I am sitting in a car with former Georgia House Minority Leader and recent gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. She’s just invited me in from the cold outside Manhattan’s Gramercy Theatre — where she’s soon to go onstage for an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes — but Abrams is signaling in some ineffable way that she’s not in the mood to talk. She’s checking her phone and, every once in a while, peering through the tinted windows at the long line of people hopping up and down in the February chill and in anticipation of seeing her. The event, for Hayes’s podcast Why Is This Happening?, sold out immediately after it was announced, and in the hours before it starts, tickets are going for hundreds of dollars on the resale market. Abrams can see her excited fans, but they can’t see her.
The hush isn’t unfriendly — she pulled me off the street into the car, after all — but it is disconcerting, simultaneously intimate and slightly awkward. I’m dying to ask some questions in these extra, unscheduled minutes I’ve been granted with my subject, whose time these days is extremely limited. But I’ve known Abrams for a few years; I’ve been in her company often in recent months; I’m familiar enough with the vibe in the car — the “We’re being quiet now” vibe — that I know better than to break the silence.
This is the same Stacey Abrams who, a few weeks earlier, had deployed her winning gap-toothed smile and rousing rhetoric to break the curse of wretched State of the Union responses. Her speech following the president’s was so effective that even Fox News analyst Brit Hume grumbled that she was “a person with a lot of presence, [who] certainly speaks very ably and well,” while his colleague Chris Wallace noted that, in contrast to network fave Donald J. Trump, “she seemed to get more to what people’s lives are like in the reality.”
Since concluding her 2018 campaign to be Georgia’s governor — refusing to concede in a race marred by voter-suppression tactics and won by Republican Brian Kemp, Georgia’s former secretary of State, who’d held on to his job managing the election despite being a candidate in it — Abrams has been busier than ever. She and her team have filed a federal lawsuit and launched an organization called Fair Fight to challenge Georgia’s entire electoral system; Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’s former campaign manager and the CEO of Fair Fight, has compared the suit to Brown v. Board of Education in the scope of the injustice it aims to remedy. Abrams has also recently published a widely circulated essay about identity politics for Foreign Affairs; shared a stage with Ava DuVernay in California; appeared in an ad touting Fair Fight during the Super Bowl; and been a guest on Late Night With Seth Meyers, BuzzFeed’s AM2DM, and NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! On March 26, Picador will publish a new edition of her memoir–slash–advice book, Lead From the Outside.
Everywhere she goes, she is surrounded by people pulling at her sleeve, asking for selfies, some trembling with nervousness, some hollering “You’re my governor!” across airport waiting areas. I heard one woman exclaim, backstage at Late Night, “I can’t wait to vote for you for president!” Then there are the instances, as at the Power Rising Summit for black women in New Orleans in February, when a large audience simply begins chanting, without specificity, “Run, Stacey, run!”
Back in the car, Abrams takes an audible breath before opening the door and greeting the whooping crowd with a smile. That wordless transition between private and public existence distills one of Abrams’s many contradictions: She is a serious introvert, yet her work requires glad-handing extroversion; she is excruciatingly aware of the electoral challenges that face her as a black woman who grew up what she calls “genteel poor” in rural Mississippi, yet she pushes forward politically with the drive and confidence of a white man; she devours romance novels and soap operas, yet she is also a science-fiction, math, and tax-law geek; she can come off as one of the most relatable politicians out there, yet she is a total egghead who drops million-dollar vocabulary words, once sending me to the dictionary to confirm what panegyric means (I mostly got it through context!). And she is a woman who, having just run in a historic election that many of her fellow Democrats expected her to lose, is now being counted on to win, and perhaps save her party, by prevailing in an equally difficult Senate contest, or maybe the race for the presidency. The deepest irony, of course, is that what Abrams wants to do is fundamentally rebuild the electoral system that failed her, just as the system itself wants to pull her in.
