the body politic

Stacey Abrams On Finishing the Job In Georgia

“It can be undone just as quickly and as effectively as we did it.”

Stacey Abrams urges people to vote during a visit to a Piccadilly Cafeteria at the Gallery at South DeKalb in Decatur, Ga., Oct. 26, 2016. Photo: Kevin D. Liles/The New York Times/Redux
Stacey Abrams urges people to vote during a visit to a Piccadilly Cafeteria at the Gallery at South DeKalb in Decatur, Ga., Oct. 26, 2016. Photo: Kevin D. Liles/The New York Times/Redux

In the math-addled hours after polls closed on Election Day, as the New York Times needle tipped delicately toward blue in Georgia, the nation’s attention followed, homing in on one of its most transformative political figures: Stacey Abrams.

She is extraordinary, partly because she has one of the most detailed-oriented, forward-looking, compulsively organized brains in politics. Abrams — who served as minority leader in Georgia’s state legislature for seven years before running for governor in 2018, losing narrowly to Georgia’s then–Secretary of State Brian Kemp, in one of the most flagrantly voter-suppressed elections in recent memory — has been working to turn her state from red to blue for more than a decade. Now that her promise has (this time at least) been made manifest, many in the Democratic Party are looking toward Abrams as a kind of silver bullet: a figure who can be installed — in the Cabinet or as head of the DNC — to perform her magic across the nation.

In the flood of post-election analysis of muddied results and still-emerging data, answers can seem simple and obvious. But real life, real states, and real political organizing don’t always lend themselves to easy explanations or diagnoses. And what’s been missing from some of the adulation of Abrams is a view of how much work — by so many people, from so many angles, over so many years — has always undergirded her efforts in Georgia; I wanted to hear a fuller story, from the woman whose capacious vision sets her apart from so many currently telling the story of politics and power in America.

I think the first instinct was, Stacey Abrams single-handedly flipped Georgia. Can you give a fuller picture of who else is out there and what have they been doing?

Let’s take a step back on how I became sort of an avatar. So in 2010, Georgia Democrats lose everything: Republicans now control every statewide office. Also, between 2000 and 2010, Georgia had seen a doubling of the Latino population, an explosion in the Asian American and Pacific Islander population, and the beginning of this reverse migration of African Americans who had moved to the Midwest and were relocating back South.

When I came in, I put together a 21-page Powerpoint deck that was my diagnosis of the challenges facing Democrats and what we’d need to do to claw back power by 2020. I took it with me to our caucus meetings and when I went to donors to say, “Please pay attention to Georgia. We are not the South that you remember. We’ve got some real opportunities, and we need you to pay attention.” Most people didn’t, but a few folks did.

What I diagnosed was that we had lots of good groups that were doing work. Helen Butler and the Coalition for the People’s Agenda, who worked with the Concerned Black Clergy; the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials; and a group that was headed by Helen Kim Ho, focusing on this explosion in the Asian population. But the funding was small. You didn’t have scale, and you didn’t have an infrastructure that connected all of these pieces. And you had almost no visibility in South Georgia, where you have a lot of Black voters who are in rural Black counties that are deeply underfunded, or who are the minority in majority white counties that are hyperconservative.

So my contribution came from building infrastructure. You can’t build systems if you don’t have something solid that is impervious to who’s in charge.

So how did you build that infrastructure? 

We needed more people doing this work. Through the Democratic caucus, we had this robust internship program where we trained hundreds of young people to do both politics and policy. We were building and growing this new class of young recruits who could be operatives.

In 2013, I created the New Georgia Project, which trained poor folks in South Georgia to be quasi-navigators, deploying them across 39 counties to help folks sign up for the Affordable Care Act. Fast-forward: in 2014 it became a voter-registration project. We found that people didn’t recognize that it wasn’t Obama who denied them access to Medicaid; it was the governor and that Republican state legislator you keep voting for. Vote him out and maybe things will get better. But you can’t vote him out if you’re not registered. So that’s when I started focusing on the 800,000 unregistered Black and brown folks in Georgia. The goal was over the next ten years to get them registered. At the end of the 2014 election cycle, I also created a group called the Voter Access Institute, because low-propensity voters are only 20 percent likely to turn out and vote. We needed to think about how to boost that number.

By doing follow-up?

