Head of State

March 6, 2019

 

On what feels like an unusually breezy day in early July in Georgia, there is a low hum of activity at Stacey Abrams’ campaign office on the southeast side of Atlanta. It is midmorning, and while a staff member notes the office is quieter than usual, Abrams is operating at full speed to meet a schedule jammed with back-to-back engagements. Dressed in a chic black dress, she sits down to discuss how she intends to bring her brand of leadership to the state of Georgia as governor.

 

“My mission is to lead the state of Georgia ... because I want to solve the issues of poverty. I want to tackle economic inequality and economic access. I want to tackle and defeat the scourge of people dying or lacking access to health care because Republicans have been too mean and too cheap to solve it,” Abrams said.

 

It was just a few weeks after Abrams — who was running to become America’s first Black female governor — won the Democratic nomination in a race that seemed to galvanize voters nationwide. People like former President Barack Obama and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis supported her.

 

As one of the first Democratic candidates to capture a high-profile nomination, Abrams became the patron saint of progressive politics, serving as a reference point whenever women or minorities prevailed in primary races across the country.

 

“She has the perfect combination of brilliance, she has a heart for the people that she represents, and she has a heart for the state of Georgia,” said State Rep. Carolyn Hugley, minority whip for the Georgia House of Representatives, who has served as a mentor to Abrams. “She is right now on top of her game.”

 

Abrams is at once commanding and disarming. She is quick with a smile, funny and smart. She is also wrapped in the brown skin, full figure and natural hair that feels familiar to the 32 percent of African Americans living in the state of Georgia. But it is her ability to make everyone — from a sisterhood of resisters in metro Atlanta to rural residents in Valdosta — believe that she cares equally about their interests that could turn the tide in a state where there hasn’t been a Democratic governor since 2003.

 

“If you talk to Stacey Abrams for five minutes you know she cares about people like you. When you take race out of it, everything she is talking about will benefit the overwhelming number of Georgians,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, and daughter of former Atlanta mayor, congressman and United Nations ambassador, Andrew Young.

 

When people hear Abrams speak they say they feel energized. During the summer, as Abrams awaited the results of the Republican runoff that would deliver Brian Kemp as her opponent, she took the stage at an event with Atlanta-based hip-hop artist Clifford “T.I.” Harris. She fielded questions about everything from her plan to support small businesses to managing neighborhood gentrification. When asked how she would measure her success as governor, Abrams was clear on her purpose.

 

“The governor of Georgia should be responsible for making sure every family or person has the freedom and opportunity to thrive,” she said.

 

Abrams, 44, was born in Wisconsin but grew up in Gulfport, Miss. Her parents, Robert and Carolyn Abrams, were both very involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Her father worked in a shipyard and her mother was a librarian. Although they held college degrees, her parents often found themselves struggling financially.

 

“We were ... working poor is the kindest phrase, but they didn’t let that deter them from the sense of engagement, and I think that was an incredibly telling thing for me as a child even though I couldn’t articulate it,” Abrams said.

 

From her earliest days, her parents showed her what it meant to have a servant’s heart.

 

“The way I talk about it, we had three jobs — go to church, go to school and take care of each other,” Abrams said.

 

By the time she was in high school, the family left Mississippi and moved to Atlanta, where her parents pursued graduate degrees in divinity at Emory University. They would later become involved in the United Methodist ministry and were very intentional about taking their children to volunteer and protest.

 

Recalling a more recent example of her parents’ service to others, Abrams described when Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi in 2005. She and her younger sister Jeanine drove to the church where her mother served as pastor and her dad ran the outreach ministry. After a quick hug, they got to work unloading water, organizing a food assembly line and gathering donations. In the background, at the parsonage where her parents lived, the roof had been blown off and the carport was near collapse.

 

“The carport is leaning, and about to fall and my parents instead of dealing with their own crisis are helping take care of the community because in their minds, that is what you do,” Abrams said.

 

Abrams is among the multihyphenate high achievers who can claim significant success in all areas of interest. As a politician, lawyer, author, entrepreneur and activist, she is constantly on the move. She is single. She does not have children. Reporters and pundits have questioned the status of her personal life, but anyone filtering Abrams and her experiences through a lens other than that of an African-American woman who has been laser-focused on her goals since the age of 18 will end up with a blurry image.

