Stacey Abrams: the political strategist who won Georgia

Stacey Abrams: the political strategist who won Georgia


When Stacey Abrams was 18 years old, she spent a long night in a college computer lab, mapping out the next 40 years of her life.

Heartbroken after being dumped by her then-boyfriend, she channelled her energy into a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet of ambitious goals, according to her political memoir. By 24, she would write a bestselling spy novel. By 30, she would be a millionaire entrepreneur. By 35, she would be the mayor of Atlanta, Georgia.

Ms Abrams is now 47. She has been a state legislator but never mayor. She is a moderately successful author: eight romance novels, written under the pen name Selena Montgomery have sold more than 100,000 copies. But she has become one of the most influential unelected politicians in America, despite narrowly losing the 2018 race for governor of Georgia.

This week, she was widely heralded as the architect of the Democrats’ unexpected victories in both of Georgia’s US Senate runoff elections. They gave the party control of both houses of Congress and saw the state elect its first black senator in Raphael Warnock and first Jewish senator in Jon Ossoff.

Her efforts on voter registration and turnout in the state also made Joe Biden the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in almost three decades, defeating Donald Trump by less than 12,000 votes.

“Let’s hear it for Stacey Abrams. Nobody, nobody in America has done more for the right to vote than Stacey,” Mr Biden said at a campaign stop in Atlanta on the eve of Tuesday’s vote. “Stacey, you are changing Georgia. You have changed America.”

The second of six children, Ms Abrams was born in Wisconsin and grew up in Mississippi before her family relocated to the Atlanta suburbs when she was a teenager. She graduated at the top of her high school class, before attending Spelman College, a historically black women’s college. She went on to earn a masters degree in public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin, and a law degree from Yale.

She traces her interest in politics and social justice to the spring of 1992, when four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King, sparking outrage and riots.

In 2006, she ran for the Georgia state legislature, and within five years, she had become the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly, and the first black leader in its House of Representatives.

For the last decade, she has also focused on expanding voting access in Georgia and across the country. In 2014, one year after the US Supreme Court stripped back the protections in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination at the ballot box, she co-founded the New Georgia Project, a group aimed at registering younger voters and people of colour.

In 2018, she ran for governor but lost to Republican Brian Kemp by 55,000 votes in the state’s closest governor’s race in more than half a century. The race was marred by accusations that Mr Kemp, who was at the time Georgia’s secretary of state, had suppressed the votes of black citizens by removing them from voter rolls.

Ms Abrams ended her bid nearly two weeks after polling day, but refused to concede, saying: “The erosion of our democracy is not right.”

Critics have likened her failure to concede to Mr Trump’s unwillingness to accept the results of November’s elections. But Ms Abrams said this month the circumstances were “simply different . . . apples and bowling balls.”

“I pointed out that there were a series of actions taken that impeded the ability of voters to cast their ballots,” she said. “And in almost every one of those circumstances, the courts agreed, as did the state legislature.”

After losing the governor’s race, she set up Fair Fight Action to tackle voter suppression.

In September 2019, she and Fair Fight Action chief executive Lauren Groh-Wargo published a 16-page document called “The Abrams Playbook”, calling for large-scale investment of time and resources to get Democrats over the line in Georgia in 2020.

She disappointed many Democrats by refusing to run for the Senate in 2020, saying: “My responsibility is not simply to run because the job is available. I need to run because I want to do the job.”

Ms Abrams has shown no shortage of other political ambition. While she declined to join the crowded field of Democrats vying for the party’s presidential nomination, she predicted last January that she would be elected president by the year 2040.

She also told Elle magazine she “would be an excellent running mate” for Mr Biden and touted her credentials on talk shows and cable television. Instead, Mr Biden selected Kamala Harris.

Now Ms Abrams is being heralded as the future of the Democratic party. Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat who lost his Senate seat in November, said her work in Georgia should be a model for the party going forward.

In the meantime, Ms Abrams has a new book — a political thriller titled When Justice Sleeps — set for publication in May, and she is widely expected to run for governor in 2022, setting up a rematch with Mr Kemp that allies say she will win.

“We are already claiming her as our governor,” says LeWanna Heard-Tucker, chair of the Fulton county Democratic party in Atlanta. “This is going to be an easy slam dunk for her.”

lauren.fedor@ft.com



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