Abrams banks on debt as advantage in final stretch of gov race

The question about Stacey Abrams’ debt came minutes after she finished a stump speech, and the Democratic candidate for governor didn’t hesitate.

"Sometimes we stumble and we have to have a leader who understands those struggles," she told a Young Democrats of Georgia meeting, discussing the roughly $54,000 she owed to the Internal Revenue Service. "Because falling down does not mean you have to stay there — and stay silent."

Rather than downplaying the fraught topic, Abrams has been anything but quiet about her finances lately.

She's cited her money struggles to show voters she faces the same troubles they do. She's invoked her red ink in attacks against former state Rep. Stacey Evans, her opponent in the May 22 primary. And she penned a column embracing the debt that gained national attention.

Abrams, once the top Democrat in the Georgia House, is attempting to turn her debt into a selling point in the primary and ward off attacks she could face in the general election about her fitness to manage the state’s $26 billion budget.

Saying she’s never “shirked her responsibilities,” Abrams said she’s on a payment plan to repay the IRS debt and the more than $170,000 in student loans and credit card payment she owes. And the debts, which she said were incurred in part by supporting her parents and a young niece, have given her a keen understanding of the struggles voters face.

“What people see is I have a real life — I have the lives that they have,” Abrams said, adding: “The issue is, ‘Do you know how to manage your responsibilities, do you know how to meet your responsibilities, and do you have a plan for making life better?’ ”

Republicans, preoccupied with their own five-candidate fight for the GOP nomination, have said little about Abrams’ debt. But strategists say it’s sure to become a broader part of a general election campaign.

Evans, a trial lawyer who has pumped more than $1.3 million of her own cash into the race, has declined to comment on the issue. Interviews with more than a dozen likely Democratic primary voters show why she’s reluctant to attack: Most said they were not concerned about Abrams’ debt.

Some of Evans’ highest-profile supporters, though, point to financial records that show Abrams has earned more than $1 million this decade and question why she couldn’t settle her debt with that money. And they say the issue will doom her in the general election if she’s nominated.

“She’s trying to turn a potential negative into a positive, which is fine,” said Vincent Fort, a former state senator who endorsed Evans.

"But let me tell you this: The Republicans are very skilled at going after candidates for this kind of thing. This is what they do," said Fort, who faced his own questions about taxes during his Atlanta mayoral bid. "And she's so vulnerable in a way that we haven't seen in a long time."

‘More like me’

Abrams, a 44-year-old tax attorney, has previously talked about her painful discovery at Spelman College that missed credit card payments could turn modest charges into major debts. And she wrote that while delaying past IRS payments to help her parents wasn't the "smartest move," it gave her more flexibility to support them.

But she more vigorously addressed her finances after disclosures in March showed she owed roughly $54,000 to the IRS, $96,000 for student loans and $76,000 in credit card debt. Campaign records show she also loaned her campaign $50,000 as she faced these debts.

On the campaign trail, she started referring to her finances and drew a cascade of attention with a Fortune.com column excerpted from her book that makes a case that the debt shouldn’t “disqualify” her bid for governor.

She invoked "the fear and anxiety that crushing debt can cause" in an attack on Evans, who backed an overhaul of the state's debt settlement model that Abrams said would lead to higher fees for struggling Georgians.

(An Evans spokesman didn’t comment directly on the legislation, calling the attack “another desperate attempt” to misrepresent Evans’ record.)

Abrams has used her financial situation to discuss economic policies that would provide a tax credit for families with children who make less than $54,000 annually and encourage more savings.

“For the folks that I want to represent, they know these challenges intimately,” she said. “And they are excited to know that there’s someone running for office who understands their real lives and has real plans to address them.”

In interviews with Democrats at early-voting sites and campaign events, many cited their own stubborn debts. And to some, Abrams’ financial struggles were an important bonus.

“Our country encourages us to go into debt — especially to go to college,” said Jennifer Freeman, a middle school teacher. “She has debt. I have debt. It means she’s more like me than I thought.”

2018 campaign

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates ahead of Georgia’s primary on May 22. The AJC has already produced stories looking at gun rights, immigration and how President Donald Trump factors in the stances candidates are taking. It also has conducted polls to determine what’s most important to voters from the two major political parties. Look for more at PoliticallyGeorgia.com.