Abrams’s penchant for silence may occasionally make her seem sphinxlike, but she is mischievous and wry with those close to her. Once, one of her staffers and I were marveling at the vast menagerie of taxidermied animals at a gas station we’d just left, when Abrams interjected, “They stuff everything, including what you hit with your car. Welcome to southern Georgia: Waste not, want not.” Backstage at Late Night, I watch her fussing with her special assistant, Chelsey Hall, about what to wear on-air. Hall, whom colleagues describe as “basically Huma,” presses her boss, 16 years her senior: “Stacey Yvonne Abrams. Put. It. On.” Abrams grumps off to change.
Many have used the phrase “real deal” to describe Abrams. “Donald Trump is the warm-up act for the real deal: Stacey Abrams,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told the press in advance of her State of the Union response. Afterward, billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer picked up the thread, tweeting, “Stacey Abrams is the real deal. Now everyone in America knows it.”
The suggestion that there is something inherently real about Abrams is worth its weight in political gold in a media environment where the murky assessment of authenticity has become a precious commodity that few female candidates are thought to possess. As a 45-year-old black woman, she’s certainly part of the real Democratic base: African-American women have long been the most reliable Democratic voters and organizers, though you wouldn’t know it from how rarely their priorities have been addressed by party leadership, let alone how rarely they’ve been provided the financial and institutional encouragement to, you know, lead the party.
But when pundits, and even regular people, talk realness, they’re talking optics as much as anything. And some of Abrams’s traits — her occasional social stiltedness, her insistence on keeping her natural hair, her self-described “sturdy” body type — make her simultaneously stand out and blend in, at least among those Americans who aren’t used to seeing anyone who looks and sounds like them up on the podium. “I’m not normative,” Abrams likes to say about herself, citing her “race and gender and physical structure, the way I approach things.”
Nonnormative as she may be, Abrams is an almost old-fashioned Democrat, with her ideological (and personal) roots in the civil-rights, labor, and women’s movements. Her parents, a librarian and a dockworker, both of whom would later get divinity degrees and become pastors, were civil-rights activists from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. As an undergraduate, she was trained as an organizer at the A. Philip Randolph Institute of the AFL-CIO; she gave her State of the Union rebuttal in an Atlanta union hall.
A graduate of Spelman College, with a master’s in public policy from the University of Texas and a law degree from Yale, Abrams worked as a tax attorney and deputy city attorney for Atlanta before being elected, in 2006, to the Georgia statehouse. She assumed the minority leadership position — becoming the first black woman to lead either party there — in 2011. In the midst of her legal and political career, Abrams has published romance novels (under the name Selena Montgomery) and founded several businesses, including one that made formula-ready bottles for babies and another that helps small companies get paid more quickly by buying their invoices.
Abrams ran on unapologetically left-for-Georgia stances on gun control, criminal-justice reform, health care, and education. But her progressivism isn’t completely in sync with today’s cutting-edge policy ideas — she’s not a socialist or even a democratic socialist. Yes, she talks forcefully about the chasm of economic inequality in the United States, the moral bankruptcy of a system that treats poor people as if they don’t deserve the dignity of health care or a functional social safety net. During a Q&A after a Fair Fight rally in Albany, Georgia, Abrams tore into what she says is the underlying message of state Republicans’ opposition to Medicaid expansion: “If you’re too poor to get health insurance, it’s your fault. That is not true, and that is not right … We live in a state that has a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.”
But while Abrams supports raising the minimum wage to about $15 an hour in cities like Atlanta, she’d stop short of a statewide increase, explaining that Georgia’s history of resistance to unions has kept wages so low that a blanket hike would be too much of a shock to the economy.
“I’m not going to do class warfare; I want to be wealthy,” she tells the far-from-wealthy crowd at the Fair Fight rally. “You’ve probably got aspirations about that too.” Many in the room nod in recognition.
Where Abrams is the most passionate is in her willingness to rumble over remaking electoral systems that are rigged to deny the country’s most vulnerable their only real route to civic power. It may not be as sexy as free college, but it’s definitely radical — and as Abrams likes to point out, without full enfranchisement, we’ll never get elected officials who’ll back policies that materially improve the lives of people who aren’t well off and/or white.
