The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For black women in Georgia backing Stacey Abrams, a chance to break ‘the ceiling on top of the glass ceiling’

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate running for governor in Georgia, talked the The Washington Post about overcoming race and gender barriers in politics. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

FOREST PARK, Ga.— Felicia Davis has been on the front lines of countless political battles over the past few decades, but none has filled her with as much hope as Stacey Abrams’s campaign to become the governor of Georgia.

Inside a one-story office building that showed little sign of life from the street, about two dozen volunteers, most of them black women, dialed up voters, imploring them to take part in an election that could make Abrams the nation’s first black female governor.

“We have an opportunity to make history,” Davis said as she and other activists reviewed plans to persuade black Georgians to vote.This is more important than Obama.”

Davis was not playing down the significance of the country’s first African American president. But even after Barack Obama’s historic election and a parade of state executive victories for members of various racial and ethnic groups, a governorship has eluded black women. Abrams, in a dead heat with her Republican opponent, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, with days to go, represents their best shot.

“It’s like the ceiling on top of the glass ceiling,” Davis said in an interview.

Abrams’s campaign has captured national attention and a blizzard of support and money from liberals, helping her to blunt skepticism that a black woman in a state such as Georgia would have a serious shot at becoming governor. Oprah Winfrey appeared with Abrams in a suburb of Atlanta on Thursday, and Obama is holding a rally for her on Friday at Morehouse ­College.

Winfrey, in Marietta, encouraged black and female voters to go to the polls. If they do not, she said, “you are dishonoring your family. You are disrespecting and disregarding their legacy, their suffering and their dreams when you don’t vote.”

Several other Hollywood and political celebrities have also campaigned for her, including actors Will Ferrell and Patricia Arquette, and Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala D. Harris of California.

“We don’t know if we can get her over the line, but who wants to be on the side that didn’t try?” Davis said. When all the votes are counted, Davis said, “I want to be able to say I did all I could and left nothing unturned.”

The voting may not end Tuesday. Under Georgia’s rules, if neither major candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will face each other in a runoff Dec. 4. Even a small percentage of votes to a third-party candidate could throw the race forward to then.

If Abrams wins, credit will flow in a major way to black women, who number nearly 1.1 million on the voter rolls.

For decades, black women have been among the most politically active groups in the country, responsible for the Democratic Party’s bragging rights to the “women’s vote” in presidential and statewide races. In Obama’s two elections in 2008 and 2012, black women voted at a higher rate than any demographic group.

Hillary Clinton claimed 94 percent of black women’s votes in 2016, while 52 percent of white women backed Donald Trump. Strong turnout by black women helped Democrats win the past two governor’s races in Virginia, and last year, black women were credited with nudging Doug Jones over the finish line in a close special election for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama against Republican Roy Moore.

Black women in Georgia have been busy in their neighborhoods, hosting events to register and rally voters. During the primary, groups of black women from across the country descended on Georgia to help with get-out-the-vote efforts. Another influx of volunteers is expected in the next several days.

Christina Greer, a political-science professor at Fordham University, said that after keeping faith with the Democratic Party for so long, “black women feel like our time has come and our just due is well overdue.”

“Stacey Abrams is the personification of our hard work and effort and collective brilliance,” Greer said. “She is overly qualified for this position, completely ready, and she hasn’t sold her soul to get to this position. She celebrates the fact that she is a black woman.”

Abrams, 44, embraces the historic nature of her candidacy in her stump speech, suggesting that her identity makes her uniquely qualified to lead the state. In Georgia, 21 percent of black women and Latinas live in poverty, compared with 11 percent of white women, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“I don’t want anyone to elect me because I’m black, and I don’t need anyone to pick my name because I’m a woman,” Abrams told an audience in Macon recently. “But I need you to know that because I’m a black woman, I understand the barriers to opportunity in the state of Georgia; because I’m a black woman, I understand how hard you have to work sometimes to get as far as you can; and because I’m a black woman, I know that when I make history, I make history with you.”

Abrams is a former Democratic leader of the Georgia House, the first woman to lead a caucus in either chamber. She is a graduate of Spelman College, one of the country’s most prestigious historically black institutions, and has a law degree from Yale University. She has written several romance-thrillers and operated small businesses. She also founded the New Georgia Project, a voter education group that has registered tens of thousands of state residents, mostly people of color and young people.

Abrams is no longer an official with the group, which has repeatedly crossed swords with Kemp, who it accuses of voter suppression for rejecting thousands of its voter registration applicants. Kemp has investigated the group for voter fraud and blamed sloppy work for many of its applications being rejected.

During the campaign, Abrams has openly discussed her shortcomings, including a failed business and falling behind on her taxes, which Republicans have used to question her fitness for the governorship.

Kemp has warned that Abrams’s “radical agenda” of expanding Medicaid and setting up a state fund to help people who want to start small businesses would be too costly. He has emphasized curbing illegal immigration and cracking down on violent gangs, echoing stances taken by Trump. He also said he would keep taxes low and government small, although he recently began promoting a pay raise for teachers.

Georgians have long favored Republicans for statewide offices, although the state’s substantial African American vote and increasing number of Latino residents have given Democrats hope of flipping the state. Four years ago Democrats Jason Carter, grandson of former president Jimmy Carter, and Michelle Nunn, daughter of former senator Sam Nunn, were heralded as potential breakthrough Democratic candidates in the gubernatorial and Senate races, but both lost.

The impact of having Abrams on the ballot was evident during the May 22 state primary: Black voter turnout was up more than 40 percent compared with the last contested primary in 2010, according to an analysis by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. That far exceeded the population growth over that span of time.

Across the breadth of Georgia, groups such as the nonpartisan Black Women’s Roundtable and Care in Action, the political arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, are knocking on doors to remind voters to go the polls, including those whose registrations have been put on hold because of discrepancies.

In Columbus, a reliably Democratic city of about 190,000 near the Alabama border, members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority recently gathered at their headquarters to call infrequent voters and try to persuade them to cast ballots this year.

Elsewhere, Jazmyne Gleaton, 18, a freshman a Kennesaw State University and a first-time voter, is nagging her friends to turn out.

“I hate it when people say, ‘I’m not going to vote.’ Like my boyfriend, who said it doesn’t matter. I told him, ‘You have to vote!’ ” said Gleaton, who is African American, in an interview outside an early voting site in Paulding County, a suburb of Atlanta that Trump won with 68 percent of the vote. She voted for Abrams, citing the candidate’s criminal justice platform, which includes eliminating cash bail and decriminalizing marijuana possession and certain nonviolent drug offenses.

Abrams is not solely aiming for the votes of black women but trying to assemble the multiracial coalition any Democrat needs to win a state that leans in the other direction.

Still, her candidacy is potent for black women, who for so long were expected to demonstrate loyalty to Democratic candidates without always seeing themselves reflected in the names on the ballots in major races.

Lesley Barnes, a recently retired supervisor for Veterans Affairs, was beaming as she left a boisterous rally for Abrams at a community center in Grovetown, a small town in Columbia County, a Republican stronghold just outside Augusta. Barnes spent 20 years in the military, where she said a person’s abilities were more important than their race or gender. Still, she is excited about the possibility of Abrams making history.

“Let’s be real: I’m a black woman. It’s good for me to see somebody that looks like me getting ready to go to one of the highest offices in Georgia,” Barnes said. “And am I voting for her just because she’s black and just because she’s a woman? No. But it does resonate with me.”