WASHINGTON ― Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is a rising star in the Democratic Party, and it’s not hard to see why. Her vision of expanding the Democratic electorate by mobilizing the state’s considerable population of nonvoters and minority voters is an appealing road map for a national party eager to turn Georgia blue.
Abrams believes her success registering voters with the nonprofit New Georgia Project and her experience limiting conservative overreach as a Democratic leader equip her to go toe-to-toe with the GOP-dominated legislature as governor. And she hopes to bring Georgians the employment, education and health care opportunities available to working families in other, bluer states.
Abrams has already picked up the support of progressive heavyweights like Democracy for America, a liberal online activist organization, and Nina Turner, president of Our Revolution, the legacy group for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
She’s also got support from more mainstream party validators like the pro-choice women’s electoral group EMILY’s List; Jason Kander, president of Democratic voting rights group Let America Vote; and megadonor Alexander Soros, a son of liberal billionaire George Soros. She has been the subject of glowing profiles in The Nation, The Guardian and The New York Times, where she is often touted as a leading light of an unabashedly progressive political movement emerging in the increasingly diverse American South.
If elected, Abrams, 43, would become the country’s first African-American woman governor. And long before she officially announced her candidacy for Georgia’s May 2018 Democratic primary, she was regarded as the field’s strongest contender. Until recently, it wasn’t even clear she’d face a challenger.
Then fellow Georgia Rep. Stacey Evans jumped into the race in May with a video about her underprivileged rural childhood that got high marks from veteran political operatives in both parties. Evans, a 39-year-old white litigator from the Atlanta suburbs, makes the case that she is a more reliable champion for working people than Abrams, citing areas in which she feels Abrams has been too willing to compromise with the state’s Republican majority.
“Race is not the most important thing to me, particularly because Abrams has not been at the forefront of race matters.”
Evans isn’t the only Georgia Democrat who has been critical of Abrams; others, including current and former members of Abrams’ own House caucus, say her tenure as minority leader has been marked by a willingness to compromise with Republicans that is at odds with her reputation at the national level.
Evans’ entry into the race has given these critics someone to rally behind.
“There’s a disconnect between progressives on the ground in Georgia and the grasstops leadership in D.C. and around the country,” said a veteran black Democrat active in Georgia politics who has not endorsed in the race and has requested anonymity for professional reasons. “Stacey Abrams has not generally been viewed as a progressive champion at the state Capitol.”
“As a black woman, it would be amazing to have a black woman in any statewide position in Georgia,” said LaDawn Blackett Jones, an Evans supporter and member of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus from 2012 to 2016. “However, race is not the most important thing to me, particularly because Abrams has not been at the forefront of race matters.”
Abrams dismisses such criticism from her fellow black lawmakers.
“In the words of the Negro spiritual, may the work I’ve done speak for me,” she said in a statement.
Ben Speight, the organizing director of the Atlanta-based International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 728, which represents 9,000 workers across Georgia, compared Abrams to failed Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff, who lost his bid to represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
Speight has not endorsed anyone in the governor’s race at this point, and was only speaking in a personal capacity. But he said there is a feeling among progressives in the state that although Ossoff brought in big dollars from major party donors, he espoused milquetoast centrist views ― when he was willing to discuss his policies at all.
“It’s Ossoff’s politics with a different spokesperson,” Speight said of Abrams. “I don’t think the surface difference is enough to tip the scales, even in the Democratic primary.”
But Eric Robertson, the political director of the same Teamsters local, had only positive things to say about Abrams and implied that the union would likely soon endorse her.
Abrams “proved not only that she was a capable leader in the legislature, but also that she was someone we could depend on to ... place our issues at the core of the House caucus efforts and use her political capital to go to the mat for labor,” Robertson said.
A Rising Democratic Star
Abrams was raised by working-class parents in Gulfport, Mississippi. The family later moved to Atlanta so her parents could study to become Methodist ministers.
Abrams earned a law degree at Yale and a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin before returning to Atlanta. She practiced tax law before becoming deputy city attorney in 2002. She was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 2007, and became the first woman party leader in state history in 2011.
In addition to founding the New Georgia Project, a voting rights and registration nonprofit, Abrams is also a co-founder of the business-to-business payment system NOWaccount Network Corporation, and has published a series of romance novels under the pseudonym Selena Montgomery.
