What the Democratic Party Can Learn From Stacey Abrams' Success in Georgia
Stacey Abrams may have just ushered in a new political era in Georgia, helping to secure 16 electoral votes for Joe Biden, but right now, all she is concerned about is finishing our Zoom before the AT&T guy knocks out her internet. In the middle of the most chaotic and consequential election in decades — one whose outcome her years of grinding work helped influence — Abrams also happens to be moving. Between unpacking boxes and scheduling internet installation, she is marshaling support for the double runoff election in Georgia that will decide control of the U.S. Senate, and answering questions about where Democrats in other states went wrong this past November.
In 2010, Georgia Democrats hadn’t won a race for statewide office in four years, or a presidential contest since 1992. But where others saw a lost cause, Abrams, then the newly elected minority leader in Georgia’s House of Representatives, saw potential in the vast numbers of unengaged voters. She put together a 21-slide Power-Point plotting how Democrats could reclaim power. Methodically, over the course of the next decade, she worked to implement that blueprint, helping to register and educate — and reregister, when they were purged from the voter rolls by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp — hundreds of thousands of voters in Georgia. A year ago, Fair Fight, the voting-rights organization Abrams founded, filed an emergency motion in court that stopped some 22,000 more voters from being purged. It’s just one example of her determination paying dividends: Biden won the state by 12,670 votes in 2020. “I’m nothing special,” Abrams tells me. “I just — I’m kind of relentless.”
Rolling Stone talked with Abrams about the upcoming Senate runoff races, the schism in the Democratic Party between progressives and moderates, and why Dems “should be very wary of overreading this victory in Georgia.”
What did it feel like on the Friday of election week, to finally see Georgia flip from red to blue in real time?
I wouldn’t say it was anticlimactic, but it was not unexpected. We kept a very careful and close eye on the numbers coming in, and by Tuesday night we had a pretty good sense that we were likely going to win. By the time it actually happened on Friday, it was more just a sense of relief: We thought we could do it. We knew we could do it. Oh, thank God, we did it.
What was different in 2020?
Republicans, when they took over the [Georgia] House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion, were very intentional about making vote-by-mail easier, because it was largely the province of older white voters. For years, Republicans beat us at vote-by-mail. And there was a great deal of suspicion about it from black and brown voters — including because, in 2010, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp arrested a group of black voters in south Georgia for using vote-by-mail. When I ran for governor in 2018, we were the first campaign that did a deep and wide investment in vote-by-mail: We sent [voters] applications, we made sure they returned those applications, and we harangued them to return those ballots. We, in 2018, dramatically increased their participation. [And] what happened in 2020 is that voters were not willing to risk their lives — especially black and brown voters. They were afraid of going and standing in long lines, because you have to remember, in [the primary in] June, we had eight-hour lines.
The other piece was that we, through Fair Fight [and] the Democratic Party, made it easier to vote by mail. In Georgia, if you were black or Latino, you were twice as likely to have your absentee ballot rejected. If you were young, it was three times more likely that your ballot would be rejected. Because of the consent decree that we were able to get enforced against the secretary of state, more of those ballots could be fixed — they could be “cured” so those votes would count.
President Trump is blaming his loss in Georgia on that consent decree, and you, personally, for helping to bring it about. What has it been like to be at the center of one of the president’s conspiracies?
There are a lot of people who are unhappy with me and my existence — it’s more acute at this moment than it has been for a while, but it’s not the first time. Donald Trump has spent his entire tenure trafficking in conspiracy theories. In this case, it’s actually true that the consent decree allowed eligible voters to have their votes counted.
How concerned are you about the political pressure that was put on some of local these election officials? One of my colleagues joked that we’re basically one Katherine Harris away from autocracy — do you agree with that?
I do. We were able to push back in really aggressive and visible ways against the intentional voter suppression that we saw in ’18 and ’16. But what we have done can be undone very quickly. It can be undone by a secretary of state who capitulates. It can also be undone by legislatures that come back in January, newly empowered and newly afraid of their populace. We can’t believe that this one moment has mitigated 240 years of voter suppression. It’s simply put into sharp relief what can happen when you tackle voter suppression. But it also gives the purveyors a reason to redouble their efforts.
