Stacey Abrams’ campaign for governor has brought high-profile Democrats and celebrities to Georgia, such as former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and actor Tracee Ellis Ross.
Abrams said the national attention has rallied Georgia’s Democrats around her campaign.
“In a state where we as Democrats have gotten used to not being victorious, the national attention is bringing resources to these campaigns and revving up our sense of what is possible,” she said.
That attention was noticeable at a recent campaign event in Brunswick, where potential voters gathered at the former City Hall to hear the Atlanta Democrat speak.
Some of the nearly 100 people in attendance pointed to the liberal-leaning cable news network MSNBC as the reason they were familiar with Abrams. A few didn’t even realize she had a Democratic opponent in this month’s primary.
Others were more familiar with Abrams, citing her experience in the state House, where she served for 11 years, the last seven as minority leader before she stepped down to run her campaign.
“She’s the strongest candidate I’ve seen at any level, anywhere,” said Sara Rupnik, a retired educator living in Jekyll Island. “It’s like looking at the next Obama.”
Living up to the hype?
That may sound like hyperbole, but such comments from Abrams supporters aren’t uncommon, and she’s become the darling of liberal national media outlets.
She’s also benefited financially from the enthusiasm.
Abrams outraised her Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, bringing in about $3.2 million in campaign contributions through the end of March. Much of that has come from donors outside of Georgia, particularly from the West Coast.
Abrams is using the money to focus on grass-roots campaigning.
Karen Jones Jemison, a Democratic political consultant, told attendees at a recent meet-and-greet with Abrams in Hinesville that she was pleased to see the candidate in the area so early in the year.
Abrams said its necessary to target first-time voters in what she calls overlooked parts of the state, traveling to them and explaining her positions on issues that are central to her campaign, including public education, the expansion of Medicaid and gun safety.
“I want to give people something to vote for and not against,” she said.
Responding to criticism
While an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll last month showed that Democrats who have chosen whom they will support in this month’s gubernatorial primary prefer Abrams over Evans 2-1, more than half remain undecided.
Undecided voters at campaign events mention some of the stories they’ve read about Abrams, such as those about her financial problems.
Recent filings show Abrams is in debt, owing about $54,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and about $170,000 more in credit card and student loan debt.
Abrams said she deferred IRS debt payments in 2015 and 2016 because she was helping to pay her family’s expenses, including her parents’ health insurance and father’s medical bills after being diagnosed with cancer.
“You can delay IRS payments,” she said. “You can’t delay cancer treatments.”
She added: “I would want a governor who prioritized family. People understand that your challenges don’t mean that you can’t be successful.”
Abrams’ mother, the Rev. Carolyn Abrams, told the AJC she hates that her daughter’s decision to help family has drawn negative attention.
“I’m not proud that Stacey has to help us and others and has often denied herself,” she said, “but I’m very proud that Stacey did then what she is trying to do now in her bid for governor of Georgia — that is seeing a need and trying to meet it.”
During the campaign, Abrams has championed liberal causes, including calling for the removal of the giant carving that depicts three Confederate war leaders on the face of state-owned Stone Mountain.
She’s secured endorsements from groups such as the women’s health organization and abortion rights advocate Planned Parenthood, Georgia Equality, which advocates for LGBT issues, and labor unions.
But Abrams has faced pushback on her record as a “progressive Democrat.”
“She has fancied herself as this kind of progressive icon that just was not the case while she was in the Legislature,” said former state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta.
Fort said while Abrams served as minority leader, she rarely worked with Senate Democrats, instead spending more time compromising with Republicans.
Abrams says her ability to work with both parties is a strength, saying many times she compromised with Republicans to keep legislation from going further against Democratic principles.
For example, Abrams said she sided with Republicans on changes to the state’s lottery-funded HOPE scholarship to keep the program solvent.
State House Minority Whip Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, said once Abrams became minority leader, she approached her position methodically.
“She is deliberate and does her homework, does her research, and investigates before putting together a plan of action,” Hugley said. “Some people felt that maybe she wasn’t as friendly as she should have been. In my mind, she was just focused on the job at hand.”
Outside of the General Assembly, Abrams boasts of her New Georgia Project, an organization that she says submitted voting registrations for more than 200,000 Georgians.
Opponents have raised questions about that figure, saying it is inflated and accusing many registrations of being fraudulent. The State Elections Board last year referred 53 allegedly forged voter applications to the Attorney General’s Office, out of 87,000 that were submitted in 2014.
That year, the project paid Abrams $177,500 in her role as its CEO and president for what it classified as part-time work.
Abrams also faced some backlash due to her involvement in the startup company NOWaccount, a private lender to businesses that did contract work with the state, during which she received a salary of up to $80,000 a year for six years while serving in the Legislature.
Abrams’ involvement didn’t violate the state’s ethics laws, but colleagues say they should have known about her involvement with a company that was working with Gov. Nathan Deal.
Passion to ‘dismantle poverty’
The 44-year-old Abrams was born in Wisconsin and raised in Gulfport, Miss., where her mother was a college librarian and her father worked in a shipyard. Her family, including five siblings, lived a life that her mother calls “genteel poor.”
“Because we watched PBS and read books,” Abrams said.
Abrams was 15 when her family moved to Decatur so her parents could attend Emory University’s divinity program. She graduated from Avondale High School, where she studied acting in the school’s performing arts magnet program.
Abrams attended Spelman College, studying political science, sociology and economics. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Texas and a law degree from Yale University.
She said her parents taught their children at a young age to help those who are less fortunate. With that foundation, her mother said it makes sense she pursued a political career.
“What she’s doing now,” Carolyn Abrams said, “is a natural progression as she seeks to live her life in service and in consideration of other people.”