MACON, Ga. ― It is 94 degrees in this Georgia city. Some 120 Democrats dewy with sweat have congregated in a highly air-conditioned conference center to learn how to run for office. And more than half of them are women.
One of those women is Kelly Rose, a first-time candidate originally from Los Angeles who now lives in McDonough. She’s challenging Republican state Sen. Brian Strickland after his vote in support of the state’s extreme “heartbeat” bill that Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed into law last month.
“When I tried to reach out to my representative about the [bill], I was discarded. I was placated. There was a lot of condescending conversation, dismissive behavior … and I don’t like where the state is headed,” she said.
Rose, who moved with her husband and children to Georgia a few years ago, echoed what many women have said in the days since the bill passed: that abortion bans as strict as these are not about “protecting life” but about controlling women.
“To me, [current legislation] is using ‘abortion’ to elicit an emotional response … but what I see it as is women are getting stronger and it’s a way of eliciting control over them,” she said. “It’s bully behavior, and I’ve never let a bully slide in my life.”
Another first-time candidate at the National Democratic Training Committee’s event is Angela Mayfield, who’s running to replace Republican state Rep. Micah Gravley, who supported the bill.
Mayfield already has a strong online presence, after a Twitter thread about House Bill 481 and her own personal pregnancy-related health issues went viral in late March. Two days later, a member of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus reached out to her to ask if she would seriously consider a run. After reading message after message on Twitter from women thanking her for her story and for articulating her disgust with the bill, she felt she had no choice but to do so.
“Confederate monuments have more bodily autonomy than women in my state, and I am so big mad about that,” she said at the training on Saturday.
Her fellow women in Georgia and across the country were “big mad” about it too ― and she had raked in close to $6,000 less than a week after announcing her campaign because of it.
Rose and Mayfield are two of many women, not just at this event but nationwide, who have reignited their political involvement after a sweep of anti-abortion legislation was signed or introduced in Georgia, Alabama, Ohio and Missouri.
Pro-choice organizations saw donations skyrocket after the bills passed, and thousands of women all over the country protested the bans and started volunteering with local pro-choice groups.
And in the Peach State specifically, there was a surge in people interested in running for office to replace anti-choice lawmakers, according to Adrienne White, the vice chair of candidate recruitment for the Georgia Democratic Party.
White said on Saturday that following particularly polarizing votes or political events, it’s not abnormal to see a rise in interest in running a campaign, especially among the groups affected.
“I can’t let someone like Strickland run unchecked,” Rose said.
And immediately after Strickland voted to pass House Bill 481 ― the bill that bans abortion as soon as a doctor can detect cardiac activity in an embryo, which usually happens about six weeks into a pregnancy ― she knew she would be the person to check him.
“I just couldn’t sit there any longer. … I really feel like I’ve been driven to take this step because I have a voice that I’m not afraid to use, to bring in other voices, and be a representative,” she said.
Bigger Than Georgia
Over the last month or so, with abortion access under increasing threat, women across the country have taken to city halls, statehouses and even abortion clinics themselves to protest and express their refusal to sit this one out. And while some people might be surprised to see such a strong pro-choice community in the traditionally conservative South, residents in the region are not.
“I see a lot of punching down on the South, with the redneck jokes, the incest jokes,” Mayfield said. But it’s not something she isn’t already used to.
When Mayfield went to a small women’s college outside Boston, she was “horrifically” made fun of for her Southern accent, she said.
“When I opened my mouth in Boston, everyone thought I was a diner waitress. There’s an assumption that we’re all poor and we’re all stupid. And that stereotype blinds people when [bills like HB 481] happen elsewhere,” she added.
Caroline Self, an Alabama native who ran against and lost to Alabama state Sen. Tim Melson (R) in 2018, told HuffPost last week that she’s noticed less vitriol and heated rhetoric around the topic of abortion since a similarly extreme ban passed in her state.
“During the campaign, all of us were called ‘baby-killers,’” she said. “The majority of questions [from constituents] were about abortion. People would say, ‘If you’re a baby-killer, I can’t vote for you.’”
But with a bill as restricting as the one Alabama lawmakers just passed, Self noticed the rhetoric changed.
“Confederate monuments have more bodily autonomy than women in my state.”
“When I posted [an article about the ban] on Facebook after the bill had passed, I got no negative feedback,” Self said. Normally, she noted, it’s impossible to bring up the topic without heated comments or messages.
Self chalks it up to traditionally anti-abortion women feeling weary about the bill’s lack of exceptions for rape and incest.
“That pushed women who wouldn’t be openly pro-choice to the other side,” she said.
And despite losing pretty significantly to Melson ― who was one of the 25 white male state senators to vote in support of the bill ― Self has no regrets about her choice to run, and possibly sees another campaign in her future.
“I knew I didn’t have a shot at winning my race, but I will say that I’m hopeful,” she said. “There were rallies all over the state the weekend after the law passed. A couple of hundred people in my small town showing up is pretty unheard of.”
The Opposite Of Burnt Out
While there was fear about potential “resistance fatigue” and general burnout after the 2018 elections, Democrat organizations say the fear is unnecessary.
The National Democratic Training Committee, which hosts in-person and online training courses for potential candidates and community members interested in a career in politics, has seen a surge in enrollments for their training programs, Rose Clouston, director of online training, said on Saturday.
The organization is even poised to surpass the number of people who signed up for its training events in 2018 ― more than 7,000 people have already signed up for in-person and online programs.
It’s looking like 2020 is going to have more candidates than 2018 did, she said, and a big part of that is because people ― especially women ― are getting braver about running.
“We’re seeing the breaking down of this mythology that our state legislators are so different from us,” Clouston said. “Really, they’re your neighbors and community members.”
Witnessing the many successes in 2018 has certainly inspired first-time candidates. In Georgia in 2018, the NDTC helped elect three candidates, and nationwide, the group saw 171 candidates elected across 39 states ― more than half of whom were women.
“People are more engaged and aware of what’s happening at the legislature [now],” state Sen. Nikema Williams, who’s also chair of the Georgia Democrats, said on Saturday.
And she watched as HB 481 brought women out in droves to participate in their state’s political process. Women were lined up at the committee hearing for the bill before it had even advanced anywhere, Williams said.
“That was even a change … nobody cares what happens in these rooms. But it was packed,” she added.
So packed, in fact, that a brief committee meeting turned into a two-day hearing, with women standing up to speak about their personal experiences and why they were against the bill.
“Republicans were going to force it through and get it passed, but it mattered,” she said. “It showed women that they weren’t alone in this.”
And that activity in Georgia has turned into increased, energized political involvement for women like Mayfield and Rose.
“Georgia is worth fighting for,” Mayfield said. “I’ll never live anyplace else. This is where I’ll die and this is where they’ll bury me. The people are worth it.”