Exactly. Most voter-registration efforts really do just registry. My belief is it has to be registration plus education. It’s the equivalent of giving someone keys to a car but never teaching them how to drive. For some, it’s making sure they know where the cars are. It’s not unusual for people to not have that information. If you don’t come from a community that has an active civic space, and you went through an educational system that didn’t prioritize teaching you, how exactly do we expect people to learn?

Now you have a massive national platform, but that wasn’t true going back to 2013. How did you fundraise in ways that other organizers weren’t able to at that time?

When I became minority leader, I leveraged that title to get people to meet with me. I went to California, New York, and D.C.; I sat with folks and said, “Okay, here’s this plan for the next ten years. You’re probably not going to support me immediately, but I want to tell you what I think we can do. And I’m going to come back to you and tell you what we’ve done, and then I’m going to ask you for money.”

Before I raised a dollar, I let people know what the plan was and what the metrics would be. I did the first round in 2011. Steve Phillips and his wife, Susan Sandler [major Democratic donors; Sandler recently announced that she would be giving $200 million to racial justice organizations], were the first to invest, because I sat in his office and said, “This is what’s going to happen during redistricting. Here’s what I need your support with.” In 2012, I did the same tour, only I added new names. People were skeptical but willing to meet with me because they’d never had a minority leader from a Southern chamber come to them and say, “Give me your money.”

Then in 2012, we were successful: We clawed back four seats that Republicans had drawn to give themselves a supermajority in the House. I was able to say, “Look, I stopped a Republican supermajority. Look what I can do, give me more money.”

I asked everyone. I went national in a way that just hadn’t been done by my predecessors.

That got you criticism too within Georgia, right? The sense that you were out there trying to become a national figure when you should have been attendant to state politics. 

Oh yes. And that came to a head in 2014, when the fundraising went from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. There was skepticism. You have a long-standing and deep network of civil-rights organizations in Atlanta. I came in, and I was raising a lot of money in ways they just hadn’t seen. We did a vended model, where we hired outside people to come in and do this work, because we only had four months to get it done, but they had to hire all of their mid-level people from within Georgia. It was more money than most folks had seen spent on this kind of issue, and I had not come up through the traditional ranks, so how dare I be the one? I understood the critiques. So when I thanked the party, and I thanked individual groups on the ground, was because my contribution was infrastructure, investment, and platform.

And then came the governor’s race.

We raised and spent $40 million; we spent more money on that governor’s race than any candidate, Democrat or Republican, had ever spent. It was to build infrastructure in every single county. For me, the through-line is: If it’s entirely based on a single person’s personality, or reputation, when that gets hit, everything falls apart.

We’ve talked about this part of your philosophy before: that even organizations and plans you spearhead — even your own campaign — cannot be wholly reliant on your presence.

I don’t run Fair Fight. Lauren Groh-Wargo is the CEO of Fair Fight. I don’t run Fair Count. Rebecca DeHart is the CEO of Fair Count. I’m always very cognizant of the fact that when we place the focus on a single person instead of on the work, if that person falters, the work becomes invalidated. My mission from the very beginning has been to ensure that the work survives, whether I’m there or not. I haven’t been in charge of the New Georgia Project since 2017, but it continues to thrive and do what it needs to do, because the infrastructure was strong enough that when I left, it didn’t collapse because of my absence.

What you told people was going to happen — Georgia flipping blue, this time at least — happened, and now people can say, “Stacey was right,” and give you more money. What’s the balance between understanding how you can leverage that for future work versus your resistance to pegging this on one person?

Look, I can only control what I say and what I do. So I will always first acknowledge what others have done. I will recognize what I did because it matters. And it’s a good model for others to follow. But I can’t stop people from saying what they’re going to say. And I’ve never learned how to make everyone like me. I know that I’m going to be blamed for the outcome and celebrated for the outcome, depending on what it is and who decides, who’s speaking.

I can’t let my decision-making be driven by the potential rise or fall of my reputation. Because let’s remember that for ten years, when I said this could be happening, we didn’t win every time. And now the people are all paying attention. I’m going to remember who was there when I wasn’t winning and who was there when I was. As long as I’m honest with myself about what I do and how I do it, and as long as I’m honest with investors and supporters about what it means and what it doesn’t mean, then I will just have to roll with whatever the consequences are for the outcome.

What happened after 2016 when Georgia didn’t flip and 2018 when you didn’t become governor? Were you afraid of damage to the longer-term project?

