The Power of Stacey Abrams

Despite losing the Georgia governor’s race in 2018, she has moved quickly to political prominence. Will she be the vice presidential pick for Democrats?
(Dana Scruggs for The Washington Post)
By

There is a big buzz at the Loudermilk Conference Center in downtown Atlanta as a gathering called Paradigm Shift 2.0: Black Women Confronting HIV, Health and Social Justice gets underway. Three hundred registered participants have journeyed from across the country to discuss the many challenges and possibilities facing black women and girls. The second day’s morning keynote was delivered by radical activist and professor Angela Davis. The hype has been building exponentially for lunchtime guest speaker Stacey Abrams.

When she is finally introduced the women shout and leap to their feet. Young women stand on chairs, camera phones flash. Abrams, who appears both amused and slightly disturbed by the fuss over her, takes control of the chaotic scene. I’ve witnessed this level of affection for very few political leaders in the Democratic circles I’ve been in since the 1980s. They have the last names Clinton (both Hillary and Bill), Sanders, Warren, Jackson and Obama (both Michelle and Barack).

“I’m going to make sure there is peace in this room,” Abrams says. “Y’all are about to annoy each other with these cameras, so I’m going to stand up and I’m going to stand in front of each group of you. Take pictures so you can put your camera down.”

(Dana Scruggs for The Washington Post)

Pandemonium ensues as she walks to the far left of the stage, like a runway supermodel, stops on a dime, poses, tilts her head slightly and smiles. Camera flashes explode. She next pivots and walks slowly to the center of the stage, freezes there and repeats the pose. Again, the flashes explode. Abrams is summoning her inner actress, and she is both enjoying the moment and getting through it to get to the conversation. She then pivots and walks to the far right of the stage, same. You wonder whether she has done this before, because it is not necessarily what one would expect from a 46-year-old politician who was nearly elected the first black female governor in U.S. history. She lost by fewer than 2 percentage points in the 2018 Georgia race riddled with allegations of voter suppression. Before that, she was a state legislator who had served as a leader in the Georgia General Assembly for a decade. Now her name is on political pundits’ shortlists of potential running mates for Joe Biden. She also happens to have predicted that she’ll be elected president by 2040.

Just as quickly Abrams leaves the runway and returns to politics. Taking her seat with the moderator, she dives into why she is here and why she believes the leadership of women matters. “We live in a time where we have purported leaders who claim to speak for us but do not know us, and in that ignorance, they make decisions that are designed not for our success but for our demise,” she says. “So my deep suspicion is that some people are lying when they say they care about us.”

The balloon of silence in the meeting room is punctured, time and again, by “Amen” and “Preach” and “You go, girl.”

“When I ran for governor, I did not run simply for me. We went around this state to all 159 counties, and everywhere we went we talked about the power of people to make a choice,” Abrams tells the crowd. “On November 6th, when malfeasance and incompetence and my opponent who was a cartoon villain stole the voices of Georgians when he purged 1.4 million voters and oversaw the shutdown of 214 precincts that left 50,000 to 60,000 people without the ability to vote, when Georgia had the longest lines in the nation and the highest rejection rates of absentee ballots and provisional ballots,” Abrams continues, “It was not just about me. He was doing that to Georgians.”

Abrams pauses for a moment, allowing her words to simmer. The audience cheers as she smiles broadly.

“And the thing is, if I had fought back and said, ‘I am going to contest this election and make myself governor,’ then everyone who loved me and stood with me would have thought, ‘Well, this is about her fight.’ My responsibility was instead to focus on the right to vote and not my right to be governor. I had no right to be governor, but I have an obligation to do the work that I said I would do if I were governor.”

Voting rights. Responsibility. Possibilities. These are the ideas and values that come up often with Stacey Abrams and her team. I heard them over and over again during the weeks I followed her around earlier this year, in Miami, in New York, in Atlanta, and listened to her give interviews and hold public conversations. She has opened up a nationwide dialogue about voting rights but has also been accused by political pundits of too aggressively pushing herself as Biden’s VP choice. What Abrams seems to know is that she must be persuasive and make her own case for her fitness for higher office — and history would suggest that she’s right to do so. Commentators have wondered whether Abrams, who has not yet won a statewide election, would be ready to serve as vice president.