Even before voter suppression (arguably) kept her from the governor’s mansion, Abrams was obsessed with the question of who was being counted.
In 2013, she founded the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan group whose goal was to reach into the state’s poorest corners to register its more than 800,000 qualified-but-unregistered voters. And it is those long-overlooked new voters who get at least part of the credit for her pathbreaking performance in November: Abrams won more votes than any Democrat in Georgia history.
The success of her long game — despite her failure to gain the office she sought — is what has prompted everyone from Schumer to assorted passersby to offer their view of what she should do next. Schumer is pressuring her hard to run against the vulnerable Republican senator from Georgia David Perdue (she jokes about the daily calls she’s been fielding from “friends of Chuck”), assuming that she has the best chance of nudging the party along the precarious path to taking back the Senate.
Meanwhile, activists and commentators are imagining her role in the 2020 presidential race. During her SOTU response, former Obama adviser and Pod Save America dude Dan Pfeiffer tweeted, “Stacey Abrams should run for president.”
There’s also been online rustling about how Abrams would make the perfect not-a-white-guy vice-presidential foil for any one of the white-guy presidential hopefuls. Biden-Abrams? Or how about Sanders-Abrams? On the Intercept, Sanders enthusiast Mehdi Hasan wrestled with his guy’s relative senescence by sketching out a scenario in which Sanders would agree to serve only one term and pick as his running mate Abrams, who, Hasan pointed out, “is black (check), a woman (check), progressive (check), and unites the various wings of the Democratic Party like no other politician in the United States.” Check!
Many who’ve known Abrams for years aren’t surprised by her ascent. The Times journalist Emily Bazelon, who attended Yale Law School with Abrams, remembers one class in which they were “two of the only women who raised our hands with any regularity,” and also “that she was the person we all thought had a future in politics … Her magnetism and ability were that evident.” Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP and himself a recent — and unsuccessful — gubernatorial candidate, in Maryland, met Abrams when they were training to be youth organizers. Last year, he posted a photo of them together at 18, recalling that back then “she told me … she would be the first black governor of Georgia. I told her I believed her.”
That is the job Abrams wanted more than anything. But it’s the one she can’t run for right now, which leaves her with some major decisions to make: Should she risk the four-year wait for another shot at the Georgia governor’s mansion? Try for a Senate seat that was never part of her plan? Or maybe take a bigger, earlier leap for the presidency, which she’s unashamed to admit she’s long set her sights on … just nowhere near this soon.
Abrams is the second of six children. Her elder sister, Andrea, is an anthropology professor in Kentucky; Leslie, just 11 months Stacey’s junior, was appointed in 2014 by President Obama as a U.S. District Court judge in Georgia; Richard is a social worker in Atlanta; Walter, who attended Morehouse, struggles with drug addiction and has been incarcerated; and her youngest sibling, Jeanine, is an evolutionary biologist who has been working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Stacey taught herself to read chapter books by age 4, according to her family, after Andrea got sick of reading to her. She counts among her childhood favorites books by the Brontës and all of Dickens; she read Silas Marner at age 10.
“Basically, what kids were forced to read when we got to high school, I’d read,” she recalls. Later, she attended a performing-arts school where she gravitated to chemistry, physics, and math. (She also took guitar, but retains only the ability to strum “anything by Van Halen.”)
After a high-school friend gave her a novel by the black feminist writer Octavia E. Butler, Abrams developed a passion for science fiction. She’s a Trekkie who will authoritatively rank series — “The Next Generation and Voyager are about even; I think Voyager is mildly superior, although Picard is the quintessential captain. Then I would do Discovery, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise. I don’t understand why Enterprise was a show.” These days, she’s into Doctor Who, having grown up on the Tom Baker version. “Right before this campaign started, I was sick and ended up watching the Doctor,” she says. “Then, over New Year’s, there was a marathon. Now I’m watching all the new ones. I’ve seen seasons three, four, five, six, and I’m in the second half of seven.” Abrams watched three episodes of Doctor Who to chill out the afternoon before she gave her State of the Union response.