Ten years ago, you put together a PowerPoint outlining how Democrats could regain power in Georgia by 2020. If you were putting that together today, looking toward 2030, what would it say?
Democrats have to be very wary of overreading this victory in Georgia, or the near-victories in other states. We can’t become complacent. Our responsibility is now to go in and figure out how we get that next 50,000, that next 100,000 voters to believe that it’s worth the effort. Because you’re not always going to have someone as polarizing as Donald Trump. You may have someone who has the same ethical and ideological posture — a Mike Pence — but [who] seems much more palatable. I would focus on that, and I would marry that to aggressive attempts to articulate and demonstrate what policies can look like. I’d love to be able to embed — not to bring people in, but to actually cultivate from within communities — folks whose only job is to talk about the connective tissue between policy and outcomes. [This] state does not have Medicaid expansion, and it is directly related to state legislative atrophy. Let’s make sure that you have a direct connection to your state legislator, to every vote they cast, and, in real time, whether they’re serving you or not. That’s an expensive endeavor, but I think with technology continuing to advance, there might be a way to do it.
There was a sense last year that the outside money that poured in to high-profile Senate races in other states didn’t help and, in some cases, might have actually backfired. How do Democrats spend smarter?
The investment has to be the air war, but also the ground game. The air war is critical because we have [Democratic] Senate candidates [Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock] who are challenging sitting senators [in a January 6th runoff election]. When you’re challenging incumbents, it is necessary for the challengers to raise their profiles in a dramatic way. We know, for example, that voters of color will skip a race rather than vote for someone they don’t know. That 100,000-vote margin, roughly, that we saw between Biden and Ossoff [in the 2020 general-election results] was not attributable wholly to ticket splitters. It’s more likely attributable to voters of color saying, “I don’t know enough about him so I’d rather not vote,” whereas Republicans and white voters in general tend to vote down the ticket. What we need to spend money on is making sure that people actually know why they’re voting for these two men.
Abrams speaks to supporters as they wait for former President Barack Obama to arrive and speak at a rally for Democratic presidential Joe Biden, at Turner Field in Atlanta, November 2020.
There is a schism in the Democratic Party right now, between figures who champion policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, Defund the Police, and figures who think the slogans associated with those policies are hurting Democrats in less-liberal areas. Where do you come down on that?
I think it’s a bit of a facile argument that we’re either going to be this kind of Democratic Party or that kind of Democratic Party. We need politicians who reflect the needs of their communities and can speak the language of those needs. I’m not going to tell anyone how they need to speak to their community, but by the same token, they need to understand that candidates have to be able to meet people where they are, and they have to be able to articulate it in a way that’s absorbed. If what you’re saying either has no resonance or, worse, has a repulsive effect, don’t say it to that person. But if it has the effect of bringing them in and engaging them — absolutely. We just have to be intentional about it, and stop expecting every single state in America to have the same vein of progressive values, which is not to say that we don’t all want progress, but some of us are trying to make progress from a lot further behind.
Some folks, like Sen. Doug Jones, have faulted the party for “lunging from candidate to candidate,” looking for “a shiny new penny,” instead of making consistent investments at the local level. What should Democrats be doing in Alabama or Texas or Florida to build the kind of trust that will pay dividends in two or four or seven years?
Investment in an organization or an ethos or an ideology requires constant tending. I always come back to my parents as ministers. Their job was not to simply have church on Sunday. In the days in between, they were out in the community reminding people why it was important to come to church on Sunday. We’ve got to have an engagement process that doesn’t just rely on elections every two years or every four years. The communication has to be incredibly regularized.
