The Jolt: Stacey Abrams tells graduates about fear, failure, and 2018

Well-known political activist and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks at the 2020 Clark Atlanta University graduation Saturday at the Harkness Hall Quadrangle in Atlanta on May 15, 2021. The 2020 ceremony was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Well-known political activist and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks at the 2020 Clark Atlanta University graduation Saturday at the Harkness Hall Quadrangle in Atlanta on May 15, 2021. The 2020 ceremony was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

News and analysis from the politics team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

You don’t hear politicians speak often about their fears and failures, but that’s what Stacey Abrams did Saturday in her commencement address to Clark Atlanta University’s Class of 2020 as she challenged them to use their own fears about the future to fuel their progress.

Not unlike the graduates in front of her, who were back on campus a year after they had expected to walk across the stage to receive their degrees, Abrams told the group she’s also had her share of disappointments, doubts, and dreams that didn’t happen as planned.

And although she did not give any indication of when, or even if, she’ll get into a rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp, the former Democratic nominee for governor spoke in detail about her statewide run in 2018.

“When I ran for governor in 2018 I was warned by many that it was a fool’s errand,” Abrams said, detailing the many reasons longtime allies told her not to run, including the fact that no state has ever elected a Black woman governor.

“I wasn’t entitled to victory. Lord knows I didn’t get it,” she said. “But I was entitled to try.”

She also said she was profoundly afraid of losing the race.

“I was afraid of making a mistake, of saying the wrong thing, of embarrassing my family, of embarrassing myself...I was afraid that voter suppression was real,” she said.

Kemp won the election by 54,000 votes, and while Abrams formally ended her run, she refused ever to concede the race to him. “I will not concede,” she said at the time, “because the erosion of our democracy is not right.”

Looking back on that time, Abrams told graduates, “I failed in public. In 2018, I was the most Googled politician in the world and I am not the governor of Georgia...But the reality is, my fear helped me get better at my job.”

Abrams went on to found Fair Fight and Fair Fight Action, the nationwide voting rights organizations that mobilized voters ahead of the 2020 presidential elections and rocketed her to national prominence.

She remains the top target for the Georgia GOP and the great hope for Democrats in the state to finally win back the governor’s mansion in 2022.

Abrams did not say what she’ll do next, but she told graduates she knows one thing for sure. “I may not be governor of Georgia but I promise you, no one in Georgia will ever forget that I was here.”

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In his formal announcement Monday that he won’t seek reelection in 2022, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said, “It always feels coldest right before the sun rises.”

Duncan might have also felt chilly moments after the news of his decision broke, when talk turned immediately to which of his GOP state Senate colleagues might replace him.

By midday Monday, Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller had filed paperwork with the state for “Butch for Georgia,” and confirmed to your Insiders that he’s planning a formal announcement to run for LG next week.

State Sen. Steve Gooch also released a statement that he will spend time speaking with his colleagues about the “direction the Senate should take in the future and decide if the office of Lieutenant Governor is where I think I can best serve the citizens of Georgia.”

GOP activist Jeanne Seaver of Savannah is already in the race for the Republicans, while state Reps. Erick Allen and Derrick Jackson have declared for Democrats.

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Tea Party co-founder Debbie Dooley has a new cause: “Women for Vernon Jones.”

She kicked it off Monday morning at Liberty Plaza, where she stage-managed a press conference to drum up female support for Jones, calling out to the participants, “All the women get back here.”

One by one, eight women stepped from their semi-circle and took turns at the microphone to declare their support for Jones, the former Democrat and long-longshot challenger to Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary.

Our AJC colleague Alan Judd, one of the few people on the scene, reported that each said they don’t believe the other women who, as reported in Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, say Jones assaulted, harassed or bullied them.

“I would rather get my news from the National Inquirer than the AJC,” said Elise Tanory, who, in her Twitter biography, describes herself as “model, actress, mommy.”

The AJC’s examination of Jones’ problematic behavior toward women, Dooley and others said, echoed reports about sexual misconduct by Trump, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz – all of whom, the women said, have been targeted because they are conservative Republicans.

Other speakers said they take reports of sexual misconduct seriously, but claimed that Democrats who engage in bad behavior get a pass while Republicans are held to a higher standard.

The crowd – six spectators, one newspaper reporter, one television cameraman and a state employee who set up the microphone – was dwarfed by Liberty Plaza’s 2.2-acre expanse.

Still, Dooley said the group would continue to defend Jones: “You come after him,” she said, “we come after you.”

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Georgia’s two U.S. senators are involved in a push to get Congress to provide more support for the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.

And there is Republican support for the effort, our AJC colleague Eric Stirgus reports.

Sen. Raphael Warnock’s office shared a letter signed Monday by 22 senators, including Republicans Tim Scott of South Carolina and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, asking leaders of a Senate subcommittee to ensure funding in four areas they say are critical to the success of HBCUs.

One initiative, which is supposed to provide matching grants to HBCUs, hasn’t been funded since the mid-1990s, the letter says. There are nine accredited HBCUs in Georgia.

Warnock and Scott are leading the effort, the Georgia senator’s office said.

Former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson led similar efforts in Washington to fund Georgia’s HBCU’s in the past.

“Increased federal aid will only add to the job creating capacity of these institutions, and will support more students who will be able to reap the benefits of having a degree from an HBCU,” one passage of the letter said.

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Until recently, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s new political organization used prechecked boxes to automatically make supporters’ donations recur on a monthly basis.

Loeffler, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue and former President Donald Trump all used the same practice during last year’s campaign cycle, a tactic that resulted in millions of dollars in refunds to donors and led to a critical write-up in the New York Times.

After an inquiry about Loeffler’s ongoing use of the practice from the AJC, her Greater Georgia organization updated its website to no longer preselect recurring donations, although donors can still opt into automatic future donations if they choose.

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The U.S. House is scheduled to vote today on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bill that outlines steps federal and local law enforcement agencies can take to address anti-Asian violence.

The House is taking up the version of the bill approved last month by the U.S. Senate. President Joe Biden has already made clear he will sign the legislation if it passes.

Also today, the House will hold one hour of debate on a separate resolution that condemns the Atlanta area spa shootings. which killed eight people in March, including six Asian women. A final vote on that legislation, H.R. 275, is expected on Wednesday.

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The FBI has granted a request by Georgia U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk and other colleagues to revisit its report on the 2017 baseball field shooting.

The FBI had initially ruled that the attack on Republican lawmakers was “suicide by cop.” Loudermilk was not injured, but later recounted watching the attack unfold. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and a police officer were among the injured; the gunman was killed during a shoot-out with law enforcement.

Although the “suicide by cop” determination was made in 2017, Loudermilk joined 16 lawmakers in going public with their concerns earlier this month and asked FBI Director Christopher Wray to investigate the matter further.

In a new report on domestic terrorism released by the FBI on Monday, the baseball field shooting is now categorized as an incident involving a “domestic violent extremist.”

“An individual with a personalized violent ideology targeted and shot Republican members of Congress at a baseball field and wounded five people,” the report says. “The subject died as a result of engagement with law enforcement.”

***

A Chatham County grand jury has indicted a driver in the deadly Pooler car crash that killed Harrison Deal, a young campaign staffer to former Sen. Kelly Loeffler who was also a close family friend of Gov. Brian Kemp, WJCL-TV reports.

Deal’s death cast a pall over both Loeffler’s campaign and the state Republican apparatus in the days leading up to the 2021 Senate runoff election. The crash happened outside of Savannah as Sens. Loeffler and David Perdue were set to join Vice President Mike Pence in Savannah at a rally later that afternoon.

Deal was 20-years-old.

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