Abrams told HuffPost her desire to provide the state’s families with more pathways to prosperity is what motivated her to run for governor.
“I watch politicians on both sides of the aisle, and a lot of our policies are geared toward survival ― how do we keep people where they are,” Abrams said. “And particularly on our side of the aisle as Democrats, we have forgotten that we are supposed to be the party of prosperity for those who are disenfranchised and left behind.”
Abrams supports many conventional liberal policy remedies, including expanding Medicaid and providing universal preschool for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds.
Citing her experience with NOWaccount, Abrams said she believes freeing up credit for local “nano-businesses” ― think barbershops and day care centers rather than tech startups ― is a key tool in facilitating entrepreneurship and combating poverty.
“Microcredit has been part of the developing world for years,” she said. “We can’t assume we’re above that kind of investment and that kind of thinking to move our families out of poverty as well.”
Abrams said these policies can help turn Georgia from a low-wage state that uses its lax labor and regulatory standards to attract employers from other states into one that “grows jobs in place.”
Her allies in Georgia say her professional competence, strong command of policy and prodigious fundraising record merit their endorsement.
“Stacey Abrams is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met,” said state Rep. Al Williams (D), who has served in the Georgia House since 2003. “I can’t remember a more qualified candidate for governor in my time.”
Abrams argues that the state Democratic Party needs to focus its resources on registering and turning out infrequent voters ― including under-tapped rural black voters, immigrants and progressive whites ― to win statewide office, rather than trying to win back white former Democrats who abandoned the party long ago.
Some groundwork has already been laid for those efforts, thanks to the New Georgia Project. She claims the nonprofit has registered 200,000 voters of color since its inception in 2014. Most recently, the organization was active in registering voters for the special House election in the 6th Congressional District, where it successfully sued the state to extend the registration window to 30 days ahead of the final runoff vote.
Abrams’ fans say she is the kind of candidate who will turn out those voters.
“There is a huge mass of untapped voter potential in the African-American population in the state,” said Atlanta-based state Sen. Nan Orrock (D). “Stacey can excite that vote in the same way Obama did.”
Stand And Fight Or Bargain With The Enemy?
Yet Abrams’ career has not been without its controversies.
Her colleagues elected her minority leader in 2011, at a particularly turbulent time for Democrats in the state. The 2010 midterm elections had been as devastating for Georgia Democrats as they were for the party across the country. Republicans, boosted by eight Democratic defections to the GOP following the dismal election results, had come within striking distance of a two-thirds supermajority in the state House.
In some cases, Abrams stood her ground against newly elected Republican Gov. Nathan Deal. She helped torpedo Deal’s proposed application of the state’s sales tax to groceries, which she regarded as regressive. And she is insisting that any legislation legalizing casino gaming in the state set aside one-third of future tax revenue from the industry toward need-based education aid.
But some Democrats have criticized Abrams for collaborating with Deal and the Republican majority. The main example they point to is 2011 legislation reducing the Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally, or HOPE, college scholarship program.
HOPE was created in 1993 to grant full scholarships to public four-year colleges for any Georgia high school student who had a B average (3.0 grade point average) or higher and kept it in that range during college. Funded by revenue from the state lottery, HOPE was initially for students from families with incomes below $66,000, but that income cap was raised and then eliminated entirely in 1995. The program also provided full-ride scholarships to students at Georgia’s vocational schools, or “technical colleges,” regardless of their grades.
HOPE, a project of former Democratic Gov. Zell Miller, remains a point of pride for Georgia Democrats, who regard it as the greatest progressive achievement in the state in decades. Thanks to HOPE, Georgia was at the forefront of higher education access, providing a welcome contrast to the state’s generally more conservative fiscal policies.
When Deal was elected in 2010, however, the program faced a major funding shortfall as lottery revenue failed to keep up with scholarship expenses. Deal and the Republicans proposed dramatically raising the merit threshold in order to shore up the program’s finances. High school students would need an A- average (3.7 grade point average) and have to do well on the SAT or ACT aptitude exams to qualify.
The new test score requirements were a particular sticking point with education advocates who argue that bright, ambitious students from less privileged socioeconomic or racial backgrounds typically do worse on the exams than their more privileged peers.
Abrams says she tried to negotiate with Republicans over the proposal out of fear that their legislation would be worse without her input.