Abrams’s precocity, and her impatience with the less advanced, wasn’t always greeted warmly. “I had a tendency to try to help other children move faster, which you’re not supposed to do. You’re not supposed to tell them the answers.”
With Abrams I’m reminded, as I have been in encounters with several other female politicians in recent years, of the painful scene from Broadcast News in which a crotchety old news executive taunts Holly Hunter’s type-A heroine, “It must be nice to always think you’re the smartest person in the room!”
No, Hunter replies with despair: “It’s awful.”
It was, perhaps, particularly awful for a black girl in a predominantly white elementary school in Mississippi. “Stacey may have read on the same level as the teachers,” her sister Leslie recalls. “And she wasn’t shy about correcting you. She was never rude, but she’d say, ‘This is silly.’ It was: ‘What is the purpose of this finger paint? When I go home I’m reading Nancy Drew. So why am I reading Dick and Jane at school?’ ” Leslie laughs. “But you couldn’t punish her for being smart! And she wasn’t a bad child. So the teachers were like: ‘Will you go do something useful then? Go make copies!’ Stacey made a lot of copies.” That meant she spent a lot of time with adults, like her principal, and less time with her peers, whom she studied with a kind of distant curiosity.
“I was born trying to figure out why other kids were just playing in a circle,” Abrams says. “What are you doing in the circle? Duck, Duck, Goose? What is the goose supposed to do? You could be organizing; you could be producing products that are for sale. You have a circle, but how are you utilizing it?”
As an adult, Abrams made a conscious decision not to hide her braininess, unlike so many extremely smart women who’ve been told that their intellectual prowess is off-putting and unattractive. She knows the perceived costs of this. In her book, she writes about how “older women of every racial category” blame the fact that she is single on her achievements, while men cite her “tendency toward strong opinions” as a romantic turnoff. (In our first conversation, back in 2015, she told me, “I like to be successful at things, and I was not good at dating and so I just stopped,” one of the most deeply human observations I’ve ever heard come out of the mouth of a politician. Four years later, she says she is very open to the possibility of a relationship.)
But I think she’s also counting on something else: Maybe her confessions about her cerebral predilections and the attendant social unease that besets so many smart little girls will resonate with a whole lot of smart grown-up girls. The political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry told me about an “amazing interaction” with Abrams onstage at the Power Rising Summit. When Harris-Perry lamented that a smaller percentage of black men than of black women voted for Abrams, the former candidate strenuously objected. “She stopped me and said, ‘No, I do not want conservatives to say that black men failed me. The way exit polls are done undercounts black men.’ We had a big public discussion about statistics,” Harris-Perry marveled to me via text. “I almost kissed her.”
Leslie Abrams wasn’t allowed to be involved during her sister’s gubernatorial campaign because she’s a federal judge. She briefly found herself in the news cycle, anyway, when she unexpectedly fell in love with a man she’d met through the Innocence Project and who had served 27 years on a wrongful rape conviction; the couple wed in November. Now, while her sister is not running for anything, Leslie can talk to the press, and she and Stacey are having an animated discussion over lunch at a Cheddar’s in Albany, Georgia.
The two grew up nearly twinned: look-alikes who were in different grades but the same Girl Scout troop and often — for economy’s sake — shared clothes. Leslie describes herself as “more outwardly joyous and perky” than Stacey, who is “one of the sweetest people I know, but she doesn’t like you to know that. You have to push to get to the soft mushy insides.”
During lunch, the sisters trade barbs about Abrams’s unwillingness to take vacations. “I can read at home,” Abrams balks. “Why would I pay money to go read in someone else’s house?”
“You feel my pain?” Leslie looks at me imploringly. “It’s not just reading in a different place! Vacation is a time when no one is calling you, you clear your schedule. I am teaching her.”
