Can Stacey Abrams make history?
People tend to remember the first time they heard Stacey Abrams speak, and it’s easy to see why. On a Friday afternoon in May, the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia is at a union hall in Augusta, telling a story about her father, a college-educated black man who was relegated by his race to working at a shipyard in southern Mississippi in the 1970s. The family had one car, so Robert Abrams would sometimes hitchhike home in the middle of the night. When he didn’t come home one time, the rest of the family set out to pick him up and found him half-frozen by the side of the road, having given his coat to a homeless man. They asked why he, a poor man on a lonely road at night, would do such a thing. And Robert said, “Because I knew you were coming for me.”
You can hear scattered sniffles in the union hall as his daughter pauses. Then she roars: “I am coming for you, Georgia! Help me get there!”
This kind of moment is one reason why Abrams, 44, has a chance to become America’s first black female governor. Describe someone as “commanding the room” and you generally conjure an image of gravitas–a man, likely white, in a suit, emitting soaring oratory. Abrams is a big-boned, natural-haired, youthful-looking woman with a quizzical smile and a gap between her front teeth. She’s as likely to geek out about tax policy or Star Trek as she is to summon the spirit of justice. Yet when she speaks, all kinds of people–from black folks in rural communities to yuppie “resistance” moms around Atlanta to this crowd of rough-handed electrical workers–go quiet and listen. In a Democratic Party divided and desperate for fresh faces, Abrams is already becoming a national star.
“I know talent when I see it,” says Valerie Jarrett, a former top adviser to Barack Obama, who tells me she sees the same kind of “unusual” skills in Abrams: “I see somebody who campaigns authentically, has character and integrity, is resilient and graceful, and who is able to take the long view and ignore a lot of noise.”
Whether she can win is another matter. Georgia has grown purpler as its demographics shift, and November could bring a national Democratic wave driven by women and people of color. Abrams will benefit from a well-funded campaign and a divisive opponent, Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp, who emerged battered from a primary runoff on July 24. But in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in two decades, Abrams remains an underdog. “There’s no question the state is becoming more diverse, but that doesn’t mean a conservative state has all of a sudden become liberal,” says Whit Ayres, a Washington-based Republican pollster who has worked extensively in Georgia. All of Abrams’ charisma, money and momentum won’t matter if the political math doesn’t add up.
On the other hand, if she can pull it off, the implications would be profound, not just for Georgia but for the whole region and potentially the nation. Ever since Bill Clinton won re-election in 1996 with a strategy of triangulation, Democrats have tried to win in Republican territory by appealing to white centrist voters. The idea was to combine them with the Democrats’ base, but it frequently left white voters cold and the base unenthused. Abrams’ campaign is built on the proposition that a compelling candidate can get elected in the South with a progressive message that attracts liberal whites and minorities to the polls in greater numbers.
If she’s right, Abrams could show the wilderness-wandering Democrats a new way, says Ilyse Hogue, head of the abortion-rights group NARAL. “We’ve seen women run like men a lot, and Stacey is not doing that,” Hogue says. “The script of how you run for office has been determined for eons by white men telling everybody else what to do, and Stacey Abrams said, ‘No, thank you.'” Her campaign isn’t just a playbook; it’s an act of imagination. And so, like any unprecedented effort, there’s a good chance it could fail.
“My sister says I live in the gap between gentrification and the ghetto,” Abrams says cheerfully, welcoming me to her three-story townhouse on the east side of Atlanta on a recent Saturday night. She has just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York City and San Francisco, appearing on Late Night With Seth Meyers, fundraising and hawking her new book, Minority Leader, because what better does a businesswoman-novelist-lawyer-activist-politician have to do with her time, really, than write a memoir and go on tour?
Since Abrams is single and lives alone, a rare night at home is an opportunity to see her close-knit family. Two of her five siblings, 41-year-old Richard and 36-year-old Jeanine, have brought their kids over for a dinner of salad and spaghetti in her combined living-and-dining room, which is lined floor to ceiling with family photos, African art and books: Aristotle, Elmore Leonard, Neil Gaiman, Robert Caro. The siblings banter while the kids tear around. As Richard, a soft-spoken social worker, teases Jeanine, a microbiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about her cat Pepper’s weight, Abrams stands behind her sister’s back and gestures to indicate the cat’s girth. “He glares at you,” she grins. “Like, ‘You will give me that food, or I will kill you.'”
