Cosmopolitan: The U.S. Has Never Had a Black Woman as Governor. Stacey Abrams Plans to Change That.
By Rebecca Nelson
If all goes as planned, the earliest Stacey Abrams would run for president is in 2028. Not 2020 — that’s too soon. Not 2024 — the Democrat who vanquishes President Trump in 2020 will be up for re-election. No, the first opportunity is 2028. That’s her year.
Abrams has her life plan mapped out in an Excel spreadsheet, with rows listing the jobs she aspires to, and columns detailing the skills she’ll need to get there. She’s been updating it since she was 18, a college freshman who knew she wanted to take on poverty in Atlanta, in Georgia — hell, in the whole country — but didn’t know where to start. (President was not on the initial list; she added it a few years later.)
“That's just always the way my mind has worked,” Abrams says, “is taking something that seems impossible, or too big, and then breaking it down into these pieces so that I know how to get there.”
You don't usually hear such candor from politicians, most of whom are more likely to deny, deny, deny that they’re seeking higher office until the day they launch their campaigns. But that’s how Abrams — who is running for governor of Georgia in 2018 — operates. Not only is she upfront about her ambition, she doesn’t shy away from subjects other politicians would rather ignore — she’s quick, for instance, to bring up race before anyone else can.
“It requires leaning into it,” she says. “My being a black woman is not a deficit. It is a strength. Because I could not be where I am had I not overcome so many other barriers. Which means you know I'm relentless, you know I'm persistent, and you know I'm smart.”
If Abrams wins, she’ll be the first African-American woman governor in U.S. history. In the deep-red state, which hasn’t had a Democratic governor since 2003 and which has been entirely controlled by Republicans since 2005, it would be a coup. In a country increasingly divided by race, where the president has galvanized white supremacists, it would be a historic triumph.
In October, at her campaign headquarters in Atlanta, Abrams tells me about her niece Faith, who’s 11. “Faith literally only remembers Obama. She once asked me if white people could be president,” she says. “There's a joy in being able to be the embodiment of what we tell them they can think about, what they can dream about. And to change the face of what leadership looks like.”
The first time Abrams went to the governor’s mansion, she was 17 years old. She was the valedictorian of Avondale High School, in DeKalb County, and all the valedictorians from across Georgia were invited to meet the governor. The family’s car had broken down a few years before, so they used MARTA, the local public transit. “My mom and dad and I proudly got off the bus, and we went up the driveway to those big black gates of the governor's mansion.” The guard looked them up and down and, in her telling, denied them entry. (When she recounts this story at a Douglas County Democrats breakfast the weekend I visit, an older woman shakes her head in retroactive indignation. “I know he didn’t!”)
“My dad said, ‘Oh, no, she's one of the valedictorians, she's invited,’” Abrams continues. “And the guard said, ‘I just saw y’all get off of that bus. I told you, this is a private event. You don't belong here.’” Her parents eventually convinced the guard that they were, in fact, the governor’s guests. “But the thing is, I don’t remember that event,” Abrams tells the assembled Democrats, who’ve stopped eating their waffles and turkey bacon to listen to her story. “All I remember is that man telling me I didn't belong. All I remember is someone looking at a MARTA bus, and three black people, saying, ‘That’s not for you.’” Here, she picks up her pace, moving to the crescendo of her speech in a booming voice. “I’m running to be the governor of Georgia because I want to open those gates wide for everyone!”
Abrams spent most of her childhood in Gulfport, Mississippi, one of six children. Every Saturday, her parents took their kids to volunteer. Once, she asked her parents: “‘Why do we have to go do this ourselves? Aren’t there people who should be doing this?’ And Mom and Dad were like, ‘Well, that’s called government.’ I'm like, ‘Well, government’s making me not be able to watch Super Friends because we have to go on Saturday when the cartoons are on.’” (“Is that a cartoon?” I ask when she tells me this story. “Oh, good Lord,” she says, “you're so young.”) The point, to her, being: If government worked better, she’d be able to watch TV. It was as good a reason as any to get involved in politics.
