise.”
In 1992, an uprising erupted outside the gates of Spelman College after the Los Angeles police officers who were captured on video mercilessly beating Rodney King were found not guilty. Abrams was a sophomore at the all-women’s HBCU at the time. She remembers coughing from the tear gas that cops fired into the crowds and that made its way on to campus. News articles from that day report 22 people and 17 officers were hospitalized; 70 were arrested in connection with the riots. State police dressed in riot gear surrounded the state Capitol. National Guard helicopters flew over the business district to protect property.
A student at nearby Atlanta University (now known as Clark-Atlanta University) at the time told the Los Angeles Times that officers came on campus to disperse students protesting the verdict. “It was a peaceful protest,” said Andrea Henderson, an Atlanta University student and resident of a freshman dormitory. “The police came on campus and tried to disperse us. I don’t think they had the right to do that.”
Abrams felt that then-Mayor Maynard Jackson’s response was too aggressive. Even more troubling to her were the ways in which local media depicted black people.
“I was angry,” Abrams says. “I started a phone tree in my dorm and started calling all of the reporters at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News, telling them they were wrong about what was happening and were mischaracterizing what was going on, and that they needed to stop.”
Abrams and some of her classmates were invited to a public forum, where they aired their issues with the city’s response to Jackson. He pointedly told her that she didn’t know what she was talking about, as she remembers the exchange, but the experience taught her to speak truth to power. It also endeared her to Jackson. Abrams and a classmate were offered internships with the city’s Office of Youth Services. It was her first real taste of public service.
“I’ll never forget. They came into the office and said, ‘We don’t want to be interns. We want to be research assistants,’” Melanie Campbell, who oversaw the department, remembers Abrams telling her. “They did good research, though.”
I tell Abrams that she, too, may deal with civil unrest as governor. One day, she may have to consider deploying law enforcement to handle the kinds of uprisings that have taken place in Baltimore, New York City and Ferguson, Mo. The kind that rocked Los Angeles and Atlanta and other cities around the nation while she was a student. I ask her if she had seen any examples of public officials handing the aforementioned uprisings inappropriately.
“If you look at some of the reaction, there is an aggression that takes place sometimes that far outweighs the potential harm that could be done,” Abrams says. “We have seen time and again that there is a difference in response depending on the racial complexion of the protest. And that is problematic. I do not ever question the responsibility of our law enforcement to protect citizens. But I do question and always will ask, and demand as governor, that that reaction be responsive to not our fears of what will happen but the reality of what’s on the ground.”
It is a carefully tailored response. If she does become governor and faces the unfortunate circumstance of civil uprising in response to police brutality, it will be interesting to see how the activism that pushed her to challenge a sitting mayor while a Spelman student will influence her response to police abuse as a governor.
Abrams meets around 40 volunteers at a MARTA station in Northeast Atlanta to canvas neighborhoods in nearly Decatur on a cool-by-Atlanta-standards Saturday morning in December. Some of them strategically stake “Abrams for Governor” campaign signs wherever the dirt gives. It is a diverse crowd, but black women are prominent. Abrams is running a multicultural campaign based on a very multicultural message, but if she is to win, it will very likely be because of black women, as was the case for Doug Jones in Alabama.
Angela Crawford, one of the volunteers, tells me her parents are 93 years old and never imagined their votes would elect the first black president. Neither is able to go out and physically vote, so they cast absentee ballots. Crawford says that she’ll help her parents make history twice for Abrams in May’s Democratic primary.
“They saw it could happen with [Obama], so they believe it can happen for the next person,” she says. “I’m going to make sure that next year, when we get ready to vote, that they will cast their ballots.”
In 2008, Obama was running on “hope” and “change.” In 2018, Abrams is running against hate, despair and an oligarchy that has turned the White House into a kleptocracy. Donald Trump is all the way up in Washington, D.C., but his policies are pushing Abrams to warn her supporters of what could happen if a Republican wins the governor’s race: Trump 2.0.
“In 2016, Georgia came within 200,000 votes of making sure the orange occupant did not take the White House,” she tells her supporters at the MARTA stop that morning. “For too long, we haven’t done the work of touching every single person. We talk to people we know about the things we like and we hope they’ll figure it out. But we know the way to create change is to reach out beyond ourselves.”
Then, she returns to the story of how she was denied entry to the governor’s mansion, a rallying cry for the dozens of supporters surrounding her.
“All I remember was a man at a gate, telling me that I don’t belong. Telling me this wasn’t my state. That I possibly couldn’t deserve to be inside,” she says. “I think about that when I’m standing here because MARTA got me from Decatur to the governor’s mansion before, and today, I think it’s going to do it again.”
From there, her small group of canvassers splits up into groups, maps out which parts of Decatur they’ll target and get to knocking on doors of residents they hope will get Abrams into the governor’s mansion. This time, the guard will know her name.