Abrams was born into a family that her mother Carolyn termed “genteel poor,” because they watched PBS and read books but had no money. Carolyn once dropped out of third grade because she couldn’t pay the fee that segregated school buses charged. (A kindly neighbor gave her work, and she graduated as valedictorian.) Abrams, the second oldest, was born in Wisconsin while her mother was in graduate school, but spent most of her childhood in Gulfport, Miss., where Carolyn’s advanced degree was good for a job as a librarian, earning less than the school janitor. “They went away for education, but when they got back to Mississippi, they were still black,” Abrams says of her parents. The house was tiny, and sometimes the electricity or water got cut off, but her parents’ code was strict: “Go to church, go to school, take care of each other.” Having nothing, they said, was not an excuse for doing nothing.
When Abrams was in high school, her parents were called to the Methodist ministry, and the family moved to Atlanta so they could attend seminary. Abrams graduated from Spelman College and Yale Law School, then became a tax attorney and worked for the city of Atlanta. She also wrote romance novels under a pen name and started several businesses. One, a bottled-water company for babies, led to another, a payment company that serves small businesses. The idea came from the experience of the water company, which couldn’t afford to wait for payment after filling orders. “People say, ‘Oh, that’s so obvious. Why didn’t anybody think of it before?'” says Lara Hodgson, Abrams’ business partner.
In 2006, Abrams ran for the state house of representatives, winning a Democratic primary for an open seat. In the legislature, she earned a reputation as being detail-oriented and not afraid to question her elders. “If she challenged you on a point, she was going to be right,” says Carolyn Hugley, a 25-year house veteran who became one of her mentors. “As a woman, sometimes men don’t appreciate that kind of thing.” Abrams was known as a talented speaker and bill reader, but other Democrats sometimes bridled at her know-it-all tendencies, according to Bill Crane, an Atlanta-based political analyst.
Abrams used her legal experience to pore over the text of proposals. Early in her tenure, when a Republican legislator was struggling to explain the details of his own bill, she passed him a helpful note, and then another, and another. Finally he sat down next to her and let her explain it for him, she recalls. At the end of the hearing, she was the only one on the panel to vote against the bill, a minor regulatory measure. The Republican was shocked; why had she helped him? “I said, ‘Look, I think your bill is a bad idea. I just don’t think it should be bad law,'” Abrams says. “After that, Republicans would bring me their bills and ask me to look at them. They didn’t always agree with me, but they knew they could trust me, and not every disagreement has to become a battle.”
In 2010, Abrams was elected house minority leader, becoming the first woman to lead a caucus in either chamber of the legislature. Georgia, which had been mostly led by Democrats since Reconstruction, was undergoing a rapid shift to Republican dominance, and the 2010 Republican wave had put all statewide offices in GOP hands. Still, Abrams was able to gain leverage for the badly outnumbered Democrats through her command of the issues and by exploiting Republican divisions. The current GOP governor, Nathan Deal, is a business-friendly moderate who has vetoed religious-liberty and firearms bills. Abrams worked with him on criminal-justice reforms that have been hailed nationally for reducing prison costs without increasing crime. She worked with Republicans to secure the state’s biggest-ever public-transportation funding package and to prevent a popular scholarship program from being cut. In the gubernatorial primary, her Democratic opponent, former state legislator Stacey Evans, accused Abrams of being too willing to cooperate with Republicans.
If elected, Abrams vows to be “the public education governor,” boosting Georgia’s education budget after years of painful cuts. She would expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and enhance state services for people like her brother Walter, a heroin addict and ex-convict whose story she tells to illustrate her personal connection to criminal-justice and mental-health issues. Georgia’s economy is booming, but Abrams points out that the wealth is not widely shared and promises to make the state’s development more inclusive by encouraging small business.
Abrams holds liberal positions on social issues, but she considers herself a pragmatist. She likes to boast that she was once given a Friend of Labor award and an “A” rating from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce in the same year. Still, some of her proudest achievements aren’t bills she passed but Republican efforts she stopped. In 2011, as one of the Democrats appointed to a commission to study the state’s tax system, she argued that the Republican proposal to cut income taxes while raising a sales tax on cable service would increase the amount most people paid. When the committee ignored her, she asked the chair for an electronic copy of the fiscal model used to construct the bill. “He said yes, because he did not know what that was,” she tells me with a grin. Abrams took home the data and reorganized it by income level to show that 82% of Georgia families would see their taxes go up. She organized her findings by legislative district, put it into a color-coded spreadsheet and left a copy on every desk in the house. The tax overhaul failed, and on the campaign trail Abrams can credibly boast of having single-handedly stopped the largest tax increase in Georgia history.
