A leaked Stacey Abrams memo sketches a Democratic race to come

Stacey Abrams, a Democratic candidate for governor, in a 2017 file photo. Chad Rhym/Chad.Rhym@ajc.com
Stacey Abrams, a Democratic candidate for governor, in a 2017 file photo. Chad Rhym/Chad.Rhym@ajc.com

Credit: Chad Rhym

Credit: Chad Rhym

Sometimes, a political campaign will leak a secret strategy memo that isn't secret at all, simply to exploit the thrill that comes from reading other people's mail.

And sometimes a red stamp at the top that says “CONFIDENTIAL” means exactly that.

My Journal-Constitution colleague Greg Bluestein has come across what is probably an example of the latter, a memo apparently directed at top fund-raisers for Stacey Abrams, one of two Democratic candidates for governor.

It arrived over the transom.

Now that I’ve typed the word, I probably need to explain that this is an ancient metaphor, killed long ago by air-conditioning. A transom was the small, often open window above a door that allowed air to circulate when an office was locked. Think Sam Spade in 1941.

Georgia Democrats are about to get serious about a contest that is already testing their party’s biracial cohesiveness. Abrams is the former House minority leader from Atlanta. She is African-American. Her rival, Stacey Evans of Smyrna, is also a former House member. She is white.

One sign that the transomed Abrams memo was intended for a closed circle is the bluntness of some of the language, and a frank discussion of the lines of attack likely to come from Evans in the weeks ahead. And we’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.

The memo was written by Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager, and its purpose can be deduced from the date of transmission: Feb. 1, seven days before Abrams’ latest campaign finance report was to become public.

Today, in other words.

The Abrams campaign has raised $1.7 million in the last seven months, and $2.2 million overall, the memo said. For a Georgia Democrat, that’s impressive. But it is her cash on hand that required explanation: “Roughly $450,000.”

Actually, the sum currently available to Abrams could be significantly smaller. Many checks gathered up by a candidate are often designated for future campaign spending in a runoff or general election. We’ll know soon enough.

According to the norms of campaigning, using up 80 percent of your cash four months before a primary isn’t a high burn rate. It’s a forest fire.

Not to worry, wrote Groh-Wargo. She explained that the Abrams campaign deliberately decided that it wouldn’t follow the “save and hold” model that reserves huge spending for TV advertising in the final weeks of a contest — a “model that has been the losing formula for Georgia campaigns.”

The memo claimed that voter drives, digital work and such done last year have given Abrams “a structural advantage in the primary electorate that is expected to be over 65 percent African American.”

To that end, the memo indicated that Abrams will demand that she be considered the presumed frontrunner in the Democratic primary contest. The “two Staceys” meme used by the media — and many party activists, in order to avoid choosing a side — is “racially reductive,” Groh-Wargo asserted.

(On the other hand, if you Google “Stacey Abrams” and “first African-American woman governor,” the 12,800 articles that immediately come up indicate that someone else has been engaged in racial reductivity, too.)

But it is the media’s tendency to create false equivalencies that annoys, the memo told financial boosters. Abrams is a “Yale law school-educated attorney” who led the House caucus for six years and “has a robust private sector background.”

Evans, by the way, is an accomplished graduate of the University of Georgia law school. She was on a team of lawyers that successfully pursued a whistleblower case of Medicaid fraud that returned $324 million to federal taxpayers. Evans, her legal teammates, and her clients received a cut, and are now rich.

Damn my need for false equivalencies.

The memo carried a strong indication that Abrams will attempt to paint Evans as a closet Republican, based in part on a 2012 vote for a bill, now a Georgia law, that requires local law enforcement agencies to auction off confiscated firearms. Evans, like many of Abrams' supporters, admits her vote was a mistake and supports the law's repeal.

Evans is guilty, too, the memo said, of social conservatism. She cast a 2014 vote for a measure that would have authorized public school teachers, students, and staff to say "Merry Christmas," "Happy Hanukkah," or "Happy Holidays" to whomever they please in December.

The Abrams campaign also has a handle on attacks headed its way. “We’ve already begun to see efforts aimed at using Abrams’ status as a single woman to disqualify her on family issues,” Groh-Wargo wrote. “Obviously, given that she comes from a close-knit family, this is a ridiculous assertion.”

There’s an IRS lien in Abrams’ past as well – placed by the tax man during negotiations. Which Abrams won, the memo assured fundraisers.

But this may be the most interesting tidbit in the communique:

"The Evans team seems to be in conversation with Vincent Fort, a former State Senator, about a run for Lieutenant Governor as he might serve as their spokesperson on negative attacks against Abrams…

"In sum: the Evans campaign, and potentially the Evans-Fort ticket, may attempt to portray Abrams as a radical, corrupt, Atlanta politician."

There is indeed some overlap between Evans and Fort. Former Gov. Roy Barnes has already endorsed Evans in the race for governor. He also backed Fort in his bid for mayor of Atlanta. Jeff DiSantis was a top adviser to Fort last year, and is now general consultant to Evans.

It is important to note that Abrams and Fort were not close friends when both were in the state Capitol. Fort, while admitting that he’s contemplating a run for statewide office, said he considers the Abrams memo insulting.

“When politicians talk more about the inside game, it’s an indication that they’ve forgotten what’s important,” said Fort when I called him Tuesday morning. “By the way, after 21 years in the Legislature, passing some of the most important legislation in the history of the state, it’s kind of demeaning to characterize me as essentially an attack dog.”

Afterwards, a spokeswoman for the Abrams campaign spoke freely about most of the leaked memo, but declined to respond to Fort’s remarks.

We are now in the market for any confidential strategy memo the Evans campaign has written. If necessary, I’ll even try to get my hands on a transom.

Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Evans in a 2017 file photo. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Evans in a 2017 file photo. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

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