“What we should have from our leaders are people who are willing to vision for what we want but also work to get what we need.”
The final bill, which passed in March 2011, created a two-tiered system in which high school students with a 3.7 GPA and 1200 SAT score would be eligible for a full ride. A second category of B-average students would receive more modest assistance. It also created a 3.0 GPA requirement for technical colleges and tied the size of assistance to fluctuating lottery revenues.
Abrams not only voted for the bill, delivering much of her caucus along with her, she also famously appeared at Deal’s side for the bill signing, lending the legislation bipartisan credibility.
The fallout from the bill was devastating, drastically reducing the number of students who received assistance and the size of the awards they received.
The legislation had a particularly severe impact on low-income students at Georgia’s technical colleges. From 2010 to 2012, the first full year the cuts were in effect, the vocational schools experienced a 20 percent drop in enrollment. Students who were no longer eligible for a full scholarship simply gave up on attending, according to members of Evans’ staff, who spoke to school administrators across the state.
But according to Abrams and her allies, her willingness to bargain over the legislation allowed them to protect preschool funding, which was also on the chopping block, as well as funding for remedial courses used to prepare for the technical colleges. Thanks to Abrams’ maneuvering, they say, the bill also created new low-interest loans for students disadvantaged by the new legislation.
“You have to work for the long-term movement,” said Williams. “I saw Stacey fight for HOPE like few people have, for the good of folks who most need it.”
“I don’t feel that there was any compromise in that bill that was worth the Democratic votes.”
Evans, the only HOPE scholar in the legislature at that time, was one of many House Democrats to vote against the bill. She spoke out passionately against it on the House floor, noting that she would not have qualified for the scholarship under the new rules because she did not break 1200 on the SAT. Her proposed alternative was a bill that would have restored the program’s income cap.
“We have a duty to the little girls growing up in Ringgold, Georgia, just like me. It’s not just inner-city kids that are poor. It’s rural kids,” Evans said in her floor speech. “And we deserve to make up for the fact that they are going to be treated differently.”
The legislature restored some of the scholarship funding affected by the 2011 cuts in 2014, passing a compromise version of a bill originally introduced by Evans that eased eligibility requirements for technical college assistance, among other changes.
But the 2011 legislation has emerged as a major point of contention in next year’s gubernatorial primary. And as The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani explained, the debate over HOPE goes beyond arguments about the program’s merits. For one thing, Abrams has embraced Evans’ legislation to restore free tuition for technical colleges, a feature of the original HOPE scholarship.
The fight over HOPE instead reflects a difference in approaches to governing. Abrams consistently favored compromise with the reigning Republicans, while Evans and others have argued that on some issues, bargaining with the GOP is simply not worth it.
“What we should have from our leaders are people who are willing to vision for what we want but also work to get what we need,” Abrams said.
She decried those willing to score a “pyrrhic victory” by refusing to work toward a compromise that could limit the damage of Republican policies. “Real people are the victims in this, and real people’s lives are impacted,” she added.
Evans is skeptical of what exactly Democrats gained in deciding to play ball with Republicans over HOPE. “The Republicans didn’t need Democratic votes to pass the legislation, and I don’t feel that there was any compromise in that bill that was worth the Democratic votes,” Evans told HuffPost.
Abrams’ critics also cite her vote in favor of a 2011 Republican bill that reduced early voting in the state from 45 days to 21 days ahead of an election, which Evans voted against.
Republicans had wanted to further reduce the early voting period, Abrams told HuffPost in a statement, adding that she is “proud of our work to preserve” three weeks of early voting.
But Abrams’ detractors are cynical about her motives. “She has [seen] her electoral interests for higher office tied to power-brokering with the far-right regime that controls our state,” Speight said.
Others say Abrams has been reluctant to take up progressive issues. Jones said that when she was a state representative, she had asked Abrams to initiate a push to remove the Confederate battle flag from all state institutions following the June 2015 massacre at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, but Abrams refused.
“I don’t think she would be any less, or any more of a champion of black issues than Stacey Evans would,” said Jones, who served as state presidential campaign director for Sanders during the 2016 primary.
Regarding the fight over the flag, Abrams said Democratic leaders deferred to the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, which had already taken up the issue. (Nothing ultimately came of it, even as Jones spoke out about the matter individually.) Abrams notes that she fought to install a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Capitol. When the statue is unveiled in the coming weeks, it will be the first sculpture of an African-American in the Capitol building, according to Abrams.