Whether or not she’s chosen as Biden’s running mate, she has moved into a unique space in American politics. DuBose Porter, former chair of the Georgia Democratic Party, told me she is “brilliant,” praise that comes in spite of what some view as a relatively thin political résumé. But we live in an era in which an extensive political background hardly matters anymore — Donald Trump had never been elected to office before his 2016 win. Like former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose long-shot campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination made him a household name, Abrams doesn’t have the baggage of years of votes on Capitol Hill; she doesn’t have a fraught record on criminal justice that comes with having served as an attorney general, nor does she face the accusation of being out of touch because she has spent years in Washington.

At this conference it’s easy to be reminded that black women have long been the most loyal supporters of the Democratic Party. They carried Doug Jones to his senatorial victory in Alabama in 2018 and were key to kick-starting Biden’s presidential campaign when it was thought to be dead, helping to lift him to victory in South Carolina’s Democratic primary. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before a black woman, especially a black woman from the American South, would rise up as a national leader and a power broker for democracy in a way we have not often seen, aside from Fannie Lou Hamer’s brief but landmark speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention and Shirley Chisholm’s historic “unbought and unbossed” run for president in 1972.

Abrams’s roots and family history have echoes of the civil rights movement, and her Southern heritage is key to her appeal. It helps explain why she has soared to prominence while serving as a standard-bearer for a new kind of multicultural and multigenerational agenda. In the last presidential campaign cycle, the racial breakdown of Democrats outside of the South was roughly 60 percent white, 17 percent African American and 23 percent Latino, according to a 2016 Blair Center Poll. In the states that form the South, those numbers were 38 percent white, 37 percent African American and 25 percent Latino. In her runs for the Georgia legislature and governor, Abrams built a coalition that excited this new Georgia. She believes she can do the same on the national stage.

Abrams’s special adviser, Chelsey Hall, tells me that in the 2018 gubernatorial race the campaign had to contend with doubters and “convince her own people that she was viable and electable for that position. Even the people that had been supporting since she became Democratic minority leader [of the General Assembly] or her first race. There were so many times where we would have emotional moments during call time because people that she trusted, that had been supporting her since 2006, 2011 were saying, ‘But you are a black woman. How is this possible?’ ”

Abrams is the first black woman in U.S. history to have won the gubernatorial nomination of either major party. She garnered more votes than any Democrat who has run statewide in Georgia. She lost by just over 50,000 votes to Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Kemp was not only her opponent, but his office oversaw everything to do with voting, including how the voter registration rolls were purged. It would be like Tom Brady not only being the quarterback of his team, but the referee and the scorekeeper as well. Kemp’s office cut nearly 700,000 names from the rolls in the two years leading to the election, and more than 200 polling places were closed, primarily in poor and minority neighborhoods.

Abrams chose not to concede to Kemp, because she believes voters were disenfranchised. She has said she went through all the stages of grief for 10 days and then got back to work. She has spent the time since leveraging the power she gained and deciding how she wants to use it.

A mural in Atlanta in April. Abrams moved to the city with her family when she was a teenager in 1989. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post)

Stacey Abrams lives in a simple blue townhouse in a diverse middle-class neighborhood on the east side of Atlanta. Her modestly furnished home is filled with a wide range of books, including the four she’s currently absorbing: “The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin, “Huey Long” by T. Harry Williams, “A Problem From Hell” by Samantha Power and “A Place for Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza. There is art, some centered on black America, but also pieces from her travels internationally that are Australian aboriginal, South Korean, French, Chinese. Framed photographs of family and friends are spread throughout as well.

