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Talk about fortuitous timing. As news broke last Tuesday that Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) was ending her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, I was heading to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston to interview another African American woman many want to be a part of the 2020 presidential campaign: Stacey Abrams.

Abrams, a Democrat, was the first black woman to be nominated by a major party for governor when she ran (and lost) to be the next chief executive of Georgia in 2018. And her experience, Abrams said, mirrors that of Harris. “Wanting someone to be the person doesn’t just happen through wishes, it requires deep investment. And the suspension of disbelief that often has to accompany supporting women of color, particularly black women, is just a difficult hurdle,” Abrams told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up,” recorded before a live audience at the JFK library. Her critique also applied to how Harris’s campaign was covered.

“The lens used and applied to nonnormative campaigns is always harder because you’re not only proving your capacity to do the job; you have to prove your right to be in the race,” Abrams said about the coverage of Harris’s campaign and the candidate’s political record. “She has a complicated story, which anyone who’s been effective in politics must have. The difference is that rather than being given the benefit of the doubt, or more importantly, having a fair set of questions asked about everyone who shared her past, the focus on what might be considered her foibles outshone any celebration of her successes.”

Asking Abrams about whether the United States will ever elect a female president like other democracies unleashed a searing indictment of the electoral college and voter suppression. “The reality is we can’t simply win the race … We have to win the system. The electoral college is a racist and classist system,” Abrams said before explaining how the electoral college came to be, why the president should be elected by popular vote and what changes need to happen so that all voters can vote.

“Eliminating the electoral college on its own won’t solve the problem as long as you have restrictive voter IDs, as long as you have polling places that could close, unless we have automatic voter registration, same-day registration, until we stop having 50 different democracies that operate completely isolated from one another and until we actually believe that we want to hear from the people who are to be served,” said Abrams. “If we solve all of that, then I think we can elect women; we can elect anybody.”

Abrams talked at length about the efforts in Georgia and other states to suppress the vote, including purging voters who haven’t exercised their right to vote. “I like to remind people the fact that I didn’t go shooting on Saturday doesn’t mean I’ve lost my Second Amendment rights. And the fact that I didn’t go to church on Sunday doesn’t mean I’ve lost my right to freedom of religion,” Abrams noted. “The right to vote is the only right in America that you can lose simply for not using it.” And then she explained the pernicious power of voter suppression. “The challenge of voter suppression is it not only blocks you from voting — it convinces you it’s not worth trying. And typically it doesn’t just infect one person;it infects community,” Abrams said. “The second problem is the sort of user-error way that voter suppression works. You start to think it’s your fault.”

At the Democratic debate last month, Harris used a question meant to get her to attack South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg on his lack of support among African Americans to force the party to deal with how it takes the black vote for granted. So I asked Abrams if the Democratic presidential nominee could win if black women don’t show up the way they have in elections since President Trump’s inauguration. Her response below was an incredible explanation of the popular mantra “vote like a black woman” and why Democrats have a firm grip on that electorate.

There is not a candidate who will become the president of the United States as a Democrat without black women. We are the most reliable voters in America, but it’s also the reason we’re not going anywhere — because we know the consequences of the other side.
When the issue is a question of whether choice is available, whether abortions are available? If you’re a black woman, it is a matter of life or death. It is a matter of economic survival. If it’s a conversation about economic access, you know that you are often responsible for an entire family, and you don’t have the luxury of being angry and using that anger to exempt yourself from the conversation.
Black women are reliable because we are the victims of almost every perfidy exposed by our party, by our communities, by our nation. And so those things that are wrong, we are the canaries who have lived in the coal mine, built nests there. We are the ones you will know first. But because of that we also understand at, I think, a preternatural level, our obligation to engage anyway. And we know that we will not go to the other side because they do not value us, they do not see us, and they do not want us.

Listen to the podcast to hear Abrams talk more about her work to combat voter suppression through her organization Fair Fight and her view on what has happened to the Republican Party. But the biggest moment came when I asked Abrams whether she would consider being the vice presidential nominee. “Yes,” she said simply and then articulated why after acknowledging the “very weird position” of talking about such ambition publicly.

“I’m a black woman who’s in a conversation about possibly being second in command to the leader of the free world, and I will not diminish my ambition or the ambition of any other women of color by saying that’s not something I’d be willing to do,” Abrams said to raucous applause.

“Cape Up” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

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