Georgia's Daring Heroine on a Secret Mission
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this Democrat wants to muddy Georgia’s red clay.
By Nick Fouriezos
Whether you were planning to join us in New York’s Central Park, or are enjoying OZY from across the globe, we still want you to celebrate the talent and bold ideas we had in our lineup — and that make our annual festival of ideas so powerful.
An unbreakable passion. A secret mission. A daring heroine. Stacey Abrams grew up poor in Gulfport, Mississippi, the daughter of preacher parents, born Black on the wrong side of the tracks. Now, more than two decades after skipping town, Abrams is a 42-year-old superlawyer in a big city. Yet the true object of her desire still eludes her: a hunky, jeans-clad but inexplicably shirtless man who —
Sorry, wrong chapter. While Abrams has penned multiple Harlequin bodice rippers, which have sold more than 100,000 copies, under her nom de plume Selena Montgomery, the Atlanta attorney and businesswoman is no wilting flower. Her alter ego, Abrams jokes, is as a state representative. Since 2010, she’s led state Democrats as the Georgia House minority leader, a historical first in the state for both her gender and race. And her real-life mission is to turn her dreams of a blue Georgia, currently as Republican red as its famous clay, into reality. “I’m a Black woman from Mississippi who thinks the Deep South can become a Democratic haven,” she says, laughing. “There’s a romanticism to what I do.”
Despite her love for prose, Abrams is actually a numbers nerd. (Note the Juris Doctor specializing in tax law from Yale, and the master’s in public policy from the University of Texas.) That, paired with a speaking style verging on poetic, is an “incredible skill,” one that turns heads nationally, says Jess McIntosh, vice president of communications at Emily’s List, the pro-Democratic PAC that awarded Abrams its inaugural Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award in 2014. It’s one of dozens of national accolades that Abrams has won, including the prestigious John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award from Harvard University.
It’s a thankless task at times, always sticking her finger in the dam — and hoping to stave off disaster.
Abrams’ rise is all the more impressive, perhaps, given her focus in other fields early in her career. After moving to Atlanta to finish high school, she attended historically Black Spelman College; after graduate school, she returned to Atlanta to start a financial services business, a beverage company for infants and a legal consulting firm, while also writing. As Abrams was getting her big political break — she became deputy city attorney in 2003, then state representative in 2006 — the Republican Party was bolstering its stranglehold on Georgia. Republicans not only hold a majority now but also are only one seat away from a supermajority, which means they could pass constitutional amendments without Abrams’ input or a single Democratic vote. For all her trophies, she can’t pass a progressive agenda. “She has almost a zero percent chance,” says Anthony Michael Kreis, who teaches political science at the University of Georgia.
So what can you actually do as a minority leader in a Republican-dominated state? Abrams has worked across the aisle to “mitigate the harm of what they were offering.” One of her well-it-could-be-worse successes: a $900 million state transportation bill passed last year, which had a handful of negatives in her book, including not enough money for transit and an inefficient increase in taxes. But, hey, she convinced Republicans to throw in $100 million to help fund bus and metro projects. And five years ago, Abrams co-signed a bill with Gov. Nathan Deal that saved the state’s lottery-funded college scholarship, HOPE, from almost certain bankruptcy. Her job is to make things more palatable for her constituents, whom she relates to from childhood as part of the — as her mom put it — “genteel poor.” The point now: “My job isn’t to win,” Abrams says. “It’s to lose well.”
It’s a thankless task at times, always sticking her finger in the dam — and hoping to stave off disaster. Soon after Abrams took over, Republican redistricting dropped her membership from about 68 members to 56. She later ran races to help steal back four districts, and in 2014, when giddy Republicans flooded statehouses nationwide, she brags that her state was one of the few where Democrats didn’t lose a single seat. For its part, the national party has noticed Abrams’ efforts. In fact, it was excited enough about Georgia’s prospects to have its national convention in the state in 2014 because it believed the state would soon be purple.
But the sweaty optimism of that summer bash quickly faded as Democrats got trounced. And Abrams ran into legal trouble over a get-out-the-vote effort that Republicans said turned in fraudulent voter registration papers. (Abrams says only around 50 of the 86,000 forms turned in were ultimately deemed misleading.) The real takeaway, though, is that the change she was so sure was coming never quite did materialize.
Today, at a French café in a diverse Atlanta neighborhood, Abrams keeps the faith. She pulls out pie — charts, that is, and three pages of them — plotting minority growth and increased turnout that would lead to a Democratic takeover by at least 2020. Abrams may lead that charge as a candidate atop the ticket; she won’t rule out that option. Right now, though, she’s eyeing the tables around us, pointing out the Asian couple, the white yuppies, the Black diners. “Just look around you,” she says. It’s clear that, for her, seeing the change she wants in the world has never been the issue.