This home is a major expansion of the Gulfport, Miss., house she grew up in, where her family of eight had to convert the dining room to a bedroom for her two brothers, Richard and Walter. It feels like a sanctuary to protect Abrams from the many demands on her time. Abrams, who is single with no children, arrived in Atlanta as a 15-year-old in 1989 when her parents decided to attend Methodist divinity school. Aside from stints for graduate school at the University of Texas (master’s in public affairs) and Yale Law School in Connecticut, Atlanta is where she has mostly lived since departing Mississippi. I ask Abrams about her life in Mississippi.

“I only remember living on South Street in Gulfport, Mississippi,” she says. “2020 South Street was a red-brick house with azalea bushes that ran along the front. There was an oak tree in the front yard, and it had such big limbs and so many leaves that grass couldn’t grow underneath it. But you could climb that tree, and you could see everything.”

Abrams’s parents picked that street so that she and her siblings could attend one of the better schools in the area. It was one of many lessons she learned growing up about the division of resources along racial lines and navigating those divisions. “It was less a black community than we lived on a ‘black street.’ There were these two streets that were adjacent to the middle-class, predominantly white part of town to get zoned into the middle-class school. ... We lived on the two streets that were all black until the Brooks family came. ... All the streets got nicer names as you went further in, so those were predominantly white. My parents understood that education was the essential ingredient to success for both of them. My mom is the only one of her siblings to finish high school. My dad is the first man in his family to go to college.”

Abrams excelled in academics and was always in advanced studies, which meant she was routinely the only black student in her classes. Because one of the two TV channels that the family received was PBS, Abrams watched that network religiously, read the dictionary and devoured the books and encyclopedias her parents managed to buy for their children.

“I think my mom is the reason I started reading the encyclopedia and the dictionary, because I would ask questions and she was like, ‘Go look it up.’ ” she says. “Finally I figured if I wanted to know everything, I just needed to read everything.”

Abrams’s roots and family history have echoes of the civil rights movement, and her Southern heritage is key to her appeal.

Abrams also tells me that she and her sisters like to say their dad — a track star in college who once had pro football tryouts with the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys — is the first feminist they ever met. “He will tell you before anyone else will that he thinks my mom is the smartest person he knows. ... It is a true belief that there is no division of capacity that comes along with gender. He raised us with that understanding, and we never questioned it.”

Her interests were vast: physics, chemistry, history, psychology, mythologies, biographies, poetry. During our conversation Abrams recalls speeches, debates and poetry that she studied in her youth, and recites from memory the opening stanza of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask.”

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, —

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Abrams draws no boundaries around most music genres, either.

“When I was in 10th grade I was having a conversation with a friend, and I said, ‘I hate country music.’ And she said, ‘Why?’ And I didn’t have an answer. So I made myself listen to every radio station on the radio for two weeks each. But then when I engaged people ... I could use that complexity of my musical likes to talk. And the same thing was true from what I read. My mom and dad basically let me read; if I could reach it, I could read it.”

When the family moved to Atlanta, Abrams ended up at a performing arts high school, where she became her class’s valedictorian. College was next. “I applied to Spelman, Swarthmore, Vassar, Sarah Lawrence. I was leaving the South,” she says, recalling that the South was all she knew, and she wanted a different experience. “I only applied to Spelman because my mother tricked me into it.”

At Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, she had double majors in physics and philosophy, with a minor in theater. It was the first time she would be steeped so broadly in black life and culture outside of her family home. Johnnetta Cole, who later led the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and was the school’s president at the time, became Abrams’s mentor. Cole encouraged young Abrams — who was perpetually raising her voice — to get involved, attend meetings and bring about change. Abrams did that and then some, on and off campus. When the Rodney King verdict came down in Los Angeles in April 1992, acquitting the four police officers who brutally beat the motorist, Atlanta and many other U.S. cities exploded into protest and violent rebellion. A couple of months later, Abrams was in the back of a protest, watching, when some young black folks burned the Georgia state flag because it contained the Confederate symbol (she did not personally hold the flag as it burned, but she organized the protest and obtained the permit), a fact that her opponents raised during her run for governor. Soon after that incident, Spelman hosted a town hall with Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson in which Abrams dissed the work of the first African American elected to lead a major Southern city.