After the election, her family persuaded Abrams to go to Turks and Caicos, deputizing her old friend Camille Johnson, who accompanied her, to make sure she ventured outside the hotel. While Johnson assured Abrams they wouldn’t have to “climb a mountain” or “do something totally out of character” for her, they did try to jet-ski, in part because Johnson knew something about Abrams: She likes to drive fast. Some years earlier, Porsche had moved its headquarters to Georgia, and Abrams brought Johnson along when she was invited to drive its cars at a nearby racetrack. They’d listened to an instructor explain how to get out of skids and doughnuts at speeds of 90 mph, but when Abrams got into the Porsche, she just began to spin. “After she was done, I was like, ‘Stacey, you were not paying attention!’ And she just looked at me and said, ‘Oh, yes, I was.’ ”
In Turks and Caicos, a logistical snafu killed the jet-ski plan, though Johnson conceded that it was just as well, given how frequently her friend was recognized. After being approached for a selfie her first day on the beach, Abrams never went back. She retreated to the balcony of her room and happily read her way through N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy.
With Leslie, Abrams jokes about how she used to hope that she could find a way to be “secretly in charge,” before realizing that you couldn’t do this stuff on the sly. She didn’t run for student government when she was in high school. Instead, she says, “I ran the yearbook. I ran things where I could just get stuff done. I never ran for things where you had to ask people to let you be in charge.”
But running a campaign that netted record numbers of new voters necessarily entailed asking people — legions of them — to let you run the show. I ask Leslie the degree to which she’s seen her sister change. “I don’t know that she’s changed dramatically,” Leslie says, thinking about how to put this. “We’re science-fiction nerds, so: She’s not like a mutant, but there’s been an evolution. Again, Stacey was fairly shy, so that she can walk up and just randomly speak to people—”
“I’m not afraid of people!” Abrams interrupts.
“But back in high school and elementary school you were,” retorts Leslie.
“I wasn’t afraid of them. I just didn’t like them. I didn’t want to talk to them.”
“Okay,” Leslie says. “My take on Stacey is that she was shy, and that if she could figure out a way to do things without having to engage other people, she would. Now, she’s willing to show her charm to more than just the family. ”
When they were around 7, Stacey and Leslie often pretended to be imaginary sisters named Jeanine and Janelle Magnolia. Sometimes Jeanine and Janelle were detectives solving cases; sometimes they were millionaires having adventures on their private jet. Leslie is laughing. “There was one. I got to be the judge in it” — she pauses and looks for permission from Abrams, who nods and completes this confession of childhood ambition herself: “In that one, I was president of the world.”
Later, conversation turns to whether Abrams might have become a physicist, a career she considered briefly in college. Leslie shakes her head no, claiming that she “always knew she’d be a politician.” Abrams looks at her askance.
“I never thought you were gonna be a physicist, Stacey! Come on! What did you think you’d be?”
“In charge,” Abrams replies.
Former campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo is slight, white, bespectacled, and terrierlike both in her devotion to Abrams and in the intensity of her objections to what went down in Georgia. She is often referred to as Abrams’s “anger translator” and recalls with tight-lipped fury the state Democratic Establishment’s cynicism about Abrams’s chances: There aren’t enough black people; the state is not “ready”; white people will never vote for her; field work doesn’t matter; and — the contradictory concern — there won’t be enough money to do field.
But Abrams has spent her life behaving as if her qualifications and education will serve her as well as a white man’s. Some of that involves the simple projection of assurance and a willingness to run straight into the knives that are out for her, starting with the $200,000 of debt she racked up in student loans, credit-card bills, and helping her parents cover the costs of raising her brother Walter’s daughter while also paying their own medical expenses. It became the biggest piece of opposition research used against her: Should a woman who couldn’t manage her own budget be in charge of the state’s?
Abrams now often mentions the debt, which she’s still paying off, of her own volition, as she did during her State of the Union response — where millions of Americans were introduced to her for the first time. She knew it was an experience masses of voters could relate to.