 

In her autobiographical guide to leadership, Minority Leader, Abrams said she began plotting her life on a spreadsheet one night at the computer lab on the campus of Spelman College. The last place Abrams had planned to end up was an all-female historically Black college in the South, but with not-so-gentle urging from her mother, she visited Spelman. Two things changed her mind, then-president Johnnetta B. Cole and the attractive men at Morehouse College.

 

“When I first started at Spelman, [Dr. Cole] had open office hours that I took very liberal advantage of, so much so that she told me to stop complaining to her and run for office,” Abrams said. She took Cole’s advice and ran for freshman class council, which evolved into positions on the student government association. Cole helped her build skills that Abrams didn’t know she needed. She absorbed Cole’s lessons on fundraising, etiquette and working with others to overcome opposition — all qualities Abrams would carry with her when she joined the State House of Representatives.

 

“She helped me understand that part of power is creating space for others to be successful and to see their own power,” Abrams said of Cole. “If you are good enough, someone else’s victory doesn’t diminish your success. And I think that has helped me think through how I led in the House of Representatives, both when I was working with or against Republicans but sometimes within the Democratic caucus.”

 

Before she entered the realm of state politics, Abrams would earn degrees from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and Yale Law School. She worked as a tax lawyer and as deputy city attorney for Atlanta. She also wrote romance novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery, and has engaged in a series of entrepreneurial ventures with her business partner Lara Hodgson. With each endeavor, she never lost her eye for service.

 

“Every facet of my life has always had an ethic of service built in,” she said. “I don’t know how to not be that way. In my mind, public service doesn’t exclude the private sector, it requires engagement with the private sector.”

 

Even her romance novels always featured characters that had a notion of responsibility for the place they were in, she said. And when she and Hodgson began developing businesses, they agreed that all their companies would do well and do good. In 2016, when Nourish, a company that made bottled water for babies was still a fledgling business, they sent a substantial portion of their inventory to Haiti after Hurricane Matthew to ensure babies and toddlers had potable water.

 

Abrams won an open seat in the State House of Representatives in 2006. Rep. Hugley said Abrams was immediately recognized as a rising star.

 

“She looks at a problem or situation and she analyzes it in her own special way but once she determines her course she is fearless in her pursuit of her goals and that is the quality I admire most,” Hugley said. “You don’t see that in politics very often.”

 

In 2010, Abrams was chosen by her colleagues to take on the role of House minority leader. The following year, when funding for a state scholarship program was in jeopardy, Abrams opted to negotiate with Republicans rather than take a hard line. Certain aspects of the programs were retained, but some Democrats were angry that she yielded anything at all. In the gubernatorial primaries, her opponent focused on the message that Abrams had gutted the lottery-funded scholarship, but the strategy failed. Abrams walked away with a landslide victory earning more than 75 percent of the vote.

 

Abrams has since pledged to be the public education governor with a plan that would include increased funding for student transportation, technology and schools in rural and low-income areas. She embarked on a statewide jobs tour to highlight how she would support small businesses with a $10 million annual investment. And she has released plans to expand Medicaid in Georgia to close the coverage gap.

 

Abrams has always worked to reach out to voters who are traditionally ignored. In 2014, she launched the New Georgia Project, which helped register about 69,000 new voters. Though many believed the numbers wouldn’t allow a Black woman to win a statewide election in Georgia, Abrams reached out to the new American majority comprised of single women, people of color and other under-registered voters that previous campaigns have not targeted.

 

“Her nonpartisan work gave her the opportunity to get around the state and gave her the opportunity to create networks,” said Andra Gillespie, a political analyst and associate professor of political science at Emory University. “She comes with the sensibility that elections are won or lost in the street.”
At press time, Abrams was weighing her legal options against her opponent who claimed victory with a slim lead. Win or lose, Abrams promises to continue serving the people of Georgia, noting: “I have done this work, and there is no moment that will stop me from doing it.”

— Nedra Rhone is a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She covers news and pop culture.

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The Crisis magazine is a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color.

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