Colleagues and strangers tend to walk away from talks with Stacey Abrams feeling good about the encounter with the Georgia House minority leader.
They even use many of the same words to describe the Atlanta Democrat: Brilliant. Thoughtful. Open-minded.
And more often than not, Abrams has done little more than listen attentively for the bulk of the meeting.
“Good ideas come from different sources, but you miss it if you’re trying to outthink the person talking to you,” Abrams said. “I just find it’s more useful to listen so I can understand what you want, why you want it and how I can help.”
That personality trait has translated into an effective political strategy for a woman many consider to be a rising star for Democrats in Georgia.
First elected in 2006, the Mississippi native quickly became known for her ability to drill down on complicated tax and legal questions.
The Yale-educated attorney, who also holds a master’s degree in public policy, has long been wonkishly interested in both topics. Beyond working as a tax attorney, she even authored academic papers on tax policy.
Quiet and reserved, she also quickly became the person lawmakers dreaded might question them about flaws or oversights in legislation.
“She’s brilliant, but I’m smart enough to know never [to] debate her from the well,” said Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who entered the House at the same time as the political rival he calls a friend. “People who underestimate her risk complete embarrassment.”
Her party realized that spark in making Abrams the first woman and first African-American to lead in the House after Democrats reached their lowest point since Reconstruction in the 2010 election.
As leader for the past four months, Abrams, 37, is charged with maintaining the 63-member coalition and persuading voters to add to that tally.
She has not sponsored a single bill this year, promoting instead initiatives designed to showcase Democratic beliefs. Those proposals — such as penalizing “cyber-bullying” and allowing people to pick their own representatives to the Public Service Commission — have largely stalled.
“We have put these forward as competing ideas,” Abrams said. “We are responsible with showing voters what they could have.”
Given her personality, though, Abrams also has focused on collaboration. She engaged with Gov. Nathan Deal and Speaker David Ralston to put her stamp on proposals that could easily have become law without any input from the minority party.
In the work to keep the HOPE scholarship program financially viable, for instance, Abrams pushed to insert key changes so the program remained as broad as possible.
Her efforts to keep $13 million for technical college students taking remedial classes and for grants for 5,000 students to continue at proprietary schools such as DeVry earned suspicion and even outright opposition from Democrats.
“She has felt some of that pushback and that anger,” said Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the party’s chair emeritus who worked to help smooth internal conflicts from the HOPE negotiations. “Keeping our members happy is tough.”
Then a rare impassioned speech explaining her work from the House floor — speaking openly of her parents’ sacrifices to ensure all six children went to college and noting her own $123,000 in student loan debt — hushed the boisterous chamber.
Democrats slowly came around to her logic of getting something they wanted by the time Deal signed the bill into law a few weeks later.
“The less bomb throwing and more practical thinker is probably what the Democrats need right now if they want a seat at the table,” said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University.
Her ability to focus on what legislation means for people helped cement Abrams’ unlikely friendship with Lara Hodgson.
They met after Hodgson, a Republican appointed to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, heard Abrams say in a Leadership Atlanta class that she one day wanted to be president of the United States.
Hodgson felt the same way. And the two very different women — Democrat and Republican, reserved and effusive — became close enough friends to launch two businesses together.
“Once she puts her mind to something, there is really nothing she can’t do,” Hodgson said. “I really think she will be President Abrams someday.”
Abrams brushes aside such speculation yet coyly notes she “wouldn’t mind” being the state’s first African-American governor or, as she says, “being the seventh.”
But she is adamant that her first ambition is to add seats in the Democratic column and makes no secret she would love to gain enough to one day be elected as speaker.
Ralston, who has held that title for two years, notes that Abrams’ reputation as smart and open has already made her a “worthy adversary.”
“Certainly someone with her intellect and balanced view on issues and ability to reach across the aisle ought to have a bright future, and I think she does,” Ralston said.
Abrams expects it to take time to persuade Georgians to vote Democratic. She argues that recent defections by Democratic lawmakers to the GOP camp do not reflect voters’ wishes.
Voters elected Democrats, and will continue to if she is able to show the more practical side of the party.
“I’m not a great rhetorical fan,” Abrams said. “Rhetoric doesn’t often match reality. It is my job not to offer rhetorical flourish but make our case about reality. That’s what gets people to listen.”
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