In high school, Abrams volunteered for a congressional campaign. When she was given a speech to type up, she rewrote it, earning herself a promotion to speechwriter. She went on to Spelman, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, got her master’s in public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and then her law degree at Yale. In her third year of law school, she started writing a spy novel. But, she says, she couldn’t get it published; no one believed women would want to read espionage, or that men would read it by a female author. So she drew on her love of romance novels (in her condo, she has a bookshelf dedicated to Nora Roberts’s oeuvre). “I made my spies fall in love,” she says. “I still killed all the people I planned to kill.” She’s since published eight romance novels, under the pseudonym Selena Montgomery. (Yes, there are sex scenes that feature euphemisms like “turgid length”; no, it doesn’t get much raunchier than that. “My parents are ministers,” she explains, so “I am not so graphic as to not be able to go home and see my mom's church.”) After a few years as a tax attorney, she ran for the Georgia House of Representatives, in 2006, and became minority leader in 2011.
Being in a position of power, however, did not shield her from the sexism and racism she’s faced throughout her career. “I negotiated these deals,” she says, “but I wasn't going to the men who used to be in charge asking them for their advice, to their chagrin.” One day some of the male members of her caucus suggested someone go with her to meet with the Republicans. “I said, 'What's your concern?' 'Oh, you know, they may not be giving you the best deal.' And it was entirely premised on the fact that as a woman and certainly as someone who hadn't been around since Jesus was a child — sorry — they thought it was completely appropriate to challenge me in front of the entire caucus and to suggest that I needed handholding to do my job.”
After a deadly white-nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, Abrams got threats when she said that Confederate monuments in Georgia should be taken down. Priyanka Mantha, her communications director, doesn’t let Abrams see any of the racist slurs or sexist invectives trolls tweet at her account. But Abrams knows they’re there. “I don’t want anyone to hurt me,” she tells me. “But is it scary enough to say don't do this? No.”
Despite the political climate, she says she’s not worried about the country backsliding into a full KKK revival horror show. “What I worry about,” she says, is that the rhetoric of racism “scares us into inaction and to paralysis. Because it’s easier, sometimes, to not act than it is to risk hope and to be disappointed.”
In May, a few weeks before Abrams announced her candidacy, her mom, Carolyn, visited from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where she and Abrams’s father now live. “I reminded her that she is entering not only untraveled territory, she’s a black woman who's doing this,” Carolyn told me. “And there are a lot of people out there who might want to harm her.” She asked Abrams point-blank: Are you willing to put your life on the line?
“And she said, ‘Mama, somebody has to go first.’”
At an event in New York in September for EMILY’s List, the national organization dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women, Abrams joked, “You’ve gotta figure out: Do they hate me because I'm black? Because I'm a woman? Because I'm tall?”
She acknowledges it’s not easy to strike a balance between touting her qualifications in their own right and embracing the historic nature of the run, but she refuses to downplay the latter, even while hearing from people who point out that the odds are pretty good that the state will just elect another white man.
“When I first started calling people to tell them I was running,” Abrams tells me, “I would get this: ‘Stacey, you're so qualified. You're the best-qualified candidate’” — here, she lowers her voice to a whisper — “‘but you’re a black woman.’
“They would whisper it to me like they were telling me a secret,” she recounts. “Yeah, I’ve noticed. I've been one for about 43 years.”
That doesn’t mean she’s immune to the pressure. “A guy can try something and not be successful and it's just about him,” she says. “But when you’re a person of color, when you're a woman, when you’re a woman of color in particular, you mess it up, and other people get tarred by your decision-making. You never act alone.”
But that can also be a blessing. Abrams has the support of women across the country who squeeze her hand, hoping now is when a black woman can do this. Veronica Cope, an attorney who has known Abrams for a decade, tells me that “for her to even aspire to be the governor of the state of Georgia is inspiring to me.” Says Jessica Gates, a 27-year-old business developer who met Abrams at the Democratic breakfast: “It's really important for women that look like me to understand that you can do that.”
Most early polling in the governor’s race gives Republicans the edge. But Abrams says the key to her success is her approach to outreach: one that reaches out to minorities and those of lower economic status, who already agree with Democratic values but aren’t voting. “We have to engage in the persuasion of behavior,” Abrams says. “It cannot happen at a 50-foot level, blaring on television with some pablum about why voting matters. It has to happen on a granular level by asking you what you need. How can I help? What would change your life and make it better? And then tying it to why politics matters.”
Her platform revolves around education, from tax credits for teachers working in childcare programs to free access to technical college; economic development via investing in small businesses; Medicaid expansion; and an “effective and engaged government” that protects voting rights and pursues criminal justice reform — standard Democratic fare. But her strategy doesn’t stem from the lesson many Democrats took from Trump’s surprise victory in November, the analysis that Democrats had neglected white working-class voters who used to vote Democrat but took refuge on the right.