She’s used the same approach to fend off the rap that she takes on too much at once — all the businesses, the books, the campaigns. In Lead From the Outside, Abrams writes about one instance where she spread herself too thin in a work partnership. “I’d prided myself on my ability to do so many things well, and I excused missed deadlines as acceptable because my quality of work was good. Turns out, not only was I the jerk in the business relationship, I had failed to tend to my friendship.” Abrams now describes how she very intentionally builds organizations and businesses that “can keep going without me even if I get hit by a bus.”
It is long-range logistical planning that Abrams relishes most. “Lots of people can say ‘I can fly,’ ” she tells me one night, referring to the generations of Georgia politicians before her who insisted they could draw new Democrats to the polls but failed. “But when you claim you’re going to fly, does that mean you’re planning to jump? Or that you’re going to build a plane?” Abrams always knew she’d have to build the plane.
She made her first personal spreadsheet in the wake of a bad breakup in college, sitting in the Spelman computer lab laying out her goals for the next 40 years. Back then, it was writing a best-selling spy novel and being the mayor of Atlanta. “Though my list was … driven by grief and the need to reclaim my sense of self,” Abrams writes in Lead From the Outside, “the point was that I was letting myself experience the feeling of wanting itself: acknowledging in print … that I was allowed to dare to want.”
She was already an activist who’d organized her Spelman peers to flood local television stations with calls after the campus was shut down in the wake of the Rodney King uprising; and at age 19, she addressed the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington as a youth supporter of the AFL-CIO.
Abrams has been building out her political strategy for what seems like forever, a very different approach from that of her fellow red-state photo-finisher Beto O’Rourke, who last week told Vanity Fair that he’s getting into the presidential contest the same way he got into the 2018 Texas Senate race, based on his gut. He didn’t have a plan; he “just felt it.” In contrast, when she was 20, Abrams attended the selective Harry S. Truman Scholarship program. Chosen to give the class speech, she argued that one of the major tasks before her generation was to “register voters because we want them to know the power they hold.”
As part of her decades-long project to assume high office, Abrams carefully studied the history of the Democratic Party in the South, and became convinced that Democrats have spent too much time focusing on middle-of-the-road or right-leaning voters at the expense of others. “When you go after someone who has a deep ideological belief set that is contradictory with your own, it’s conversion,” Abrams tells me while sitting in the book-lined living room of her townhouse in Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood. “Conversion is hard. Conversion is miraculous. We have entire religions built around the idea of conversion. Politics is not a religion. Politics is about persuasion.”
Abrams believes that persuasion works best on those predisposed to share Democratic values, which doesn’t mean it’s easy. “Your untapped population is people of color,” Abrams told me in September 2016, eight months before announcing her candidacy for governor. Never having been asked to register, they don’t think they should, she says. “You have to go knock on their doors. Go to rural communities, to depressed communities, to communities where there is absolutely no trust in politics or in politicians. That is an expensive endeavor.”
And just registering them wasn’t enough. Abrams developed another organization, this one partisan, designed to spur turnout. When she became a candidate, she held Latino roundtables, Asian-American and Pacific Islander roundtables, LGBTQ roundtables. She put ads on country-music and urban radio stations; hers was the first campaign in the state’s history to run Spanish-language television ads, and she printed campaign materials in Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Korean.
On Election Day, she and Groh-Wargo had a list of possible outcomes: outright victory to runoff to loss. By nightfall, they found themselves in what Groh-Wargo had dubbed “scenario Z” and what Abrams called “a complete collapse of the systems.”
It was either a collapse of the systems, or the system working exactly as its designers intended it to. According to Abrams and Fair Fight, the State of Georgia, enabled by the Supreme Court’s 2013 disembowelment of the Voting Rights Act, erected numerous barriers to registration. An “exact match” law meant that 53,000 voters whose names on their registration applications did not precisely duplicate their driver’s licenses were held up; a reported 70 percent of them were black. Kemp purged more than 1.5 million already registered Georgians, 850,000 of them for not having gone to the polls in two consecutive cycles — a move that disproportionately eliminated the irregular voters Abrams had labored to reach.
