The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia Democrat aims to be nation’s first female African American governor

Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams at Chehaw Park in Albany, Ga. on Saturday, June 3, 2017, when she announced her run. (Melissa Golden)

— Stacey Abrams, a Georgia politician who embodies what many progressives argue is the future of the Democratic Party, launched what she hopes will be a history-making campaign Saturday when she officially announced her candidacy for governor of the Peach State.

The 43-year-old Democratic leader of the Georgia State House, who enters as the front-runner for her party’s nomination, is aiming to become the first African American woman to be elected governor in U.S. history. Abrams is widely considered to be one of the most skilled and savvy political leaders in the state legislature and hopes to replace term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal (R), who has served since 2011. But it won’t be easy: No Democrat has won statewide office in Georgia since 2006, and just 11 black women have ever been elected to statewide positions nationwide.

“Pray for me and work with me,” Abrams told about 100 supporters who braved persistent swarms of gnats to help her kick off her campaign at a barbecue at Chehaw Park in Albany, a small city about three hours south of Atlanta. “I want government to work everyday, for everyone.”

Abrams, a Yale-trained lawyer and business executive who writes romance novels on the side, has an army of supporters across the country eager to prove Democrats can win if the party puts its energy into expanding its base among the increasingly diverse state population rather than fretting over white swing voters. That is what Abrams has tried to do as founder of an organization that says it has registered 200,000 new voters in Georgia — along with her work in the state’s House, often while cooperating with Republicans on key legislation and policies — has made her popular with progressives who say the party should rebuild and strengthen the coalition that elected and reelected President Barack Obama.

The rapidly changing complexion of the South, which has seen the percentages of African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans increase, creates the potential for a political makeover. Abrams and other progressive political activists of color believe new voters will want candidates who look more like them.

“Democrats in the South have to reject the notion that our geography requires that politicians soften our commitment to equality and opportunity and that you have to look a certain way,” Abrams said in an interview Friday. “We have to be architects of progressive solutions, and that means leadership that believes we can defy the odds. I believe Democrats have the ability to win, because we have the votes.”

Steve Phillips, a progressive strategist who makes the case for a “new American majority” coalition of people of color and liberal whites, said there are more than 1 million eligible but unregistered voters of color in Georgia — more than enough to close the gap for Democrats, who have narrowed the margins of their losses in the past several elections.

“Georgia is getting more diverse every year. Those numbers are trending in favor of somebody like Stacey,” said Phillips, who is also founder of Democracy in Color, a multimedia effort to push the idea that the Democratic Party’s future is in the growing diversity of the country.

The daughter of United Methodist ministers, Abrams said she is running for governor because she thinks “every Georgian deserves the freedom and the opportunity to thrive, and too many of us are being left behind and left out.”

Abrams arrived in Georgia as a child, when her parents moved with their five children from Gulfport, Miss., looking for better educational opportunities. Abrams earned degrees from Spelman College, the University of Texas and Yale Law School. She is the first female leader of either party in the Georgia General Assembly and the first African American leader in the Georgia House.

“My life is proof that where you begin doesn’t dictate who you become,” she said.

At her kickoff, she told the crowd that she launched her campaign outside the metro Atlanta area because “Albany is just like where I grew up. I’m from a town that is about 150 miles from the capital. Sometimes that 150 miles is a lifetime away. I’m from a place that can also be forgotten because it’s not where we think politics and business should happen.”

Five women — three white and two black — from Thomasville, a small town near the Georgia-Florida line, drove up together to cheer on Abrams. They call themselves Indivisible Women of Southern Georgia and say they are united in their opposition to President Trump. They say that as governor, Abrams could perhaps stem some of the Trump administration's efforts to cut services for vulnerable children and roll back environmental protections. They also applaud Abrams's efforts to register more voters and plan to launch a drive in their home county.

In 2014, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project, which focuses on voter registration and engagement with a goal of signing up 800,000 voters of color by 2024. Supporters hail the New Georgia Project for its efforts to urge civic engagement among voters of color, while detractors say it has not lived up to its ambitious promise to register hundreds of thousands of voters.

The group, along with other organizations, sued Georgia’s secretary of state for practices that have resulted in applications being rejected or not being processed in a timely fashion. It also joined a lawsuit to reopen the voter rolls to new registrants for the June 20 runoff in the special election for the state’s 6th Congressional District.

Brian Kemp, the secretary of state who has criticized the group’s lawsuits and in 2014 launched an investigation of the New Georgia Project for allegedly submitting fraudulent voter applications, is running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Abrams, who was first elected to the state House in 2007, representing part of Atlanta and suburban DeKalb County, says her most important legislative achievement was getting more money and support for grandparents or other family members who take in children whose parents can’t care for them. She is intimately familiar with the challenge because her parents are caring for her niece. Abrams said her brother was addicted to drugs and incarcerated.

She drew some criticism for brokering a deal with Republicans that resulted in cuts to a popular state-funded college scholarship program. Abrams said she was trying to save the program from total elimination.

The rise of Abrams's political career seems to have curtailed her other passion — writing romance novels. Between 2001 and 2009, she published eight books under the nom de plume Selena Montgomery. Abrams said she got her love of writing fiction from her father, who would spin intricate serial bedtime stories for her and her siblings. She started out in the 1990s wanting to write spy novels, she said, but publishers weren't interested in a black female heroine. "So I made my spy fall in love," Abrams said, thus launching her literary career. Although she hasn't published a novel since 2009, Abrams, who also has published nonfiction books about policy, said she plans to continue to write, even if she becomes governor. "I don't think anything will stop me from writing," she said, although she acknowledged that it might be hard to keep deadlines.

Despite her growing national profile, which will probably attract cash and volunteers from across the country, Abrams is not the only female Democrat eyeing the state’s top executive job. State Rep. Stacey Evans, who is white, announced her candidacy last month. The 39-year-old lawyer is taking a similar approach in touting her success overcoming a tumultuous childhood and becoming the first in her family to go to college.

Emily’s List, which promotes female candidates who support abortion rights, is backing Abrams, who in 2014 received the organization’s first Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award, named in honor of the former Arizona congresswoman who was seriously wounded when a gunman opened fire, killing six people, as she met with constituents at a Tucson shopping center.

Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, described Abrams as “a strong, powerful woman who has a vision for the future of Georgia.” She said Abrams is a doer as well as a dreamer: “Her ability, particularly as leader in the legislature, and what will make her a great governor, is the ability to pull folks together to really come to solutions even if they all don’t agree with each other.”

Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, said that many believe Abrams is the smartest member of the General Assembly, noting that “most Republicans would not want to be quoted on that, but in private many will acknowledge her intellect and hard work.”

But Bullock said Abrams might be slightly ahead of her time. “Despite her abilities, she may be running four to eight years too early,” he said, pointing out that in 2014, Michelle Nunn, daughter of a popular former U.S. senator, had a well-funded campaign but got just 45 percent of the vote in the race with David Perdue (R-Ga.) for the U.S. Senate.

Abrams analyzes the race differently. In 2006, she said, the Democratic nominee for governor lost to his Republican opponent by 400,000 votes; in 2010, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate lost by less than 260,000 votes; in 2014, Nunn lost by 197,000 votes.

“We’ve been able to cut their margin of victory in half in two cycles, but what we have never done is reach out to those voters who’ve been left out and been forgotten,” Abrams said. “What we haven’t done is register hundreds of thousands of new voters who come to the election wanting to see progress, wanting to see opportunity. And what we have not done is build a coalition of voters who have a shared ambition for success. I’ve done that.”