“My disagreement in terms of strategy is not one that says we should exclude this group of people,” Abrams explains. “It’s that our investment should be in making sure that we are equally investing in all the communities that comprise our coalition — and not giving primacy to one group, especially to a group that literally has said over and over again, ‘We do not agree with you.’”
Still, her tactic of reaching out to minority voters hasn’t always been successful. In 2013, she launched the New Georgia Project, an effort to register at least 120,000 voters by the midterm elections the next year. Despite raising $3 million, the group registered only 46,000 people in time for the election. In 2014, Georgia’s Secretary of State, Republican Brian Kemp (who is also running for governor), launched an investigation into the project, which ultimately resulted in allegations that the group turned in 53 fraudulent voter-registration applications out of a batch of 87,000. (The investigation was turned over to the attorney general’s office for potential prosecution in September.) Abrams has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but the project’s setbacks have been used against her in the campaign: It’s been criticized for how it’s spent the millions of dollars it’s received from private donors, paired with what some Democrats say are underwhelming results.
Abrams defends the group’s spending as “absolutely” a wise use of funds. And she says that because tens of thousands of voter-registration applications were denied for three years — they were disqualified based on small inconsistencies in the information they provided, among other things — the total number of voters the project registered was far greater than it initially appeared: more than 200,000, her campaign says, have been submitted since 2014.
In the last few years, Abrams has also been lambasted for spending too much time burnishing her national profile. She’s regularly referred to as a “national media darling” in local coverage, a “rising star” who, it’s implied, may not be focused enough on the state.
Former state representative Stacey Evans, Abrams’s opponent in the May primary, is mostly critical of Abrams’s 2011 decision to compromise with Republicans and cut funding to a statewide scholarship program, one which Evans benefitted from. “You don’t work with the other side to do bad things,” Evans tells me. “They didn’t need our help to make cuts and hurt families.”
Evans wouldn’t say outright whether Abrams's ambition makes her the wrong person for the governor's mansion. But: “I’ve had a consistent path of service,” she says. “I’ve never aspired to a position. I’ve always aspired to do the work. And that consistency is what sets me apart from my opponent.”
An Evans campaign official was more blunt. “There’s two candidates running for governor. And one of them’s real and one of them’s not.” Asked to elaborate, the staffer sniped of Abrams: “She’s not really running for governor. She’s running to be a host on MSNBC.”
Abrams says the narrative of being too ambitious is often used to undermine successful women — especially women of color. “When people use the phrase ‘media darling’ as a pejorative, what they’re saying is I’ve done a good job of making people pay attention to a state they did not think they needed to pay attention to.”
Besides, she says, all her planning is in service of a greater goal. “For me, the jobs aren’t the titles,” she says. “A governor is responsible for being the CEO of a state. For helping build the capacity of people in that state to live better lives. … How do you make diversity a strength? How do you build financial capacity for every family? I abhor poverty. I think it is economically inefficient and it is morally repugnant. You can solve that problem, but it takes the scope and scale of a governor to get that done."
She adds: “But I think once I’ve figured it out, once we’ve tested it, and we’ve made sure the models work, and once you’ve been able to work with the other 49 states and the territories to figure out what can make the most sense, I think then it makes sense to think about the next job. And that job would be running for president.”
t her condo in Atlanta on the last day of my trip to Georgia, Abrams is weighing outfit options. In just a few hours, she’ll be marching in Atlanta’s Pride Parade – the first year any major gubernatorial candidate in the state has done so. She needs to look up to the challenge of leading the state, but also down-to-earth and feminine. She needs to be comfortable too, because she’ll be walking at least some of the mile and a half of the parade route, and if she’s going to be able to shake hands with men in “Gay As Fuck” T-shirts and high-five women wearing glittery pasties, she can’t be hampered by footwear. (She ultimately decides to wear low-heeled pumps but bring Keds slip-ons as a backup.)
“I am not a fashionista,” Abrams says. “But I did have to start dressing for the job I wanted.” She wishes people could look at just her qualifications, of course, but she gets it. “People tell themselves stories based on what they see,” she says.
She holds out a long silver necklace for her communication director’s opinion.
Mantha considers it. “It says Cosmo,” she says, “but does it say governor?”
Abrams pauses and looks her in the eye. “I think my face says governor,” she says.
For the first time in America’s history, she might be right.