Since 2012, Georgia has closed at least 214 polling locations in 53 counties, 57 percent of which have populations that are more than a quarter African-American. Fewer polling places meant difficulties for those without cars or flexible schedules, as well as overcrowded conditions at the sites that remained open, more than a few of which were also plagued by malfunctioning voting machines. (Some simply lacked power cords.) In addition, there were reports of polling places running out of provisional ballots (used for people who believed they were registered but were turned away), Georgians requesting absentee ballots but never receiving them, and ballots that weren’t counted.
“The scale of the breakdown,” Groh-Wargo says, “was just beyond fixable.”
On Election Night, Abrams’s goal was to communicate the extent of the mess without “dissuading all of these people who had begun to believe.” The psychological impact of voter suppression is as pernicious as the actual trashing of votes, she says: If you believe your vote won’t count, why bother to try anymore?
When she finally came to a podium, at about 2 a.m., she announced that the race was not over in clear and galvanizing words: “In Georgia, civil rights has always been an act of will and a battle for our souls.”
She sounded like Obama, a prescient and gifted orator, but also like she was staging an act of civil disobedience. Her refusal to admit defeat was akin to an electoral sit-in and felt, well, dangerously nonnormative, the kind of thing that the political Establishment might slam as unpatriotic — in a way that voter suppression itself somehow never is.
I ask Abrams what provoked her, in the moment, to challenge rather than accept. “In our family, your job is to fix it. Now, I don’t think they intended for me to fix the electoral system of Georgia. But my DNA tells me that if something is wrong, you cannot make it right if you pretend it doesn’t exist.”
After ten days of gathering absentee and provisional ballots, and of compiling stories from 40,000 callers to a voter-protection hotline, Abrams gave a speech in which she acknowledged that Kemp would “be certified as the victor,” but this was “not a speech of concession.” Anticipating that she’d probably take heat for not just shutting up and accepting the result, she declared, “Stoicism is a luxury and silence is a weapon for those who would quiet the voices of the people.”
In the end, Abrams more than met all the numbers her doubters said she’d have to. She tripled the turnout of Asian, Latin, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander voters. The share of the nonwhite electorate in the state jumped from 33.75 percent to 36.9 percent; youth turnout increased 139 percent; more African-Americans (about 1.2 million) voted for her than the total number of Democrats (1.1 million) who voted for Michelle Nunn when she ran for the Senate in 2014. Abrams received just over a quarter of the white vote, a share no Democrat in a statewide race in Georgia had come near since Bill Clinton. All told, 1.9 million people were counted as having voted for Stacey Abrams for governor, and she lost by 54,723 votes.
Over the years, Abrams has curated her spreadsheet “like Gollum tending his Precious,” she writes in Lead From the Outside, which is a little like Lean In for people who didn’t start with any power. Now that she’s not the governor, she has to revise the document. The trouble is, most of her ideas about how to fix broken systems have been geared toward running her state. “Most of the seismic shifts in social policy occur on the state level,” she says. “The erosion of the social safety net started with Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin; he was the architect of welfare reform. Mass incarceration started with Ronald Reagan in California. ‘Stand your ground’ started with Jeb Bush in Florida. Jim Crow never had a single federal law. It was all state law.”
It’s not that “president” wasn’t on her spreadsheet. In fact, she rather bravely admitted that it was to a Cosmopolitan reporter in 2017 (prompting the Republican Governors Association to call her ambition “bizarre” — an example of how unusual and important it is for women to admit that, as Abrams would say, they want). But her White House aspirations were down the road, after she’d helped address the systemic representational problems that would, with further national demographic shifts, boost her chances of landing the nation’s top job. Even now, as a complement to Fair Fight, Abrams is launching Fair Count, to make sure underserved communities will be counted in the Census, which determines redistricting and, in turn, elections.
