Stacey Abrams aims for history with second run for governor

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

In the four years since Stacey Abrams last ran for governor, she has skyrocketed into the national spotlight as a Democratic star, showing up on magazine covers, as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and in a cameo on “Star Trek: Discovery.”

Yet her name recognition across the U.S. — and popularity among liberals for mobilizing minority voters — doesn’t necessarily translate into a winning formula here in her home state.

Abrams, a Spelman College and Yale Law School graduate who went on to become an attorney for the city of Atlanta, an author and entrepreneur, served as a Georgia House legislator for 11 years — including seven years as the chamber’s top Democrat.

ExploreWhere the candidates for Georgia governor stand on the issues

She left the Legislature in 2017 to run for governor, with her campaign ending in a 2018 loss to Republican Brian Kemp that concluded in a famous nonconcession speech where she announced she was starting a new voting rights organization called Fair Fight.

That catapulted Abrams into the national spotlight. Democrats credited her and her efforts to register hundreds of thousands of voters in Georgia with helping to flip the state in support of Joe Biden and propel two Democrats into U.S. Senate seats in Georgia.

Along the way, Abrams was considered as a potential running mate for Biden and became a highly sought-after public speaker and author worth more than $3 million who now has investments in technology and a solar startup.

But she has also kept her eye on the governorship since her last run for office. “It was soon clear to me that the work still needed to be done and that the direction that Gov. (Brian) Kemp was taking the state in was not consistent with what I believe the state needs,” Abrams said.

If Abrams prevails in her race against Kemp, she will make history as the first Black governor of Georgia and the first Black woman to serve as governor of any state.

But she faces significant challenges to gain enough support among voters, who have put Republicans in the Governor’s Mansion since 2003 and given the GOP a strong majority in the state Legislature.

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Even if Abrams were to win the race for governor, the likely Republican majorities in Georgia’s House and Senate mean it could be difficult for her to accomplish some of her key campaign promises — including expanding Medicaid.

“Know that what I say I’m going to do, I’m going to do,” Abrams said at a recent campaign event.

ExploreKemp cites Georgia’s economic success in bid for reelection

That’s easier said than done, according to University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

“It will be a challenging situation where she will have to negotiate every step of the way,” Bullock said.

That’s not entirely unfamiliar territory for Abrams.

“As a legislator she had the reputation of being able to work in a bipartisan fashion,” Bullock said. “Both Republicans and Democrats would say she was probably the smartest person over there ... (and) would come to her and ask her to explain complex legislation.”

But for those who see Abrams as a hero of the left and would expect her to deliver on Democratic priorities such as expanding Medicaid and repealing Georgia’s restrictive abortion law and permitless gun rights statute as she has vowed, the political realities could bring disappointment.

“She’s not going to have a majority in the House, she’s not going to have a majority in the Senate, and it’s not going to happen,” said Fran Millar, a Republican from Dunwoody who left the state Legislature in 2019.

Expanding Medicaid and repealing the abortion and gun laws “are just not in tune with where we are in the state,” Millar said, adding that’s why he also think Abrams won’t win against Kemp.

State Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, said Abrams is “attempting to divert attention away from what voters really care about, and that is the harmful economic impact of the Biden administration’s failed economic policies, and I expect that those are the issues that the Legislature is going to focus on.”

Abrams also wants to legalize sports betting and casino gambling to expand HOPE scholarships. She has pledged to use Georgia’s $6.6 billion budget surplus to fund some of her key initiatives, including raises for teachers and law enforcement officers and a $1 billion tax refund to many Georgians. But some key elements of her platform would require cooperation from the Legislature.

When asked about the likelihood of an expansion of Medicaid if Abrams is elected governor, state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a Columbus Democrat who was Abrams’ top deputy in the House, said: “I would never underestimate Stacey Abrams. ... I think there is a possibility it will happen.”

“Stacey Abrams has proven that she can fight. And when she becomes governor she will have to prove she can lead and she can govern,” Hugley said. “Those are two different things.”

Abrams, for her part, said she is “absolutely certain” she can expand Medicaid, adding that most legislators want to get more people on the public health plan. And she has aimed to channel frustration over the state’s anti-abortion restrictions and permissive gun policies into votes.

But Abrams noted that her first priorities will be “making certain we are taking care of the fundamental issues in Georgia,” including education, jobs and affordable housing.

It wouldn’t be the first time a Georgia governor has dealt with a divided government. Early in Republican Sonny Perdue’s first term as governor starting in 2003, Democrats had the majority in the Georgia House. But in Perdue’s time, Republicans held the majority in the Senate and some Georgia Democrats in office were conservatives, Bullock said.

Today, for Abrams, “liberal Republicans don’t exist,” Bullock said. If she were elected governor, Republicans could work to obstruct her.

Abrams also would face the challenge of gaining the trust of legislators across the aisle after Fair Fight spent the past four years suing Georgia’s Republican leadership and accusing Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of voter suppression and unconstitutional election policies.

In her 2018 campaign for governor, Abrams lost to Kemp with 49% of the vote and delivered an election night speech in which she did not concede — a move that has dogged her during this year’s campaign as critics compare her to election deniers who say Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election.

In the wake of Kemp’s win, Fair Fight called for a federal judge to overturn state laws, alleging that statutes resulted in purged registrations, canceled ballots and other obstacles to voting. On Sept. 30, a federal judge ruled against Fair Fight in the remaining parts of its voting rights lawsuit.

After the judge’s decision, Kemp tweeted that Abrams had “used this lawsuit to line her pockets, sow distrust in our democratic institutions, and build her own celebrity.”

It’s no surprise that Abrams has been derided by Republicans. But Abrams also has some detractors in her own party.

As minority leader, “she sometimes made decisions that actually angered the progressive wing of the Georgia General Assembly,” Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie said. “I don’t think she’s the type of person that would let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Abrams says she once took a tea party leader out to lunch, for example, to discuss environmental legislation and its impact on property values. And she partnered with Republican state Rep. Tommy Benton — who called the Ku Klux Klan “not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order” — to advocate for kinship child care.

Kendra King Momon, associate provost and professor of politics at Oglethrope University, said, “Inevitably in this role she’s going to disappoint” some Democrats, at the national level and among voters.

“Because at some point, in order to pass some of this legislation — perhaps some of the more controversial hot topic legislation — she may have to concede a bit from what she proposed in order to get Republican support,” Momon said.


About Stacey Abrams

Age: 48

Born: Madison, Wisconsin, before moving to Gulfport, Mississippi, as a child

Experience

  • Georgia House representative, 2007-2017
  • House minority leader, 2011-2017
  • Founded voting rights organization Fair Fight Action in 2018
  • Author of 2018 book “Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change” and 2020 book “Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America” — as well as eight romantic suspense novels, political thriller “While Justice Sleeps” and children’s book “Stacey’s Extraordinary Words”

Proposed policies

  • Expand Medicaid in Georgia
  • Legalize sports betting to expand the HOPE scholarship and fund need-based financial aid for higher education
  • Use state budget surplus, which has reached $6.6 billion, to fund health care, teacher raises, public safety, small businesses and agriculture — with a pledge to not raise taxes

About our coverage

The AJC is committed to ensuring that Georgians are fully educated about the candidates for governor and others who seek public office. It is critical that voters know where each candidate stands on important issues, what moneyed interests might influence them and whether the candidates have behaved ethically. Today’s focus is on Democrat Stacey Abrams.

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