Back at Abrams’ house, the discussion bounces between family stories, politics and history. Talk of livestock reminds Abrams of her opposition to legalizing backyard chicken coops statewide, on the grounds that local jurisdictions should decide. “Some of these libertarians, it’s like they read the back of the manifesto but not the whole thing,” she says drily. The siblings’ parents, now nearing 70, moved back to Mississippi after seminary, where they were driven into further penury helping parishioners who had been overlooked by FEMA recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The Abrams’ church, Richard says, was the only place in their segregated, two-stoplight town that served both blacks and whites.
Abrams recalls how their father stopped her eldest sister Andrea’s graduation when the principal got her name wrong, and interrupted another awards ceremony when only half of her sister Leslie’s honors were announced. (Andrea is now an anthropology professor, Leslie a federal judge.) In the background of Abrams’ victory speech, he can be heard shouting, “That’s my daughter!” When she filed her candidacy for governor, her parents surprised her by driving all night to appear at the Capitol. “My daddy’s more stubborn than me,” Abrams says with a sigh.
The next morning, Abrams skips church to sleep in and catch up on a favorite show, Supernatural. Its warrior angels and demons “create some very interesting theological questions,” she muses, settling onto her cream-colored sofa to talk about the campaign. In her primary victory, Abrams got 76% of the Democratic vote and won 153 of 159 counties; 199,681 more Democrats voted than in the last midterm primary four years ago, a 57% increase. That November, Deal won the gubernatorial race by 202,000 votes.
Abrams says her biggest obstacle is getting people to believe victory is possible. “Georgia is different now, but it’s hard for people to believe that change happens,” she says. “You don’t notice change when it’s gradual. My campaign seeks to harness it, but I’m asking people to not believe their eyes.”
Despite its red-state reputation, Georgia is more diverse than Virginia and bluer than Alabama, two Southern states that recently elected Democrats who ran on expanding health care. The economic focus of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Alabama Senator Doug Jones contrasted with culture-warrior opponents whose messages echoed President Trump’s. Jones’ win also highlighted the power of black women voters, particularly in the South. Kemp, Abrams’ opponent, aired primary ads that showed him threatening a teenager with a loaded rifle and vowing to personally round up illegal immigrants.
Although Abrams’ central priorities are budget-focused, she’s to the left of most Georgia voters on polarizing issues like gun rights, Confederate monuments and kneeling NFL players. But she has an underrated ability to connect with rural and working-class whites along class lines. Her campaign signs are popping up in affluent white suburban neighborhoods, and some early polling has shown her ahead of Kemp. Crane, the analyst, says Georgians generally want a commonsense conservative, not a “politically incorrect conservative,” as Kemp styles himself.
Abrams argues that if Obama could lose Georgia by just 5 points without campaigning there, she can make up the difference with a rigorous campaign, including a well-staffed field program. Her campaign raised $2.75 million in the last quarter from over 30,000 donors; the state’s software rejected the file containing her campaign-finance report for being too large. “We’re building a new coalition that hasn’t been built for a Democrat in Georgia in the current era,” says her campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo. “That’s what it’s going to take. Communities of color plus progressive-leaning whites are a majority of the population.” The problem for Democrats is that they don’t necessarily vote, and even many Abrams allies doubt she can get enough of them to do so. “She has to do record minority turnout and then carry 25% to 30% of the white vote,” Crane says.
Abrams has never faced a real Republican opponent before. But she does have experience beating the GOP with her new coalition. In 2011, Republicans used the redistricting process to tilt the electoral map in their favor, drawing themselves enough seats in the state house to win a two-thirds majority based on expected voting patterns. A supermajority would allow the GOP to pass constitutional amendments, so in the 2012 election, Abrams made it her mission to stop them from getting it. To do that, Democrats had to win four Republican seats.
Abrams recruited candidates like Kimberly Alexander, a black former IBM executive in exurban, overwhelmingly white Paulding County. She trained them, staffed them and wrote their talking points and campaign mailers. She traveled the country with a 20-page slide deck to convince national Democratic funders to pitch in. She instructed the candidates, who signed a contract that committed them to a grueling canvassing schedule, to focus on education, the economy and good government. “Republicans had the majority of the voters, but they had drawn into each of those districts a sizable minority population that they presumed would not vote,” Abrams says. “And they presumed there was no universe where that minority population would form a coalition with white Democrats to win.”
Today Alexander is a state representative, as are just enough of Abrams’ other recruits that Republicans never reached the two-thirds mark. It’s successes like these that make Abrams believe she can do what few thought possible. And now she is coming for Georgia.
This story is part of TIME’s August 6 special issue on the American South. Discover more from the issue here.
This appears in the August 06, 2018 issue of TIME.