As she runs for governor, Stacey Abrams evokes her life story

An engine revved behind her, and she could hear the hiss of a power window sliding down its pane of glass. With instinct born of experience, she dodged between two buildings as the pop of a silencer registered its fury. Glass shattered and sprayed the ground, shards tinkling in the quiet morning. A second shot was fired, and she could feel the bullet pierce skin, singe flesh.

That harrowing chase scene comes from the 2006 novel “Hidden Sins,” one of eight romance suspense books by Selena Montgomery, who has sold more than 100,000 copies and who will likely draw even more attention if she wins a certain election in November. Montgomery is the pen name for Stacey Abrams, a Democrat better known as the former Georgia House minority leader, entrepreneur and whip smart tax attorney who has jumped into the spotlight as the candidate who just might turn conservative Georgia blue.

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With a victory on Election Day Abrams would become the nation’s first black female governor, though her sights were not always set on politics. Growing up, she was so captivated by James Bond movies and “General Hospital” that she dreamed of becoming a bestselling spy novelist. She finished her first novel while at Yale Law School.

Abrams is now focusing full-time on her groundbreaking campaign. Yet, storytelling, she said, remains central. She said it helps her connect with voters and clearly communicate her platform to expand Medicaid, bolster public schools and support small businesses. Like writers, Abrams said, successful politicians must have empathy.

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams meets with a group of employees at the Coastal Solar office during a campaign stop to announce her "Jobs for Georgia Plan” in July in Hinesville. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton

“Storytelling is absolutely a necessary part of how you do politics,” Abrams, 44, said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “because people need to understand that you get their story and that you can explain complicated ideas to them in ways that resonate, especially if it is not their own story.”

Lost and found

Last month, Abrams showcased those skills in a cavernous ballroom in Columbus. She was the featured speaker at the “True Blue Gala,” a fundraiser for the Muscogee County Democratic Committee. A band performed Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” as the guests — many wore blue gowns in keeping with the theme of the event — dined on beef Burgundy. Abrams stood atop a platform festooned with red, white and blue bunting. This was her territory. Hillary Clinton handily won Muscogee in the 2016 presidential election.

For the next 30 minutes, Abrams played off the theme of lost and found, employing metaphors, detailed personal anecdotes and old-fashioned red meat for her supporters. First, she poked fun at herself for getting lost on her way to speak at the same gala six years ago.

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“It turns out,” she said, “I am not the only one who has been lost for a while — because we are a state that is a little bit lost. We are driving in the direction of prosperity, but, unfortunately, we have left some folks out of the car. And a lot of times we are only heading in one direction and we aren’t following the signs.”

The daughter of United Methodist ministers, Abrams bemoaned Georgia’s double-digit poverty and maternal mortality rates and its loss of many rural hospitals. Her listeners enthusiastically signaled their support for her as she spoke— “Yes!” “Um-hum!” and “All right!” — almost as if they were in church responding to a pastor’s sermon.

“So we have the responsibility not only to acknowledge that we are lost, but now it is time for us to be found,” Abrams said.

"Storytelling is absolutely a necessary part of how you do politics." — Stacey Abrams

She closed with a vivid story about growing up in Mississippi. Because her family had only one car, her father would walk or hitchhike home from the shipyard where he worked in Pascagoula. One cold and rainy night, Abrams’ mother grew worried about him. So she and her children piled into their car and went looking for him on U.S. 90. They spotted him on the side of the road, coatless, wet and shivering. He told them he had given his coat to a homeless man on the beach.

“He is still shivering a little bit,” Abrams recalled about her father, “but he looks at us with this look that tells us about being lost and being found and he says, ‘Look, I came upon the man on the beach and I gave him my coat because he was alone and I knew that when I left him there, he would still be alone. But I could give him my coat because I knew you were coming for me.’ So Muscogee County Democrats, if we stand together on Nov. 6, we are coming for Georgia.”

Becoming a writer

Asked how she got into writing, Abrams said she was literally surrounded by books when she was a kid. The second of six children, she was born in Madison, Wis., while her mother studied for her graduate degree in library science at the University of Wisconsin. Abrams attended kindergarten at William Carey University in Mississippi, where her mother served as the university librarian. When school was over, Abrams would come to her mother’s library and sleep among the books. She began reading chapter books at age 4 and spent only a few weeks in first-grade before she was promoted to second-grade, said her mother, Carolyn.

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks to a crowd gathered at Nabila’s Graden restaurant in Fitzgerald,  in August. Addressing her financial debts, Abrams says that it’s evidence that “I have lived a real life.” (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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“Sometimes Stacey’s precociousness got her in a little trouble. Even in kindergarten she got in trouble for writing in cursive instead of in print,” said Carolyn, who lives with her husband, Robert, in Hattiesburg, Miss. “In 10th grade, before we moved to Atlanta, we had to go over to her school because she had sort of gone on strike and refused to participate in class. And when we got to the bottom of it, it was because the teacher said her vocabulary was too advanced and that she needed to tone it down.”

Abrams’ oldest sister, Andrea, helped her learn to read when they played school together. Andrea remembers the two sneaking into their mother’s collection of romance novels.

“I remember we got caught at church when my mother found the books hidden in our purse when we were in the choir,” said Andrea, an author who teaches anthropology at Centre College in Danville, Ky. “That was one of the first things Stacey and I really shared — was sneaking and sharing romance novels with each other. We both kind of had a dream of being romance novel writers. And she got there first.”