“I berated him for not doing enough for young people,” Abrams recalls. “I was very irate and then ... I gave them my number, and I gave my parents’ number. ‘[Here’s] where I’m going to be, if you have any questions.’ ” Jackson was very offended and questioned what Abrams knew. It was a bold move for a young woman to challenge a trailblazing black man who was seen as an important leader throughout the South. She told him that she attended city council meetings and zoning meetings and that she knew he wasn’t doing enough. The town hall aired on local television. Despite the confrontation, when Jackson created an Office of Youth Services the next year, 1993, she was the only undergrad college student hired. It was her first taste of life in politics.

After Spelman and graduate and law school, Abrams became a tax lawyer because working in the mayor’s office showed her that if she wanted to be a public servant, she needed to learn how the entire system worked. At age 29 Abrams was appointed deputy city attorney by Mayor Shirley Franklin, another history-making Southern black politician. Franklin was the first woman to hold the post and the first black woman to be elected mayor of a major Southern city. Abrams ran for and was elected as a state representative in 2006; she rose quickly in the Georgia legislature and became Democratic Party minority leader in 2011.

She calls herself a “pragmatist,” which is a necessary asset for a Democrat in a state long controlled by Republicans. She also embraces the label “progressive”; in the race for governor she campaigned on expanding Medicaid. Ideologically, she falls somewhere between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden: As her state’s Democratic leader, she worked on behalf of low-income and middle-class residents, defeating sales taxes; she championed reproductive rights, supported military families and protected public education and Medicaid from budget cuts; and as a mentor she launched a program to train young people in Democratic Party politics. In my reporting I have heard grumblings that some black Democrats in Georgia did not feel Abrams was always with them in political fights, but there’s wide agreement that she is focused on taking action and getting results. To do that, Minority Leader Abrams crossed the aisle often to work with Republicans. One of her admirers is Nathan Deal, the former two-term Republican governor of Georgia.

“I thought that my working relationship with her, and she with my staff, was very good,” Deal says in a phone interview about their partnership to save Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship for low-income residents. “We were in the midst of the continuing Great Recession at that period of time, and we had to make some very difficult choices about programs in our state. We did not always agree on all the issues that we were confronted with, but on that one, which was a significant one, I thought she demonstrated the kind of leadership that you hope people would do regardless of party labels.”

They made cuts to the program, which upset some liberals, but preserved the scholarship. When asked if Abrams could bring that same tact to national politics, Deal says: “I would think she probably could. Now that’s not something that every Republican will say.”

(Dana Scruggs for The Washington Post)

Abrams is the author of eight romance novels under a pseudonym, started two small businesses, is a New York Times best-selling author under her own name and is a superfan of “Star Trek” and Southern hip-hop, including one of her favorite rappers, Ludacris. She is scholarly, but she can also wax poetic on football. She is a policy wonk, but she can effortlessly pivot to sending goofy memes to the children of good buddies. She is a pop culture junkie who also is very literate on the sway and potential of technology. She is secure in her identity as a black woman but also sees herself as appealing broadly to people of all colors and identities. (Exit polls in the Georgia governor’s race proved her right about that.) She is effusive about the accomplishments of her sisters and brothers but also talks openly about her brother Walter’s long-term battles with mental health and drug addiction. Politics is a profession that attracts fakers, but it seems to me that Abrams is, for lack of a better phrase, mad real.

In 2018 and immediately after her defeat in 2019, Abrams helped to create three organizations: Fair Fight Action, which advocates against voter suppression (and has a lawsuit in the discovery phase against Brad Raffensperger, in his official capacity as Georgia secretary of state and as chair of the State Election Board); the Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP), which aims for equality of opportunity; and Fair Count, which seeks to get communities of color, rural populations and other marginalized groups counted in the 2020 Census. At the Fair Fight office in Atlanta, I meet Abrams’s parents in a small conference room. Before the fan frenzy around her, before the passionate support of such A-listers as Will Ferrell, Oprah Winfrey and Mike Bloomberg, before she found herself the subject of countless media profiles, and before she became an in-demand expert on political talk shows as well as a guest on “The View,” she was their daughter.

