“Look, politicians are like 15-year-old girls. We respond to money, peer pressure and attention.”
The clarity of insight in that one line explain why Stacey Abrams is among the next generation of Democrats the party needs to listen to. The former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives resigned her seat in August to run for governor of the Peach State. If elected, Abrams would be the nation’s first African American female governor. But don’t tell Abrams she can’t win the 2018 contest.
“People think I’m not gonna win because they’re still remembering the Georgia of ‘Gone with the Wind’ or maybe they’re conflating it with Selma,” Abrams said in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “The reality is the Georgia that people think they know is not the Georgia that is.” And then, using her state as an example, Abrams diagnoses a bigger problem for the Democratic Party. “The problem is my party in particular, which tends to be the party that builds those coalitions, has not done the work of building the coalition of people of color,” she continued. “We’ve traditionally left them out of the politics, treated them as base voters, meaning they’ll show up if we have an election, and not as persuasion voters, who need to have the same degree of intensity and intentionality in our campaigning as we give to majority voters, to white voters.”
During the Congressional Black Caucus weekend here in Washington, Abrams was on a panel I moderated on voting rights. She was explicit in her assertion that the Democratic Party took African American voters for granted. So, I asked her to elaborate during our sit-down. “The issue is how much do we value the votes that we’re going after. And the challenge I’ve seen in the party, especially in the south, is that we do not place the same premium on voters of color that we do on white voters,” Abrams told me. “And until we place the same premium and treat them as equally valuable votes, we will not win elections where we could.” Then she added this. “Georgia Democrats sometimes leave as many as a million votes on the table. Not because they won’t vote, but because we don’t ask.”
What about the party’s intense focus on winning the votes of white working-class votes? “When we say ‘white working class,’ what we mean is try to convince Republicans to become Democrats,” Abrams said. “My job is not to convince you that your beliefs are wrong. My job is to convince you that the pathway to getting what you need comes through the work I’m willing to do.”
Of course, we talked about Jon Ossoff’s unsuccessful race for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District seat. This is where Abram’s 15-year-old girl analogy comes in. This is also where “Jon got a lot of attention. … He got a lot of money,” she said. “He did not win, but it was not a failure of Democrats. That was a majority Republican district that should not have cost roughly $60 million.” Abrams pointed out that Republicans spent more money than Ossoff in that race. She also noted, “[Democrats] made Republicans fight for a seat that they literally had won months before by more than 20 points.”
“What Jon was able to pull off was he built a coalition of voters who had never voted in a midterm election, in a special election, and he built a presidential-level attention during an off-year election,” Abrams said. She said the Ossoff race became a focal point for Democrats because “it gave us a vessel within which to pour our anxiety, our anger, our angst, our disappointment about November.” But his loss is no excuse to sit back. “We have to use loss as a galvanizing force,” she said. “It can never be an excuse to sit down ever again.”
“At the same time I published my first novel, ‘Rules of Engagement,’ I also published my first tax article on the operational dissidence of the unrelated business income tax exemption,” Abrams said. “This was at the advent of Google and so, if you googled Stacey Abrams … and you saw both my romantic suspense novel and my tax article, it would be like reading romance by Alan Greenspan.”