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Interviews National

Responsibility, Democracy, Identity: A Conversation with Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams (LAW ‘99) has been an important political figure in Georgia for years. She spent a decade serving first in the Georgia House of Representatives and then as minority leader. As the Democratic Party’s nominee in an historic race for governor in 2018, she was propelled to national significance, quickly becoming a political and civic leader unique in our time. Republican candidate and former secretary of state Brian Kemp won the race, but Abrams did not concede, due to evidence that the race—overseen by Kemp—was unfair. Abrams has since launched Fair Fight, a national organization to advocate for voting rights and against voter suppression; Fair Count, an organization that works to get Hard to Count communities accurately represented in the census; and The Southern Economic Advancement Project. These organizations are especially important in responding to the current COVID-19 crisis, which you can read about on her website. She delivered the 2019 Democratic Response to the State of the Union Address and is widely considered a potential running mate for presidential candidate Joe Biden. 

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The Politic: You speak of the voting rights work you do through the Fair Fight initiative as a “responsibility.” Where does your sense of responsibility come from?

Abrams: I am the daughter of two civil right activists who became involved in the movement as teenagers. By the time they were adults, the Voting Rights Act had passed; but they raised us to understand that laws are simply rules we’re supposed to abide by. We are responsible for holding our leaders accountable and helping our fellow citizens meet the moment, so my sense of obligation comes from that.

My father, who’s also a civil rights activist, was a lawyer in the unsuccessful Shelby County vs. Holder Supreme Court case that many feel undid fundamental aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that our country has changed, meaning that voters no longer need the protections against discrimination that were being challenged. Was he right? Have you seen influence from this decision since?

The majority opinion was flatly and plainly wrong. It abdicated responsibility for protecting the disenfranchised and those who are likely to be disenfranchised. More importantly, it helped fracture the machinery of government, because it basically gave license to those who would seek to suppress the vote the freedom to do so without worries that it would be stopped.

And since 2013, we have seen an acceleration of voter suppression activity. We’ve seen a diminution in the power of voters to actually make their choices and elect their leaders, and we have seen the consequences thereof. I have no doubt that voter suppression played a role in 2016—it wasn’t the only issue, but it was a key issue. I believe it played a role in my election in 2018. But what I’m most concerned about is that it plays a role in almost every election; because when you break the machinery of government, it is broken. Which means: whether it’s a school-board race or presidential race, if you are suppressing the vote, you don’t put in place certain voter suppression rules for an election, you put in place voter-suppression rules writ large, and they affect every election. And unfortunately, the ability to fight back has been muted by the Shelby decision.

This brings me to my next question, which has to do with disenfranchisement from the broken system: Reflecting on the state of our union and our continued fight for democracy, you have shared similar thoughts as my congressman, civil rights icon and co-author of the Voter Empowerment Act, Representative John Lewis (D-GA). He was beaten and jailed for standing up for the right to vote. 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 seems to have been signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson largely as a response to witnessing tremendous violence against civilians, perpetrated by the police. Today, when activists are thankfully not under the same threat of violence, what galvanizing methods do we have to convince disenfranchised voters to exercise their right and to compel the government to make legal change where that right is suppressed?

First we have to connect the dots between the right to vote and the lives we want to live. Too often we treat voting as an act that is the end in of itself—that it’s about picking a candidate. Voting isn’t about candidates. Voting is about people and the policies we want to see. We are hiring someone. And when you think about it as hiring as opposed to simply picking, you realize that you have the obligation to hold your employees accountable for actually delivering the outcomes you need. And so, what I want to see more of is that people understand the fundamental power to hire your leadership and to fire that leadership if they do not do what they should. 

I would say separately the reality is that there are two ways we can compel legal change. One is the lawsuit that Fair Fight has filed, that Marc Elias (a voting rights attorney) has filed on behalf of a number of organizations. We have a whole constellation of groups that have been doing their best to reach out and to hold leaders, hold politicians accountable through lawsuits.