Demanding a fair fight is something Stacey Abrams’s mother and father have been doing pretty much most of their lives, beginning in Hattiesburg, Miss. Both came from generations of churchgoers, cooks, domestic workers and laborers. They met during the height of the civil rights movement and wound up working together at Hattiesburg’s racially segregated swimming pool as lifeguards who became teenage sweethearts.

Says Carolyn Abrams, 71, “I just always believed I can do anything anybody else could do, that there was no limit. And we taught our children the same thing.”

“My mom raised me, and we were really, really poor,” says Robert Abrams, also 71, “but in our family, anything you do, you do it to benefit others.”

Some black Democrats in Georgia may grumble that Abrams was not always with them in political fights, but there’s wide agreement that she is focused on results.

These are the people who shaped Stacey Abrams’s notions of power and her Southern black political identity. Robert Abrams is a tall and nimble man. Carolyn Abrams, his wife and partner of 51 years, is short in stature, walks with the help of a cane and speaks in the perfect diction of an English teacher, or a great debater.

Robert, like other youth of his era in the Deep South, became heavily involved in the civil rights movement, inspired by the founding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 and other developments happening in the state. Robert never affiliated himself with any organization but was simply a civil rights “soldier,” as many youths were then, and was arrested more times than he can recall. He was, he says, also physically assaulted because he challenged local white authority.

By the time he and Carolyn were both students at historically black Tougaloo College near Jackson, Miss., they had decided to get married; they honeymooned at a local Holiday Inn. A year later, the first of six children came: Andrea in 1970, Stacey in 1973, Leslie in 1974, Richard in 1977, Walter in 1979 and Jeanine in 1982. Stacey and Leslie were born in Madison, Wis., because Robert and the family resided there for a couple of years so that Carolyn could get, with the help of a fellowship, a master’s degree in library science from the University of Wisconsin.

After Carolyn Abrams secured her degree the family returned to Mississippi, this time to Gulfport, a bustling shipping city along the Gulf of Mexico. Carolyn settled into life as a librarian, and because of his dyslexia and difficulties reading, Robert worked at a shipyard. Stacey’s mother would come to refer to the family as “the genteel poor” because of their unusual blend of books everywhere and “urban camping” whenever the lights were cut off from a lack of money. They lived by candles or flashlights when that happened. (In my time with Abrams, I noticed that in speeches and interviews she uses the words “poor” and “poverty” in a way most politicians do not, bringing to mind the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. But these issues are familiar to her and very personal.)

Carolyn and Robert Abrams would go on, in the years to come, to get master’s degrees in divinity from Atlanta’s Candler School of Theology and raise their six children to be, among other things, two PhDs, a social worker, a federal judge and a popular politician.

“It was always just a part of what you do," Stacey says. “Your job is to serve.”

Abrams in Atlanta on election night in 2018. She lost the gubernatorial race by fewer than 2 percentage points.
Supporters on election night. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
LEFT: Abrams in Atlanta on election night in 2018. She lost the gubernatorial race by fewer than 2 percentage points. RIGHT: Supporters on election night. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

My name is Stacey Abrams, and I am not the governor of Georgia. I’m not going to be the senator, ever, but what I am is a proud Southerner, I’m a proud Democrat and I believe that we will win. ...”

That is how she reintroduces herself at a town hall meeting in Miami in early February hosted by the Florida Democratic Party. This was before Biden overcame early primary defeats to become the Democratic nominee for president but after Abrams had declined Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s requests for her to run for the U.S. Senate because she’d rather be in the executive branch; and this was before the human and economic devastations of the coronavirus pandemic.

On this muggy, 80-degree day Abrams paced in front of an interracial crowd in an auditorium at Miami Dade College North Campus, using a story about her grandmother Wilter Abrams, who was affectionately called “Bill,” to drive home the importance of voting: “My grandmother explained to me that the first time she was truly eligible to vote was after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but — as with most federal decisions — it didn’t really get to Mississippi until ’68. So, the first time she was eligible to vote in an election was in the presidential election in 1968, and she remembered that day. My grandfather and his brother were at the house. They had gotten off work, and they were ready to take her to go and vote. ...