Even the New Georgia Project, the source of Abrams’ national prominence, has been the subject of scrutiny. Some Democrats were skeptical of how the group used $3.6 million in funds raised for its 2014 voter registration drive. When the organization released its financial records in February 2016, it emerged that Abrams had paid herself $177,500 for part-time work as CEO, a sum that seemed to confirm some of those concerns.
“I am deeply proud of the work the New Georgia Project has done to register more than 200,000 voters of color in the state, and its role in successful legal action to dismantle voter suppression including stopping precinct closures, unlawful interrogation of voters and illegal cancellation of more than 33,000 eligible voters,” Abrams said in a statement about her work with the organization.
Local Progressives Versus National Progressives?
Unlike some of the contests that have stoked Democratic excitement ― and infighting ― since the November election, it is difficult to frame the Abrams-Evans race as a proxy battle between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Sanders. Both Abrams and Evans backed Clinton in the primary.
Jones, a self-described “Bernie bro,” is in Evans’ camp, but Our Revolution President Nina Turner, Marcus Ferrell, the Sanders campaign’s black outreach program director, and Georgia-based activist Danny Glover, who ran outreach for Sanders at historically black colleges and universities, are all backing Abrams. (Georgia Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort, who has Sanders’ blessing for his Atlanta mayoral bid, has not endorsed in the race and declined to comment for this story.)
Evans is picking up her fair share of high-profile backers as well. Roy Barnes, the last Democrat to occupy the Georgia governor’s mansion, recently endorsed Evans, as did Paul Begala, a national Democratic strategist who worked on Zell Miller’s successful 1990 gubernatorial campaign, fellow Democratic House Reps. Ronnie Mabra and Dar’Shun Kendrick, and DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston.
On Thursday, Evans met with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, an old Abrams rival who gushed that Evans had a “very powerful message.”
For liberal activists looking to pick sides, however, it is not clear that Evans is a universally more progressive candidate than Abrams. Both support a $15 minimum wage, though neither has laid out a timeline for its implementation or plans to campaign on it in interviews with HuffPost. Evans promised only to work on boosting state employees’ pay first, as a jumping-off point.
Evans and Abrams both want to expand Medicaid. Abrams, however, considers the move a “starting point” on the path toward “the availability of single payer” health insurance, and Evans has made no such remarks.
Further, while the Georgia Federation of Teachers has lashed out at Abrams for failing to prevent 11 Democrats from voting for a bill that put a constitutional amendment on the state ballot granting the governor greater authority to close struggling schools, Evans was one of the 11 who voted for it.
Both candidates are running on expanding economic opportunity, even if they speak about it in different ways.
“I’m running to bring back hope to all Georgia families,” Evans told HuffPost. “Not just HOPE as a scholarship program ― though that’s part of it ― but also hope that if you work hard, you can get a good-paying job; hope that we all have an equal opportunity to have access to quality health care; hope that our kids will have access to quality pre-K … and hope that we’re all created equal and that our government will not allow us to be treated otherwise, whether that’s in the streets, whether that’s in a courtroom, whether that’s in a bakery shop, whether that’s in employment.”
What rankles Evans and some Abrams critics is what they see as national progressives’ rush to embrace Abrams without scrutinizing her reputation in the state.
“I would advise anyone who wants to make an early endorsement in this race to keep their powder dry, just because I don’t think they have an accurate assessment of the political landscape in Georgia right now,” said the black Democrat who is critical of Abrams.
Mondale Robinson, Democracy for America’s electoral campaign manager, vehemently defended the organization’s decision to get behind Abrams at such an early stage, calling her the “most progressive candidate up and down the ballot.”
He noted that DFA surveyed its Georgia-based members before making the endorsement and ― based on her support for criminal justice reform, workers’ rights and single-payer health care ― Abrams was the favorite. The group plans to mobilize its members on behalf of Abrams and eventually invest money in the race.
Turner, a former Ohio state senator, said she was impressed with Abrams’ work registering voters with the New Georgia Project and is sympathetic to the dilemmas of legislating under a Republican majority.
“She led an effort to make something that was bad, less bad,” Turner said. “Anybody who’s been in the legislature like myself understands that.”
This article has been updated with a quote from Eric Robertson.