How Stacey Abrams Is Transforming Southern Politics - Rolling Stone
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How Stacey Abrams Is Transforming Southern Politics

“I learned I can do this, we can do this,” says the Georgia Democrat. “We need to be thinking about what else do we want? What else can we have?”

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Stacey Abrams at home in Atlanta in January.

Dana Scruggs for Rolling Stone

After Election Day, Stacey Abrams briefly considered moving far away from Atlanta. “There was probably a 24-hour period, maybe 48 hours, where I was ready to move to a small island and become a writer full-time,” she says. As the author of eight romance novels, Abrams could have done just that. She claims to be “an introvert by nature,” though you wouldn’t know it from all the hands she held and homes she visited during her historic run — and disputed loss — for the Georgia governorship last year.

“I’m someone who typically, after a while, I just need to go sit by myself,” she says. But she knew pretty quickly her island escape wasn’t going to happen. “Instead of going off to lick my wounds, I doubled down,” she says. “I’m the first black woman to do what I have done, and that means my obligation to make sure other women of color, other people, believe they can try too — that lesson is going to be taught through my actions, and so I’ve gotta get to work.”

Abrams was the country’s first-ever black female nominee for governor, and the sheer audacity of her campaign was enough to make history. In a state where every previous governor has been a white man and where there hasn’t been a Democrat in that seat in 15 years, political wisdom — and the history of the South — should have dictated her candidacy was a no-go. That history proved to be alive and well in the form of her opponent, Republican Brian Kemp, who, as Georgia’s secretary of state, was in charge of overseeing his own election, and had purged more than 1.5 million voters from the rolls, among other voter-suppression trickery. Kemp eked out the election with just 50.2 percent of the vote. “I had a very difficult, very public ‘not win,’ ” Abrams says. “I don’t like to call it a loss, because I am not convinced of that, but I certainly did not win.”

Never has a “not win” so expanded the nation’s sense of what is politically possible. After a resounding primary victory, winning 153 out of 159 counties, Abrams went on to attract the highest voter turnout for a Democrat in Georgia history — 1.9 million votes — and helped gain 13 seats in the statehouse, potentially laying the blueprint for making Georgia a purple state. “I may not get to have this seat, but we transformed an electorate,” she says.

And she did it by being unapologetically herself, willing to talk about the “hard beginnings and middles of her life” — growing up in a poor but educated family in Mississippi, with a brother wrestling drug addiction, and then having the all-too-common experience of being saddled with debt in adulthood. “I ran the campaign I wanted to run, I talked about the issues I wanted to talk about,” she says. “There is a fearlessness that I stepped away from the campaign with.”

And with a proven legislative track record after 10 years in the Georgia House of Representatives and the grassroots coalition she built — registering hundreds of thousands of minority voters with the bold intention of actually making the state’s electorate reflect its population — there’s every reason to believe that, at 45, Abrams is just getting started. “I learned I can do this, we can do this,” she says. “We need to be thinking about what else do we want? What else can we have? I want to be part of that conversation.”

Abrams is more likely to be leading it. She was chosen to rebut Trump’s State of the Union in February, and pundits have floated her name for a presidential bid. She’s signaled interest in a 2020 run for the U.S. Senate or taking on Kemp again in 2022. Regardless of what her political future holds, she’ll be fighting for electoral reform, she says: “The horrendous disenfranchisement that we saw in Georgia cannot be allowed to be repeated.”

Right after the election, she launched the organization Fair Fight Georgia to combat voter suppression as well as amplify the progressive policies central to her platform: expansion of Medicaid, public education, criminal-justice reform. “Whether or not I’m in office, my responsibility is to advocate for the changes I believe are necessary,” she says. “I’m in a space where I have a pretty big megaphone, and I intend to use it.”

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