I don’t extrapolate from this election cycle what others do — that there’s some massive failure that requires a complete overhaul. It is an opportunity for us to learn, and to go after those who did not come out [and vote] for us this time and ask questions: “What happened? What can we do better?” I spent 10 years saying something could happen, knowing it wasn’t going to happen every single year, but my job was to try, and then evaluate and adjust. And that’s what we should always be doing.
Nate Cohn at The New York Times put out an analysis that found the black share of the electorate in Georgia falling to its lowest level since 2006. I’m curious what you made of that report, and if you thought it was accurate?
No. We’ve pushed back on it. It is wrong. Until 2013, because Georgia was under the Voting Rights Act, we always collected racial data. Since 2013, not only has that become optional, there are a lot of people who choose not to use it. In 2006, the percentage of voters who were “unknown” was one percent — this is during the VRA. Now, that number is about eight percent of the voter file, or a little under half a million people. The analysis from Nate Cohn blithely ignores that entire population. That’s one part. Second part is: Black voters, as an overall part of the electorate, will shrink infinitesimally because we’ve got more Latino voters who are participating, we’ve got more [Asian American and Pacific Islander] voters who are participating. He doesn’t account for the increase in other shares. We acknowledge that it may have decreased infinitesimally, but, basically, we think that instead of it going down by three points, as Nate says, it’s probably one point. But putting that number aside, what gets buried by the lead [is that] black voter participation increased by 20 percent over 2016.
You’re saying that while Black voters as a share of the electorate may have decreased as Georgia has become more diverse, Black voter participation has actually gone up compared to years past?
Exactly. Compared to 2016, 20 percent more black people voted [in 2020.] Asian American and Pacific Islander participation increased by 91 percent. Latino participation increased by 72 percent. White participation increased by 16 percent. So we know that participation levels are up. And what he’s arguing is the actual overall share of the vote for blacks is lower.
Are you concerned about the narrative that report created?
Well, The New York Times puts it out there and doesn’t offer clarification or contextualization. They’re comparing apples and oranges and people are seeing fruit salad and saying “Yay!” or “Terrible!” I believe it was an inaccurate and inexact way to describe something that’s very complex. And it has a chilling effect on those who need to understand how to think about voters of color in the electorate.
Josiah Rundles for Rolling Stone
What did you see Republicans do that was successful this year?
I think their marginal differentiation was their willingness to knock on doors. I think we made the right choice, which is to put the lives of people [above] a pursuit of power. For many of the weeks that Republicans were out door-knocking, it was a dangerous thing to do. We now have enough data that we know how to do it safely. But this notion that we were going to risk lives — especially given that a significant portion of our electorate has a disproportionate likelihood of contracting the disease and dying from the disease — that was a choice I’m proud that Democrats didn’t make. But I think that absolutely worked to [Republicans’] advantage.
You famously do not take vacations. What’s on your schedule come January 6th?
I’m going to take a really long nap, if nothing else. I founded three organizations in the wake of the 2018 election [Fair Count, Fair Fight, and the Southern Economic Advancement Project, or SEAP]. At SEAP, we are organizing now more than 200 groups and academics from across the South to build out a plan for what Covid recovery has to look like in the South. Those are going to be the three pieces of my life that I’m going to keep working on. I’m, of course, one day going to run for office again. I do not know what that is going to be. And I haven’t decided when.
You have a new novel, a legal thriller, When Justice Sleeps, coming out, about a Supreme Court justice falling into a coma. What inspired it?
It’s based on the fact that Article III of the Constitution says that you can only remove a Supreme Court justice for high crimes, misdemeanor, or death. If the swing vote on the Supreme Court fell into a coma, there’s nothing in the Constitution about it. What if you had this critical case and the swing vote wasn’t able to participate, and the consequences could change the direction of the nation? I finished it in 2010, but when I pitched it to people, the pushback I got was, one, that the president, as he’s described in the book, was involved in international intrigue — “Oh, no American president would get involved in international intrigue that could possibly undermine America.” No one would have off-the-record conversations with Russia, for example. And the second was that I was a tax attorney and a romance novelist, I wasn’t a legal-thriller writer. Well, you know, times have changed.
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