Georgia’s black women key to Stacey Abrams’ bid for governor

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (center) has a one-on-one conversation with a group of women after holding a roundtable discussion in August at the Valdosta-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (center) has a one-on-one conversation with a group of women after holding a roundtable discussion in August at the Valdosta-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

As soon as Stacey Abrams announced she was running for governor, Marlene Taylor-Crawford knew she was going to give the Kirkwood Democrat her vote.

The president of the Gwinnett County nonprofit the United Ebony Society, Taylor-Crawford sings the praises of the former House Democratic leader to anyone she comes across.

Many black women like Taylor-Crawford are uniting behind Abrams, hoping to help make her the country’s first black woman to serve as a governor.

“We’ve shown that we’re a voting bloc that votes very consistently,” Taylor-Crawford said. “And we’re consistent in encouraging other people to vote.”

After watching black women in Alabama pool their voting power to successfully block a controversial Republican candidate endorsed by the president from becoming that state’s next U.S. senator and sending a Democrat to the chamber for the first time in 25 years, many black women in Georgia have set their sights on getting Abrams to the Governor’s Mansion.

Not all black women are lining up behind Abrams. Vivian Childs, a minister from Warner Robbins, is backing Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

“Why would you change things when they’re working? And Georgia is working right now,” said Childs, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the U.S. House in 2014. “At what point do we stop telling people to just vote based on how someone looks instead of what’s going to make everyone in the community better off?”

Abrams' campaign has said she isn't expecting all black women to vote for her just because she is from the same demographic group. She's unveiled detailed plans to address health care access and education, issues that many black women said are extremely important to them.

And while black women typically vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, their support is something Abrams said she is not taking for granted.

“We are leveraging the enthusiasm and support of the African-American women’s community to motivate and galvanize the communities that they touch — and that means every community in the state of Georgia,” Abrams told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Backbone of the Democratic Party

Paula Benton, a Stone Mountain resident who works in sales at a department store, said she is glad that part of Abrams’ strategy involves actively reaching out to black women.

“It’s time black women started getting the recognition they’re getting,” she said. “We’ve always been the backbone of everything.”

For the past several elections, black women have been a major voting bloc for Democrats in Georgia and nationwide.

In 2012, black women voted at a higher rate nationally than any other demographic group overall.

The same was true in Georgia, where black women turned out at a slightly higher rate than white women — 77 percent to 76 percent. Overall, turnout in Georgia in 2012 was 72 percent.

In 2014, a CNN exit poll found that 89 percent of black women who voted cast their ballot in the governor’s race for Democrat Jason Carter, who lost to Gov. Nathan Deal.

"We are seeing that black women may be accounting for the gender gap that gives Democrats the edge in the women's vote," University of Georgia political science professor Audrey A. Haynes said. "White women are splitting a bit more evenly across Democratic and Republican candidates."

According to a recent AJC/Channel 2 Action News poll, 49 percent of female voters said they plan to support Abrams and 38 percent back Kemp. The rest were undecided or planned to vote for the Libertarian candidate.

In Alabama last year, exit polls showed that 98 percent of the black women who cast ballots in the special U.S. Senate election supported Democrat Doug Jones after his campaign invested time and energy in reaching the black community.

Jones’ win encouraged Abrams’ campaign to double down on its strategy of engaging rural and minority communities that she says are often overlooked by candidates because they historically have lower voter turnout.

While the black women who show up on Election Day typically vote for Democrats, Abrams is hoping to get even more of them to the polls in November to build a strong foundation of support.

After the Alabama election, a chorus of "thank you, black women" echoed from liberals on social media and in news interviews — something that increased Abrams' national profile by being featured on television shows. But the demographic group has been showing up for Democrats for a while.

"I have observed, for years, the significant role that black women voters play in Democratic districts and elections," said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, a white woman first elected to the Georgia House in 1987.

Stepping up

Former state Rep. Bob Holmes said he knew black women were vital in Georgia politics when he put together his first campaign in 1974.

“As the old saying goes, ‘If you want someone to give a speech, you can probably get a male. If you want someone who is willing to do the nitty-gritty, hard work of campaigning, you get a woman,’ ” he said.

But Holmes, a black man who represented Atlanta, said that is changing. More women are stepping up for public service — and winning.

William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University, pointed to the successful congressional campaigns of Latina Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Ayanna Pressley, a black woman, in Massachusetts. Each defeated 10-term Democratic congressmen — both white men — in their respective primary elections.

Those victories were likely helped by strong votes from black women, Boone said, and Democrats need to continue to nurture that demographic group if they want to win.

“They don’t want to take them for granted — that’s what happened with (Hillary) Clinton in 2016,” he said. “There’s a tendency among white liberals to rediscover black women every election. … But then at the end of the day the fall person is always black people if they didn’t turn out.”

After Clinton lost the 2016 election, headlines appeared across the country pointing out that 2 million fewer black people voted than in 2012, when President Barack Obama was on the ballot. One Forbes article said if more black people showed up at the polls in North Carolina, she would have won the state.

Kai Waller, a senior sociology major at Spelman College, said being expected to show up to help Democrats win whether or not a candidate campaigns for their vote or risk being blamed when candidates lose is annoying.

“We’re in the position we’re in because we can come to the rescue,” said Waller, who is black. “It’s frustrating, but we can turn the frustration into how we make change.”

‘She’s being authentically herself’

Many black women are connecting to Abrams, not only because of similar life experiences — growing up as a minority woman in the South with parents who worked yet struggled to make ends meet — but because they believe she’s a viable candidate with policy knowledge and experience to back it up.

Where other high-profile black candidates may have shied away from racial stereotypes, black female supporters say it’s Abrams’ willingness to lean into her blackness that resonates with them.

Abrams wears her hair in a natural style and doesn't shy away from identifying with issues that disproportionately affect African-Americans, including her tax debt and her bipolar younger brother Walter who's been in and out of prison.

“She has a brother with mental health issues,” said Nneamaka Ndukwe, an Atlanta chemist who volunteers with Abrams’ campaign. “There are a lot of black families, and white families, who have family members with mental health issues. She’s being authentically herself.”

Seeking a new direction for Georgia

The mother of a 2-year-old son, Ndukwe said she shares most if not all of Abrams' policy stances, especially the desire to create state-funded scholarships for child care and expand Medicaid to give new mothers access to health care and help reduce maternal mortality.

Abrams says expanding Medicaid would help not only black women, but nearly half a million Georgians who are currently uninsured.

“Black women have demonstrated an enthusiasm and engagement in politics that is unmatched,” Abrams said. “So, for me, using and leveraging that community is critical to winning, but it is the beginning.”

Kemp supporter Childs said she believes Republicans have worked hard to push the state forward, citing Georgia's economic growth evidenced by Deal's ability to build the state's reserve account to $2.5 billion.

“Right now, Georgia is winning for our people,” she said, “and I do not want to see that changed in any way.”

Kemp said he is relying on his business background to appeal to a wide array of Georgia voters, saying he’s worked with a diverse cross section of Georgians through his construction business.

He has also formed an inclusion coalition made up of a diverse group of Republicans to serve as surrogates and help him tout his platform in their communities.

Still, many black women interviewed by the AJC — citing things such as inadequate access to health care and early childhood education — don’t agree with the direction the state’s been going and want changes.

That’s something Abrams’ mother, Carolyn Abrams, hopes resonates in November.

“It’s going to take the people who populate the state of Georgia to put her in, with all their diversity,” she said. “Not just whites, not just blacks, not just Latinos, but right-thinking people coming together are going to ensure Georgia has not just a black governor, not just a woman governor, but a qualified governor.”

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