But if we want fundamental power and a fundamental shift, we have to elect a new White House, we have to hold the House of Representatives, and we have to elect a majority of Democrats in the Senate, and here’s why: there are two bills, H.R.1 and H.R.4, which are the two democracy bills that can level the playing field for all voters. They will not pass as long as we have Republican leadership. If we pass it under Democrats, then the reality is people can make their choices—Democrat, Republican, or Independent—but know that the choices are actually within their power, because they are not today.

It’s interesting that you just said “Democrat, Republican, or Independent,” because Georgia is at the center of Fair Fight’s work across the nation, and Georgia especially has a history of restricting ballot access for third parties. Are third parties a good thing to you? Are they viable? Are they part of the fight for ballot access? Is a two-party system ideal?

I believe in third-party access. In fact, I recently wrote a book that will come out in June called Our Time is Now, and I talk about the fact that one of the ways to expand access to democracy is to make it easier for people to participate, not only as voters, but in the choice of candidates that they have. And I’ve sponsored legislation at the state level to increase the accessibility of the ballot in Georgia to third-parties.

I would say that as a nation, because we have the type of system we do, it is unlikely to sustain a multi-party system, unlike a parliamentary system. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And it doesn’t mean that the two parties we have today are the only two parties we can have and that these parties will exist forever. Because both of these parties are the progeny of other parties, and so we have to understand that while we have become used to the two-party system as it is structured, we need to always be open to as many voices as possible, so that the choices we make reflect the needs of the people.

There’s a lot of talk surrounding the idea of electability now as determinative of who should and should not run for government because of the upcoming presidential election, but it is not a new phenomenon. What does electability mean and what role should it play in who we vote for?

Electability is short-hand for “I don’t want to take a risk on something I haven’t seen.” And that’s a terrible way to make choices. If we only rely on what we know then we will likely only get what we’ve gotten. My belief is that you’re electable if you have the ability to win an election, but that means that elections have to actually be fair and allow that to happen. And so whether it’s race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, you name it, we have to create space to say that we don’t simply have to do what we’ve done, that we are a stronger, more vibrant nation when we allow you to come to the fold and when we challenge our preconceptions of what’s possible.

In your response to the State of the Union, the battle for our right to vote is at the heart of the joint commitment to the nation you speak of, which you say transcends hyper-partisanship. And, you stated that you don’t want the president to fail, despite your disappointment in his approach. Not all of your colleagues seem to share this conviction. In Georgia, your detractors have even suggested that you reach across the partisan aisle too much. Where does this attitude derive from on your part?

My fundamental belief is that people don’t care about your party. They care about their lives. And my obligation as someone who was elected to office is always to serve the people first. That means finding ways to work together where we can, opposing bad ideas where you should, and offering alternative ideas wherever possible, if they make more sense. That means that there are going to be moments of reaching across the aisle. There are going to be moments of bitter disagreement about policy, and there are going to be alternative ideas that may or may not find favor.

My approach has always been that no matter which party I’m operating with, I never engage in ad hominem attacks. My mission isn’t the personal destruction of anyone. It is the promotion of the best policies to serve the people that I seek to serve, whether elected at a national level or a state level. I wasn’t simply elected as an Atlanta city representative, I was elected as a Georgia state representative; and my job is to serve the people of Georgia, especially the most vulnerable, and that’s what I do. Or, did.

In an interview with CBS This Morning, you said, “my responsibility is to make sure I’m running for the right reasons and at the right time.” You also speak of a commitment to evolving the face of leadership. Is there anything that you do specifically to be the first black woman or woman doing it?

No. Every job I’ve ever tried for, I’ve tried to do the job because I wanted to do that job and thought I was the right person for the job.

But I think it is disingenuous to ignore both the racial and gender dimensions to who I am and what I do. You can see me—so it is impossible to presume that people are blind to what they see and even more naive to think they don’t tell themselves stories about what they see. And my approach to all parts of my life is to confront that with honesty and transparency—to say, “Yes, this is what you see, and: here’s why it matters.”