“My grandmother said she didn’t move. She was sitting back there on that bed and she was frozen. ...,” Abrams says, letting the story spool out. “My grandfather became less and less generous with his platitudes and more impatient with her not showing up, and he finally marched back there to get her, and he was like, ‘What’s wrong? We’ve got to go and vote!’ And she said, ‘I don’t want to go.’ My grandfather was like, ‘What do you mean you don’t want to go?’ She said, ‘I don’t want to face the dogs and the billy clubs. I don’t want to face the problems.’ And he said, ‘But we’ve got the right to vote. We’ve got the Voting Rights Acts. We can vote!’ And she said, ‘I’m afraid. I don’t want to do this.’ And my grandfather looked at her and she said she had never seen my grandfather look so disappointed. He said, ‘Your children fought for this. ...’ ”

Abrams’s grandmother summoned the courage to vote that day, and she voted in every election after that until she died. Hearing this, the crowd roars and Abrams rocks back on her heels. She’s wearing her now-familiar look of twisted natural hair, short dangling earrings, a solid colored jacket and dark blouse and slacks. She speaks without notes, merging front-porch storytelling with a nerdish marshaling of facts and history.

Moments before the town hall, Abrams sat with six students from different Florida colleges to talk about the role of young people in American politics, in protecting the right to vote and building political coalitions — especially in the South. The basic civil right of voting has become a signature issue for Abrams because of her experiences with the 2018 governor’s race, because Georgia’s racial demographics and voting patterns are shifting quickly, and because of her own family history.

“I started my voting rights activism at Spelman College. I started a voter-registration drive even before I was old enough to vote,” she tells the students. “I was probably the only person who turned 18 in college and got excited to go register and nothing else. But for me, the issue of voter registration is the beginning of the conversation because it is a conversation about power.”

“Power” is a word Abrams uses often in private conversations and in public statements. It’s what she wrote about in her political memoir, “Lead From the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change”: “[T]he questions for those in search of power abound: Who has it? How do we get and wield it? What do we do when we have less than the other guy? What do we do when we lose it? ... [T]he bald conversation of gaining power — especially for those who rarely hold it — is unusual.”

Abrams tells the Florida college students that her political opponents “know how narrow the elections are. Every moment of suppression makes it easier to keep power.”

Abrams is not at any of the three offices I visit as I meet and talk with staffers. Each is in a different location: Fair Count in a bland, nondescript house converted to office space next to a gas station; SEAP in a white building that could easily be a school; and Fair Fight in a brownish office building. All are funded by private donations, both large- and small-dollar. Fair Fight Action is a 501(c)(4) and lead plaintiff in the aforementioned lawsuit, and does advocacy work. Fair Fight PAC, with more than 120,000 individual donors and about $24 million in fundraising, works on voter protection with state Democratic parties. Fair Count has raised about $7 million, and SEAP has raised about $1 million. I am told it would be impossible to delineate funds raised by Abrams and funds raised by staff because it’s a team effort. Fair Fight Action and its PAC combined have 30 staff members, along with teams at state parties across the country. Fair Count has 26 and SEAP four.

On each visit with these organizations I see that women are in leadership positions, the staffs are a rainbow coalition of identities, and droves of young people, 20-somethings and 30-somethings, power each group.

Fair Fight Action’s chief executive is Lauren Groh-Wargo. Before Abrams began entertaining conversations about the vice presidency, she and Groh-Wargo — a political operative who launched the New Georgia Project in 2014 as a nonpartisan effort to register voters, and who started her career by organizing against slumlords in Brooklyn — would strategize on how to transform their state. They would also discuss why Abrams should run for governor in 2018, with Groh-Wargo as her campaign manager.

Their partnership reflects the bridge-building necessary in the modern Democratic Party — and is a vision, perhaps, of the party’s future leaders: Abrams is Southern, black, straight; Groh-Wargo is Midwestern, white, gay. They share core values: Both support abortion rights, the rights of immigrants, marriage equality, economic justice and environmental protections.

