The Body Politic: Rebecca Traister
New York magazine|November 23 - December 6, 2020
Stacey Abrams on Finishing the Job in Georgia “It can be undone just as quickly as we did it.”

IN THE MATH-ADDLED HOURS after the polls closed on Election Day, as the New York Times’ needle tipped delicately toward blue in Georgia, the nation’s attention followed, homing in on one of its most transformative political figures: Stacey Abrams.

Abrams—who served as minority leader in Georgia’s house of representatives for seven years before running for governor in 2018, losing narrowly to then–Secretary of State Brian Kemp in one of the most flagrantly voter-suppressed elections in recent memory—has been working to turn her state from red to blue for more than a decade. Now that her promise has (this time at least) been made manifest, many people in the Democratic Party are looking to Abrams as a kind of silver bullet: a figure who can be installed—in the Cabinet or as head of the DNC—to perform her magic across the nation.

In the flood of post-election analysis of muddied results and still-emerging data, diagnoses can seem easy or obvious. But real life, real states, and real political organizing don’t always lend themselves to short, simple explanations. What’s been missing from much of the adulation of Abrams is a recognition of how much work—by so many people, from so many angles, over so many years—has undergirded her efforts in Georgia.

Abrams has among the most detail-oriented, forward-looking, compulsively organized brains in politics, and I wanted to hear directly from the woman whose capacious vision sets her apart from so many currently telling the story of politics and power in America. While officials were performing a recount by hand—one that would affirm that for the first time in almost three decades, the state had gone for the Democratic presidential candidate—Abrams and I sat down for almost an hour, speaking by Zoom from the home she’d just moved into during Election Week. She described the past ten years of organizing in Georgia and told me what she thinks needs to happen, there and across the country, in the years to come … and in the weeks to come. Both Senate races in the state will have runoffs on January 5, and while all eyes are on Georgia, Abrams advises that bodies not follow. “We love all the energy, but remote is better,” she said firmly of anyone coming down to lend a hand. “covid is surging in Georgia, and we want to win our politics, but we need to protect people’s lives.”

Abrams became minority leader in 2010, just as the state’s Democrats had, in her words, “lost everything.” Republicans were in control of every statewide office, but Abrams saw a path forward for her party, one that accounted for Georgia’s fast-changing demographics: From 2000 to 2010, it had seen enormous growth in Latino and Asian Pacific Islander populations, and Black families that had previously migrated to the Midwest were beginning to relocate to the South.

There were groups on the ground already doing outreach to those communities; Abrams cited Helen Butler at the Coalition for the People’s Agenda, the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, and advocate Helen Kim Ho, who was focusing on Georgia’s exploding Asian population. “But the funding was small,” she said. “And you didn’t have an infrastructure that connected all of these pieces.”

Abrams has rarely met with a problem she could not format in PowerPoint. She made her first spreadsheet as a Spelman undergraduate nursing a broken heart, mapping out her professional ambitions for the next 40 years. And so, as minority leader, she put together a 21-page document detailing the challenges her party faced and “what we’d need to do to claw back power by 2020.” She brought that plan to party caucus meetings and showed it to donors. “Please pay attention to Georgia,” she told them. “We are not the South that you remember.” Most people didn’t heed her call, she told me, “but a few folks did.”

Those who were willing to listen heard Abrams walk them, step-by-step, through the kind of strategic changes she believed could break the conservatives’ grip on her state’s politics. Instead of playing by the old rules, which encouraged Democrats to focus exclusively on communities of established voters, Abrams felt certain that a new generation of Georgian progressives had to reach further, toward communities that had been less reliable in part because they’d never gotten much engagement or had attention paid to their concerns.

Abrams’s efforts to grow and diversify the state’s electorate—seeking out new Asian and Latino communities and unregistered, long-neglected Black and brown voters in the state’s rural regions, all while continuing to make inroads with white voters—were made possible by money she began raising from donors around the country in 2011.

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