I have always been very clear about these being opportunities, not guarantees. In ’16, I was not in charge of the presidential election [laughs]. I was clear about the resources it would take to get that done. When those resources don’t materialize, the opportunity may fizzle out. In 2018, I was in charge of the pieces I could be in charge of, but I could point to a very forceful and mitigating cause — voter suppression — that kept victory from being real. I was clear about what that was.

I was never guaranteed a victory in 2018, and I wasn’t owed a victory, but I am owed a system — as voters, we are owed a system — that actually works the right way. And as we headed into 2020, we were able to use the lessons of ’18 to help fix that system, much to the chagrin of Donald Trump, who thinks that the consent decree cost him the election. Well, yeah! When people get to participate, it may have consequences that are not what you seek. So I try to be as honest and aggressive when I don’t get the things I think we should get, as I am when we do.

That’s why in 2019, Lauren [Groh-Wargo] and I put out a 16-page playbook to explain “Here’s what happened in ’18, and here’s what could have happened. Here’s what could happen in 2020, but here are the things we need to have. And if we don’t have these things, it’s probably not going to manifest.” This time, we got most of those things.

Did the fact that the Republican-run state government is facing a federal lawsuit, from you, help to ensure a freer and more fair election this time?

Absolutely. Our lawsuit continues to be critical. In December 2019, we filed an emergency motion that helped to save 22,000 voters from being purged. We don’t know if those 22,000 voters participated in this election, but it’s larger than the margin by which Biden won. We forced the state to admit in court that they purge voters who should have been on the rolls. Our lawsuit collected affidavits from voters who could detail their experience, and we could use that in court to say, “Here are the remedies that are needed, because we can prove that this isn’t theoretical; it is real.” We were able to use the litigation to change the laws that make it harder for people to vote.

Every year for the past four years, Georgians have had reason to remain more politically engaged than they might previously have been: the 2017 special House election in Georgia’s Sixth, your 2018 gubernatorial bid and Lucy McBath’s run for that Sixth House seat, and now the runoffs. Does this strengthen electoral infrastructure?

Absolutely. Having volunteers is great, but having experienced volunteers is vital. So when someone learns how to door-knock, when someone learns how to organize and get other people to work with them, that is gold. When campaigns are intentional about building that muscle memory in places where it hasn’t existed before or worse, where it’s atrophied, that changes the outcome. What Jon Ossoff did in 2017 by investing in communities that had not been contacted in previous elections, what I did in 2018, absolutely helped support what Lucy McBath was doing in the Sixth in 2018. It’s one of the reasons she had an even easier time this cycle of winning. Because you’re building capacity among voters who become more engaged.

Jon contacted this whole group of voters called the unlisted — people who don’t vote, so they really get pushed outside of any communication about politics writ large. But when you go to them and say, “We think you matter,” that changes the dynamic. It doesn’t guarantee a voter, but it guarantees an eyeball. Those people got contacted by Jon’s campaign,and by my campaign, and then again in 2020. So we’re growing new voters: low-propensity voters who may move from low propensity or no voting into moderate propensity, or maybe we create a super-voter.

We have gone outside of the norm, which says you only talk to those you know are going to vote because it’s the most efficient dollar. We believe the most efficient dollar is the one that turns out a vote.

What can people extrapolate about what needs to be done in other states and on a national level? Besides deciding that you should just come in and fix it.

One piece that has been missing in this narrative that I want to home in on: We mitigated voter suppression across the country. Voter suppression existed in ’16; it existed in ’18. But we had a voter-protection apparatus that covered the country through these battleground states: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Minnesota. The work done through Fair Fight to mitigate voter suppression got people to the polls. It’s not the only thing, but it is a huge thing.

The reason I want that to be emphasized is that it can be undone just as quickly and as effectively as we did it. It’s important that we understand that voter suppression being stopped is why they are so mad. Republicans had a plan for stopping voters from getting to the polls. We beat them in multiple states and flipped the outcome. The margins are small because the outcome can be undone very quickly.

No. 2 is that we have to invest in people who understand the places where they live. I understand Georgia, but I only understand Georgia because I worked with Georgians who were here before I got here and who will be here after I’m dead. There is absolutely a necessity to build in place. So it is about not just saying, “Texas is on the move,” or “Georgia is on the move.” It’s about understanding who’s doing that deep work on the ground that’s too small for anyone to notice, but you sense an absence in the force if they’re not there.

