Former Georgia Lawmaker Stacey Abrams is Laying the Groundwork for the White House

February 26, 2020by Francesca Chambers, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
Stacey Abrams gets a warm welcome to the Fair Fight phone bank event on Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta, Ga. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Stacey Abrams has her sights set on the White House, and the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives is already laying the groundwork for a future campaign.

Promotion of her Fair Fight organization, which has a goal of eliminating voter suppression, is taking Abrams to battleground states across the nation. She made appearances at events put on by state Democratic parties in Florida and Arizona in February, and she plans to travel to more states in the months ahead.

She says it is all about advocating for voting rights on behalf of the organization she founded after Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp barely defeated her in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial election. She says her effort to ensure all eligible Americans are able to cast ballots in 2020 and that everyone is counted in the once-a-decade census are her only immediate priorities.

But Abrams does want to run for public office again, including the White House, saying in an interview with McClatchy, “I will run for president when it’s appropriate, and I don’t know when that is.”

Between now and the 2024 presidential election much could change for Abrams, 46, and on the political landscape. She has been seen as a potential running mate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee for nearly as long as there has been a campaign. She has also signaled that she could challenge Kemp again for the governor’s mansion in 2022.

Abrams is outspoken about her aspiration to be vice president. She cited her experience as Georgia state minority leader, tax attorney and entrepreneur, as well as her travels to more than a dozen foreign countries for policy investigations.

“I believe I could be a very strong running mate,” she said.

When she was a state legislator, Abrams said she was “able to navigate some very thorny political issues and build coalitions within that chamber to both win victories for Democrats and to defeat Republican initiatives, and I think that can be a very valuable set of skills that I could bring to bear with the next Democratic president of the United States.”

She said none of the Democratic candidates have asked her directly to be on their ticket but declined to say whether she has been approached by any of the campaigns about a potential vice president spot. Abrams said she has been in contact with all the campaigns, mainly for conversations about Fair Fight, voter suppression and Georgia’s potential to be a swing state.

Abrams said she believes that Georgia and its 16 electoral votes could for the first time since 1992 go to a Democrat this year.

Democratic strategist Karen Finney, who was an adviser to Abrams gubernatorial campaign, said that before most of the 2020 presidential candidates entered the race, they consulted Abrams on how to maximize turnout among African American and infrequent voters.

Finney credited Abrams for increased African American voter turnout in Georgia, because of her “clear vision and strategy to talk to black voters a year before the election and really listen to what they were saying.”

“She’s very adept at talking about policy in pragmatic, practical terms,” Finney said. “She’s a gifted orator. It’s inspiring and uplifting, even the tough stuff, and people are hungry for that.”

Finney said Abrams is a zealous fundraiser, who doesn’t have to be prodded to call donors like some other candidates.

“I think she’s fantastic and will do and be anything and everything she puts her mind to and her weight behind and is a model for all of us,” said Kirsten Allen, a former presidential campaign aide to Kamala Harris.

Abrams, the first African American woman to become a gubernatorial nominee for a major party, is widely viewed as a leading contender for vice president. So is Harris, who is of Indian and Jamaican heritage. They would bring diversity to a ballot that is likely to have a white presidential nominee.

Harris at the time she entered the Democratic presidential competition in January 2019 was an immediate front-runner in the race. After a brief rise over the summer, when she assailed former Vice President Joe Biden for his position on busing black students to achieve school integration, her popularity fizzled out. She dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in December.

Abrams said “a universal issue” during this presidential competition was the “continued struggle that we have as a nation to give equal credence to women, to women of color and to people of color,” and it was one of the challenges Harris was unable to overcome.

“Those challenges included, I think, an uneven set of coverage that came from the media. I think there are different expectations of candidates when they are women, and when they are people of color, and when you are a woman of color, that is amplified in a fairly dramatic way,” she said.

She advocated for the elimination of the caucus system and a set primary schedule as a way to engage a more diverse set of voters.

“We should rotate the states, because the moment you decide that any set of states become the standard bearers, you once again concentrate those resources and power in communities that then start to rely on their first in the nation status and that diminishes other states and their ability to also have a voice in the process,” she said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Iowa, which holds the first caucuses, is 91% white. New Hampshire, which is next with the first primary, is a little more than 93% white.