As a black woman in a space where no black women have been, I bring knowledge and behaviors and understanding and capacity that may not have been there before. And certainly, for people who see me and tell themselves stories about their own lives, they know that I’ve experienced things they’ve experienced, and that, even if I haven’t had their exact lives, I have the language to help think about how you navigate and understand what they need.

And so no, you don’t run for office because of the phenotypical, but you should never diminish how being different helps you understand and serve those who are also not normative, and everyone else. Typically when you lift up the least of these, you serve everyone. Cause if you’ve gotta reach that far down into where we position people, by lifting them up you are lifting everyone.

State Representative David Dreyer offered what might be the greatest compliment for an idealist entrenched in bureaucracy—that you get small bites accomplished legislatively while you’re also having a conversation with the larger issues. How do you accomplish what is most elusive to politicians? And are you satisfied with the work you’ve done?

I am pleased with what I was able to accomplish as Democratic Leader and as a state representative. I blocked the single largest tax increase in Georgia history, and I also helped Kinship Care families. These are people who are raising children who are not their own, to keep them out of the foster care system. And because of my work, for the first time in Georgia, these kids can go to school and can sign up for sports and go on field trips. These children who otherwise are completely left out of the system, because they weren’t technically in foster care, and the people who are raising them don’t always have guardianship. That seems like a small thing to some, but that’s transformative for thousands of children who otherwise would be pushed into a system where they could be lost. I was able to make headway on environmental issues, immigration issues, and sometimes it was simply stopping bad from happening; other times it was making good the better part of what was going on. 

And I am pleased and proud of it—but no, I’m not satisfied, because there is more to be done. And that’s why I am eager to serve now that I’m not in public office. I didn’t stop working; I created Fair Fight, Fair Count, Southern Economic Advancement Project, and I am more than open to the opportunity to serve in a larger role, because the work must continue until good is finally accomplished.

Do you feel that you get more done as an official politician or in advocacy work outside of politics?

You get different work done. When you are an advocate, when you are outside of the body politic, you can have influence, and you can help fix the system as much as possible. But when you are of the system, when you are responsible for delivery, then that’s a different set of skills. Part of what I’ve tried to do my entire adult life is understand how each of these facets operate, and to work in all of them. I’ve not only done that in the public sector; I’ve tried to do that in the private sector and the nonprofit sector. Each sector has a role to play, and we are most successful when we have leaders in all three facets who believe in the ultimate benefit, which is that everyone should have access to opportunity.

One of your organizations, Fair Count, is designed to make sure hard-to-count populations are included in the population. In my ethnicity, race, and migration class last semester, we read and discussed ways that the census has contributed historically to the further marginalization of and discrimination against vulnerable populations through systematic categorization. Given your efforts to get people counted, you clearly believe that the benefits outweigh the detriment. Can you talk about this?

Sure. We should get to a place where the identity questions are no longer relevant. But one of the services they play is that the allocation of federal funds is governed by existing legislation. And the existing legislation often uses the markers of race, ethnicity, and income to determine how much resources will be distributed to those communities. And so there’s a legitimate critique of that process. 

But until you can change the allocation system, the refusal to or the elimination of those markers means that the very communities that need to be helped will be further harmed. We often find that when things are done based on universal need as opposed to specific needs, that those who have the most specific needs get left out because it’s just easier to get it to the quickest place. And in our society, going to communities of color is not the fastest. 

And so, my belief is: until we change the overall system, we should make certain we are in full participation with the existing system to act as the recourse that we need, because this is a once a decade opportunity, and we can’t wait for a decade to be served. 

Now for a fun question: If there were a theme song to your life, what would it be or what would you like it to be?

I love Moana. The song I would pick is Know Who You Are, from the movie Moana, because it’s a song about how if you know who you are, you can figure everything else out.

And finally, if I know who you are, are you going to be the next Vice President?

That is up to Vice President Joe Biden and the people of America. If he asks me to run with him and folks elect us, then yes.