Rare is the politician who will say “I don’t know” about something and mean it, including her own future. That is one reason why I despise the question, “Are you running?” It generally wastes the time of journalists everywhere; candidates rarely say “yes,” even if they secretly intend to launch a campaign later on, with the proper pomp and circumstance.
So when former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and I shared the Wilshire Ebell Theatre stage on Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, invited by the nonprofit Writers Bloc Presents to discuss her memoir, Lead From the Outside, I (initially) steered away from asking Abrams about what’s next. Attorney General William Barr’s four-page summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report on Russian meddling came out a few hours before we spoke. Barr’s letter left President Trump claiming “total exoneration,” but what did Abrams think?
“I tend to think it’s like having your brother summarize your report card to your parents,” Abrams said. “We should be deeply suspicious, especially since he had 12 tardies and at least three times ditching class.”
The Yale Law graduate then put her litigator hat on. “In a more legalistic and political frame, it is deeply inappropriate for someone who is an avowed partisan, who in part auditioned for the job by disparaging the report, to be responsible for summarizing the report,” Abrams said. And as someone who has a recent experience of having the referee being in charge of the scorekeeping and being the contestant, I am always suspect of a process that does not have independence and transparency. And I think we should demand that we get to see the report, in full, no redactions and no questions.”
Abrams was speaking of her run for Georgia governor last year against Brian Kemp, a Republican with a history (and reported present) of voter suppression tactics. Kemp kept his job as Georgia Secretary of State, overseeing the state’s elections, while he was campaigning for the governor’s mansion. Since she came up short last November, Democratic voters and party officials have hyped Abrams, deservedly, as a potential candidate for higher office — including the White House.
I resisted asking Abrams that question, but she managed to answer it anyway. “I am thinking about it,” she voluntarily admitted, as she has before. When asked about being Joe Biden’s running mate, however, her answer was new.
“We talked about the presidency and what it means,” Abrams said of her recent lunch with Biden. “We talked about whether I was thinking about running. We talked about whether he was thinking about running. But we did not have that conversation. And everything else is pure speculation, made up by somebody else.”
Abrams has a new legal organization, Fair Fight Action, that is currently in the midst of a massive lawsuit seeking to overhaul Georgia’s entire voting system, which she argues discriminates against voters of color. But what other jobs might she like? Star Trek captain, perhaps? (Yes, Abrams said. Jean-Luc Picard was her favorite—though she agreed with me that Kathryn Janeway had the most difficult job.) Doctor in Doctor Who? (She went with the actor Tom Baker as the “quintessential” one.) How about U.S. senator?
“I will make sure Senator [Chuck] Schumer sends you all your checks,” Abrams told the applauding audience with a wry smile. She reportedly met last Friday with the Senate Minority Leader regarding the possibility of challenging first-term Republican David Perdue in 2020.
The senate “was never the place I wanted to be,” Abrams said. “I’ve really had to readjust my thinking in recent months, and I am torn. I’m not being coy when I say I don’t know what I’m going to do. When you’ve spent more than a decade planning for one job, it is a difficult thing to readjust your sights. But more importantly, I think you have to do a job because it’s the job you want,” she added. “Not because it’s a stepping stone to another job. Not because people are asking you to do it. Because, if you’re only doing it to satisfy someone else, you will not do it well. And, it cannot be because it’s open. This work is too hard.”
The job Abrams truly wanted, of course, was governor. So much of the talk about Abrams since her asterisked loss to Kemp has been about her bright future leading the Democratic party. Having registered thousands of voters both in her campaign and with her New Georgia Project, Abrams showed how to build a multiracial coalition in the South — and she did this as a black woman.
Some feel the 2018 race was “stolen” from Abrams. While she didn’t fully indulge that rhetoric in our conversation, she spared no contempt for Kemp and his actions that are now under Congressional investigation, telling the audience that her opponent had a record of harassing minority individuals and organizations that have registered voters of color.
“Sometimes you just wanna throat-punch somebody — you’re just mad,” Abrams said of the aftermath of her election loss. “What I tried to do starting with the non-concession speech [on November 16th], was create space for every single person who cast a ballot, and more importantly for those who were dissuaded or stopped, or whose votes were cast out, to create opportunity for them to come back and do it again. And that, to me, is real leadership, creating space for others, even if you can’t occupy that space yourself.”
Providing a physical example for others in the political space, particularly as a black woman, has so much meaning to Abrams that it can provoke not merely anger for lost opportunity, but fear for when opportunities arise. Such was the case when she delivered the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address earlier this year. Did she have any fear that night?
“Oh, God, yes,” Abrams said. “I was also called upon to do this in a moment when we had just gone through the longest shutdown in our nation’s history. Where real people had their lives emptied out by the hubris of the person who was supposed to be protecting them.” Abrams said she tried “to be a voice for all of that angst, but also a voice for potential for good, it was hard. But there was also an existential fear. There was fear of screwing up, there was fear of leaving someone out — but most importantly there was fear of failing and being the last black woman asked to do this. Being the last private citizen called up, and being an American who did not do the job in a moment where America really needed someone to do a good job.”
I can understand why someone who had just endured what Abrams had wouldn’t want to immediately subject herself to a 2020 campaign. For that matter, why would she want to be president?
“The reason I want to be part of the conversation about running for president is that too many people dismiss the idea,” she said. “This is not to cast aspersions on anyone else, but with an identical set of skills and identical set of experiences, to be discounted because I don’t look the way we think you need to look, or I’m not from a space where we think I should be from, and that is the only determinant that differs between whether I am lifted up as a candidate or not. That’s wrong.
“Now, whether I run this time or run in the future,” Abrams continued, “I believe we need leaders who actually want to lead everyone. I believe we have to have leaders who care about foreign policy and domestic policy, but who care about the least of these, who care about poverty, who understand that climate change is real, that my body is mine, that gun safety does not diminish the Second Amendment, and that has to be someone willing to have that conversation in Montana and in Mississippi and in Michigan as well as on Manhattan Beach. You’ve got to be willing to have that conversation everywhere.
“And so I don’t know whether this is the moment for me, and that’s what I’m going to think about. But I think I am more than capable of leading a country that is contained of so many good people who want what’s right. I’m a good leader, I’m a good executive, I’ve been outside the U.S. a few times, and I’ve done a little bit of foreign policy. But most importantly, I’m smart enough to be in charge of this country.”
This story has been updated to reflect that the actor Tom Baker is alive, not deceased. We regret the error.