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Abrams reveals more about her childhood and teenage years in a nonfiction book she published this year. A cross between a memoir and a how-to book, it is entitled “Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change.” In it, Abrams writes that at age 18 she mapped out her life for the next 40 years in a spreadsheet. Heartbroken at the time by a breakup with her boyfriend, she set to work outlining her goals: Become a bestselling spy novelist, a millionaire corporate leader and Atlanta’s mayor. All by the age of 35.

"We have the responsibility not only to acknowledge that we are lost, but now it is time for us to be found." — Stacey Abrams

Further, Abrams critically weighs in her memoir how others view her. She may be considered “sloppy and unkempt,” she writes, because she is curvy and keeps her hair natural instead of pressing it. She adds that because she is unmarried some may see her as a lesbian, though she discloses one of her goals is to fall in love with the man of her dreams and have two children.

Abrams wants to eventually get back to her writing. In her memoir, she reveals she has other books in the works, including a “teenage amnesiac superhero story, a kids’ book about the mishaps of a nine-year-old alien, a finished legal thriller awaiting edits, and a final Selena Montgomery story to wrap up a trilogy.”

‘I have lived a real life’

In March, Abrams released financial disclosure forms that laid bare her challenges: she owed $54,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and about $170,000 in credit card and student loan debt. Her Republican opponent, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, has blasted Abrams for loaning her campaign $50,000 while owing taxes, saying: "If that's not criminal, it should be."

Writing under the pen name Selena Montgomery, Stacey Abrams has published eight romance suspense novels and sold more than 100,000 copies.

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Abrams deferred her tax payments in 2015 and 2016, according to her campaign, and entered into a payment plan with the IRS because she was helping her family. Abrams said she financially supported her parents after Hurricane Katrina damaged their home and the church where her mother worked. Her mother and father — who has required treatment for prostate cancer — have taken in Abrams’ 92-year-old maternal grandmother, who fell and broke her back. They also adopted their 12-year-old granddaughter, Faith. They took in Faith because their son, Walter, and his wife were addicted to drugs and lost custody of her.

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Abrams said she has paid her 2016 taxes. And the $150,000 advance she got for her memoir, she said, made it possible for her to loan her campaign money. Her campaign, she added, has paid her back.

“You may have heard a little bit about my personal debt. That’s because I have lived a real life,” she said at the Democratic gala in Columbus last month. “I have had to take care of my parents and my niece and my grandmother. But I have never shirked my responsibilities.”

Abrams has also faced criticism for refusing to reveal the names of donors who contributed $12.5 million to a pair of non-profit, tax -exempt foundations she created to increase voter participation — and which paid her almost $500,000. Questions have been raised about whether the effort was a ploy to boost Abrams' profile and introduce her to wealthy donors now bankrolling her gubernatorial bid. She has defended the groups' work registering and mobilizing Georgia voters.

Her bid for statewide office has been, in a sense, head-spinning. In the Democratic primary, she was cast by her rival as too willing to compromise with Republicans over landmark legislation such as the Hope scholarship overhaul. In the general election, Kemp and his allies have painted her as an "extremist," "radical" and too liberal for Georgia.

She’s tried to thread that needle, emphasizing her pragmatic streak working with Republicans while also highlighting her progressive stance on debates over abortion and guns. And at the center of her campaign is a pledge to expand Medicaid, a proposal she believes is now firmly in the mainstream.

But for some Abrams critics, the problem comes down to simple politics.

“Some of the ideas she has are just a little, I wouldn’t say extreme, but they’re a little out of touch with what I view,” said Logan Waldrop, a 19-year-old junior at the University of Georgia. “She’s wanting to increase government spending. That kind of goes against what I believe.”

Former President Jimmy Carter listens as Georgia Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams speaks during a campaign stop at Mercer Medicine at Plains health clinic in September. Abrams has made expansion of Medicaid one of her top priorities.

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Walter’s story

When Abrams talks about what she would do as governor she occasionally shares her younger brother Walter’s story, saying expanding Medicaid would help people like him, a heroin addict living in Mississippi. When Walter first landed behind bars in 2014, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a disease that can cause sudden and extreme mood swings. In prison, he sobered up and was stabilized with medication. But when he was released from prison, he lost his health coverage and access to medicine and struggled to find a job and a home. Relapsing, he went behind bars again.

"This is personal for me. I have a younger brother who is bipolar and who is also a heroin addict," Abrams said at a campaign stop last month in Plains, where former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter stood by her side.

“And he is in and out of the criminal justice system because he lives in a state that like Georgia refused to expand Medicaid. Expansion of Medicaid saves lives. It also saves dollars and it makes our states healthier.”

Days earlier, Abrams delivered a similar message about expanding Medicaid at a campaign stop in the shadow of Grady Memorial Hospital. Alexis Dunn, an Emory University nursing professor from McDonough, showed up to support her, drawn by Abrams’ focus on healthcare.

“She just has a platform that feels real — that actually seems like it is going to address some actual issues — with a realistic plan to accomplish those things,” said Dunn, a nurse midwife. “One of the key things to being a good writer is clarity of thought. And you can tell that she thinks about a lot of things and she knows how to put things together and present it in a way that people understand.”

—Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.