“I continue to grapple with where I could be most effective,” Abrams says, noting that the sweet-talking she’s been getting from Schumer and his buddies has certainly led her to think more about federal legislative, as opposed to state executive, leadership.
There are reasons to believe she might be Senate material. As minority leader in the Georgia statehouse, Abrams compromised with her partisan foes — as when she cut a deal to preserve Georgia’s beloved Hope scholarship, which gives large college discounts to kids with high GPAs, albeit with drastic reductions. It was controversial among Democrats but offers evidence that she can make her way within a fractious governing body. Still, Legislator Abrams did not always enjoy a reputation for playing well with others. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called her management style “aloof and uncommunicative,” and she doesn’t seem to have abandoned her tendency to help the other children by telling them the answers. Last year, Time’s Molly Ball reported on how, soon after getting to the Georgia house, Abrams passed “a helpful note, and then another, and another,” to a Republican lawmaker struggling to explain his own regulatory measure, until “finally he sat down next to her and let her explain it for him.” She then voted against the legislation, telling her surprised colleague, “Look, I think your bill is a bad idea. I just don’t think it should be bad law.”
These days, you can hear Abrams trying to talk herself into running for the Senate: “There are infrastructure issues across the South, the Southwest, and the Midwest. Depopulation of rural communities … The notion that you solve for the effects of depopulation by just encouraging everyone to move does not work. And that’s not just a Georgia issue. This is a North Carolina issue, a Montana issue. It’s going to be an Ohio issue. Lack of access to the internet — this should be treated the same way we treated rural electrification in the 1920s.”
“More than anything,” she says, “there are the courts.” She knows the composition of the Supreme Court is key to protecting voting rights, collective bargaining, reproductive and environmental rights — everything that matters to her constituency. One more blue senator could make all the difference.
If she sits out that race, and another Democrat fails to unseat the Republican incumbent, she knows she’ll get some blame. The choice to run could also take her out of contention for the VP spot or a Cabinet position. And that’s to say nothing of the presidency itself.
There is certainly no shortage of White House wannabes; the field is full to bursting. But in a Goldilocks world in which each has some obvious drawback — too old, too white, too mean, too centrist, too opportunistic, too wrote-the-crime-bill-and-voted-for-welfare-reform — it is easy to imagine Abrams as just right, the real deal. This may be especially true in a progressive climate that is — perhaps for the first time ever — open to supporting women of color, but in which Kamala Harris, the former prosecutor, will bump into some resistance on the left.
Of course, if she entered the race, Abrams wouldn’t be just right or, rather, just left, either. While she supports reparations for African-Americans and Native Americans, she hasn’t specifically come out for the Green New Deal or Medicare for All or the aforementioned across-the-board increase in the minimum wage.
But that hasn’t stopped activists and donors from trying to woo her to run for president. Among them is Jess Morales Rocketto, a former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer. “It’s a completely wide-open Democratic field,” she says, noting that changes in the primary calendar benefit Abrams because less-white, as well as southern, states now have more weight. “Black women voters are the base of the primary electorate, and I believe that if Stacey got in, she would immediately catapult to the top.”
Granted, it would still be a long shot. But it’s also true that female candidates have gotten dinged for missing their moment — often, ironically, because they’re too aware of their own vulnerabilities and slim chances. Hillary Clinton didn’t run for president in 2004 because she knew she’d be savaged for not serving her full Senate term, and Elizabeth Warren didn’t run in 2016 because she knew what it would cost to challenge Clinton. Both women likely paid a price for their forbearance.
When I ask Abrams whether she’s been losing sleep mulling over the question of what’s next for her, she looks at me like I’m nuts. “God, no,” she says, without elaboration.
So you’ll just wake up one day and know what your decision is? I ask. Forget about respecting the silence.
“Yup,” Abrams says. “I’ll know when I know.”
*This article appears in the March 18, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!