Groh-Wargo says that Abrams also represents a kind of politics that shows “it is possible, and the best option, for Democrats to really aggressively be building this multiracial, multiethnic coalition. We should be leading with that rather than leading with this idea that we have to start with the ‘swing voter’ concept. We lead with diverse communities of color and really let that drive strategy. What we have learned in Georgia is that no one thought a black woman would be competitive. We have learned that when you do that work and are also reaching out to white voters of all kinds, you do build a coalition.”

This is why, in spite of not being the governor of Georgia, Abrams has become a player in the Democratic Party — in her state and in the country, including her well-reviewed prime-time 2019 response to President Trump’s State of the Union address.

In a phone conversation after our in-person interview, Abrams made a point to address the lingering questions raised by pundits about her readiness for national office. “I would say that anyone who believes that they know everything on Day One is likely incorrect,” she tells me. “Part of any job is being capable of learning all of the facets but coming with enough knowledge and enough curiosity and enough capacity to adapt quickly either to the challenges you face or to the realities you confront.” To that point, Abrams adds that she is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has spent the past quarter-century “self-educating” on global affairs with fellowships and other fact-finding missions, including trips to Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Abrams has made it no secret that she is open to a place next to Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket. But the question remains: Would a Biden-Abrams ticket work?

In that phone conversation, as she was sheltering in place, Abrams was thinking about why the nation was ill prepared to address the pandemic and how to be better prepared for the next. “What we’ve watched for the last 40 years has been a concentrated assault on public administration and on the public infrastructure that so many Americans take for granted,” she says. “And I think because we have not faced an internalized crisis in this country in quite a while, we have forgotten why we built what we have and that ... in times of national emergency we should have an infrastructure that can quickly be scaled up to meet the needs of the moment.”

Be it foreign affairs or other topics, Abrams is not a traditional politician, just like Robert Kennedy, who served as attorney general and a U.S. senator, was not your typical politician. Both stepped into massive spotlights in spite of their shyness, both took on the mantle of activist, and both wanted to bring all kinds of people together.

Maybe the signs and troubles of our times are why Abrams has made it no secret that she is very open to a place next to Biden on the Democratic ticket. But the question remains: Would a Biden-Abrams ticket work? Word among the political chattering class is that he is looking for a running mate who could step into the Oval Office after one term, and not every pundit is convinced that Abrams has the credentials. Biden is 77, and Democrats want to be sure they have his successor waiting in the wings. Abrams tells me that she has spoken regularly with the former vice president over the past year, since they first met to talk about his campaign in March 2019, though Abrams won’t divulge the nature of those conversations.

When I press Abrams about the 1990s sexual assault allegation from Biden’s former staffer, Tara Reade, and how that might affect him or his running mate, Abrams stands firm: “If I am chosen to be his running mate, I will proudly promote his record and his plans to help the women of America,” she tells me, noting Biden’s leadership of the Violence Against Women Act, his support for equal pay for equal work and helping to pass the Affordable Care Act.

Even if she’s not chosen, it seems that her place in the vice presidential conversation only strengthens her political future. If, for example, she was to challenge Kemp to a rematch in 2022 or run for president in 2024, she’d only have more power.

Before hanging up, we return to that subject, and Abrams again stresses her vision of political power for all people.

“Leadership,” she says, “is about answering that question: How can I help?”

(Dana Scruggs for The Washington Post)

Kevin Powell is a writer, public speaker and author of several books, including his autobiography, “The Education of Kevin Powell.” He is also a civil and human rights activist, and ran for Congress as a Democrat in 2008 and 2010 in New York.

Abrams portraits: Styling by Cheri Scurry-Burns. Makeup by Shaune Hayes. Hair by Sharron Brooks-Bullock. Prop styling by Giulietta Pinna. Wardrobe by ELOQUII.

Design by Brandon Ferrill. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of combined staff members of Fair Fight Action and its PAC. They have 30 staff members, not 24.

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