You shouldn’t have to have a Stacey Abrams to lift it up, but you’re likely going to need one. So let’s make sure we’re cultivating the people in these states who can help amplify the needs of their communities, and then let’s make sure there are people willing to give them money. Resources matter. And that’s the third piece: invest in people who don’t look like the success that you’re used to.

I appreciate the Black woman narrative, but if you’re in Arizona, you need to make certain that there is a Native American who is getting invested in to help organize the Navajo community and respond, not just to voter suppression but to the aggressive dismissal of that community’s needs. Same thing is true in New Mexico and Nevada. We need to make certain that Latino leaders aren’t just the ones we see on TV, but that we’re finding those pockets of communities that represent the different types of Latino organizations and Latino histories. It is a different conversation talking to someone from Venezuela than it is talking to someone from Guatemala or El Salvador, and that’s nothing like the conversation you’re going to have with first-generation Cuban versus second-generation Cuban. And Puerto Rico is a whole other conversation!

We cannot think there’s one voice that can speak to all of those communities.So make certain you’re not just building in place, but you’re building in all the places where the numbers, when aggregated, can get you to victory.

This is not a path to victory; it is the math to victory. So add up all the people who can like you, give them a reason to like you, and give them a way to like you. That’s what we did.

Do you think that Democrats are receptive to this? 

I do, in part because I recognize that the party is not just this national monolith. I am part of the Georgia Democratic Party, and part of my obligation is to make sure that the Georgia iteration of the Democratic Party is reflective of the needs of our communities. What we did in Georgia is not something people thought could happen. People are more willing to invest in a winner than they are in a theory. Now that we’ve shown it can work, we’re going to have to show it can work again. There is no guarantee about [Georgia’s two runoff elections for the U.S. Senate on] January 5th, but I think we can make it happen. And if it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean it failed; it just means it didn’t work this time, so let’s keep building it. Because it is a better theory than anything else we have out there.

Last week, Lindsey Graham called Brad Raffensperger and pressured him to throw away valid votes. What is your reaction to that piece of news? Are you shocked by Raffensperger’s refusal to comply or the way in which the state’s Republican Party has turned on Raffensperger over these b.s. fraud claims?  

Republicans have shown us who they are long before this moment. They have fought tirelessly to silence the voices of voters who do not support them. So while I am disappointed by the reckless actions of Donald Trump, Lindsey Graham, and others, I am not surprised. None of the GOP’s voter-suppression tactics will change the results of the election. However, we must be vigilant to ensure that successes in mitigating obstacles do not return with a vengeance in GOP-led legislatures. I am committed to finishing the job in Georgia and helping Democrats secure a Senate majority so they can deliver on behalf of the American people.

There has been recent speculation on your next moves, including reporting that you’ve decided to run against Kemp again in 2022. A lot of people really want to know what you’re going to do next.

So do I. But for now, what I’m doing next is making sure that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock become the next two U.S. senators from the great state of Georgia.

This next question may sound silly, but I saw you tweet about Buffy and Spike and Angel. You’ve just walked us through a decade in your state’s history but also a decade in your life. Why is it important to care about the things besides the work?

Because we have to care about people, and people’s lives aren’t just politics. I understand at an acute level that the policies we either prevent or succeed in delivering can improve your life. But the quality of life also matters. And television art is such a key part of it. It’s a key part of me. I don’t ever want to be a person who is snobbish about how I engage culture, because those are the people I want to help. Those are me. Buffy was important because when I was scrolling through Twitter, I saw someone say that I said something about Spike, and thus about Angel, that wasn’t accurate. So I wanted them to know.

It’s important that we enjoy what it means to live in a free society and to have these moments of respite. But it’s also an organizing tool. If you can meet people where they are, and they want to be with you when you get there, that helps a lot. If we enter this work chastising, lecturing, and hectoring, you might get a few people to do something in that moment to get you to shut up, but you’re never going to convert them or convince them that it’s worth doing again. But if people see the normalness of what this can mean, and that that normalness can be profound in how their lives get better, then they’re going to be more willing to risk showing up and standing in that line and being rained on and being yelled at by some guy in a truck who’s telling them to go home. They’re going to be more willing if they think that they’re in this together, as opposed to they’re being sort of led to do this by people who think they’re too important to show up.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

*A version of this article appears in the November 23, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Stacey Abrams On Finishing the Job In Georgia