Another problem is “an outsized focus on men as candidates and white men in particular, which is what happens in our current environment,” Abrams said.

“But that continues to change, part of what I want to be able to do, if I run, when I run, is learn from that,” she said.

Except for Former President Barack Obama, she noted that America has elected white men to the presidency. “We also, I think, reacted, I think, with fear to Hillary Clinton not becoming the first woman president.”

“White men are standard for who the president is,” she said. “We have to have a more expansive view of what leadership looks like.”

Ian Sams, a former spokesman for Harris and before that Hillary Clinton when she ran for president, told McClatchy that the challenge for black women running for higher office is that there is no existing frame of reference in which to put them.

“The scrutiny of black women is often unique and without parallel in politics,” he said. “Black women face barriers that all women have in politics, just taken to an even higher degree.”

Assessing the uphill climb that Abrams faces, he said, “Should she become the vice presidential nominee or should she decide to run for president herself one day, it will be met from massive resistance from forces that are seeking to prevent that progress.”

Abrams was already a national figure when she accepted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s invitation in 2019 to deliver the Democratic rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s annual State of the Union address. At that time, the New York Democrat hoped to recruit her to run for the U.S. Senate against a Republican incumbent.

Georgia is in the unique position of having two Senate seats on the ballot this year, after Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson resigned due to health problems. Abrams passed on running for either seat, saying she did not want the job.

She denied that it was a political move intended to keep her available for higher office. While the Senate is a respected body, she said: “An executive has the responsibility to actually build change. And that’s what I’ve done as a private citizen. When I see problems, I build organizations and institutions to address them. I’ve done so as an entrepreneur, I’ve done so as a nonprofit CEO. My siblings will tell you I did so as a kid.”

University of West Georgia political science department chairman Chapman Rackaway said the Senate may have provided a better springboard for Abrams’ national political ambitions.

“Political history is littered with a lot of folks who challenged at, say the state level, came close to winning in a state where the partisan members were against them, moved into the national frame and couldn’t go anywhere,” he said. “So it could be another situation much like Beto O’Rourke where in retrospect, you wonder if she’d be better off staying focused on Georgia races.”

Her work with Fair Fight will help her to build a donor list and a list of contacts she can leverage later on, he said.

“The issue of voter suppression is pretty secondary. It is that she is talking to people who are current and future superdelegates. She’s building a donor base that will help her make that presidential run at a later time.”

Even the Republican president has said he has high hopes for Abrams. When she lost to Kemp, he said in a tweet, “Stacey Abrams fought brilliantly and hard — she will have a terrific political future!”

Trump also provided a preview of how he might attack Abrams if she were one of his opponents during the election, deriding her as “unqualified” and calling her at a Macon rally “one of the most extreme far-left politicians in the entire country.” He said Abrams would “get rid of” the constitutional right to bear arms and push for a “socialist takeover of health care.”

“You put Stacey in there, and you’re gonna have Georgia turn into Venezuela,” Trump said.

At a November 2019 rally in Tupelo, Miss., he went after her again for saying that undocumented immigrants are part of a “blue wave” washing over Georgia.

“Stacey Abrams wants to give illegal aliens the right to vote. Do you believe this?” Trump asked.

Abrams has said she would not be opposed to non-citizens voting in municipal elections, but she has not directly pushed for them to be able to cast ballots. Her work since she ran for governor has primarily focused on voter registration, mobilization and protection, and other election reforms.

An old campaign website highlights her support for universal background checks, promotes fines instead of incarceration for personal marijuana possession, advocates for tuition-free technical college and pledges to expand Medicaid in Georgia

If being on the Democratic ticket as a candidate for vice president is not in her immediate future, Abrams could decide after this November’s presidential election to challenge Kemp in a rematch.

“It is entirely possible,” she said of a 2022 run for governor. “I believe that the executive role of governor is a critical one, not only for the state of Georgia, but for the South and for the nation, and I believe that state policy matters in a very significant way and changing the trajectory of our country and so that remains an open opportunity, yes.”


©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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