Editor’s Note: This interview is part of our Running Women project following 15 compelling women candidates in 2018.
Stacey Abrams is a vessel for the hopes of restless Democrats across the country eager to use the 2018 elections to oust Republicans and halt the Trump Train.
Not only is she a successful entrepreneur turned Georgia legislative leader with a reputation for working with Republicans, she is black, female and an “unapologetic progressive” who just might be able to turn this red state blue.
Abrams, at the leading edge of rising black female political activism, aims to end the Republican “trifecta” in Georgia — control over the governorship and both houses of the legislature. She would also make history as the first African American and first woman governor of Georgia — and the first African-American woman governor in the entire country.
We spoke with Abrams about her effort to assemble a winning coalition and the vital support she has received from Emily’s List, the storied champion for women in politics. We also learned how growing up in a working-poor family, being a serial entrepreneur and writing romantic suspense novels shaped her. Excerpts from our conversation, below, have been edited for length and clarity.
When did you decide to run for governor? What made you leave the legislature and go for it?
I really began planning to run for governor probably a little under a decade ago. My interest initially had been to one day run for mayor [of Atlanta]. But I realized that the challenges that interest me, the challenges that animate me, are statewide challenges and national questions that the state has to answer. Most particularly the question of poverty and prosperity. How do we move people from one to the other?
The real opportunity in 2018 is to harness both the energy that we see out there [and] the real ability to realize the Obama coalition that was started in ‘08 and has come to a real inflection point in 2018. We can build a coalition of voters across racial and age and regional demographics to really transform the politics of the state of Georgia.
It’s an open seat this year. Was that a factor?
Not really. I think you run for office when you are ready and when there is a path to victory.
What are the top issues for your campaign?
Our campaign is framed around three issues: educating bold and ambitious children, from cradle to career; building a thriving and diverse economy in every part of the state; and creating an engaged and responsive government that works for everyone.
The intersectionality of those pieces can’t be overstated. When I talk about building a thriving and diverse economy, part of that is having an effective government that agrees to expand Medicaid, because that will create thousands of jobs in Georgia. It will also make certain that communities have access to healthcare, which is one of the best ways to attract new businesses.
As someone who grew up in a family that was working poor, I understand how critical it is to have investment from the state to help lift you up. We didn’t have that. So, thinking about how do we not just fight for survival, but how do we fight for success for every family is the message that I’m leading with.
I know you’ve been a business owner. How would you help small businesses, and women entrepreneurs especially, to thrive?
I’ve started several companies, a few of which were consulting firms. My business partner and I — a woman that I’ve known for the last 15 years — we also started a manufacturing company. When we had an opportunity to sell our product to a massive grocery store, we couldn’t meet the order because we couldn’t get a loan to automate our equipment. Access to capital for women, for female entrepreneurs, is a critical pivot piece that determines success or failure.
The answer that my business partner and I had to that was to start a financial technology company that actually monetizes invoices for small businesses. We increase their cash flow by buying their invoices and ensuring that they have access to that capital that they know is coming. Our company is called NOWaccount. We’ve been able to help move hundreds of millions of dollars in cash flow to small businesses.
While I’m very proud of the private-sector work that my company does, what it has put into sharp relief for me is the necessity of the state to focus economic-development dollars on small businesses and on solving the challenges that face small businesses. Those are challenges that can be solved by an entrepreneurial governor.
It’s also about expanding the universe of opportunity. We’ve introduced an advanced energy jobs plan. In Georgia, we have access to the four main renewable energy sources: hydro, biomass, wind and solar. One of the pieces of our plan is how do we engage more women in those areas? As someone who was in manufacturing and faced some pushback, making certain that we’re expanding where women in disadvantaged communities are able to actually ply their trade and build their businesses is going to be a critical piece of what we do.
You’re running as a progressive, but you’re also known as somebody who is willing to negotiate with Republicans. When do you compromise, and when don’t you?
People need to know where I stand. Where are the places where no compromise is possible? On issues of reproductive choice, on issues of labor, when it comes to people being able to live their best lives, my principles are hard and fast.
But policy is often about the smaller choices in between. We have to figure out how do we achieve the most amount of good and the least amount of harm for the greatest number of people. I do that. I helped Republicans get the votes they needed for their transportation investment plan, but I also required that there was an investment in public transit.
What’s it like to carry the hopes of progressives nationally, who see in you the opportunity to flip a red state and also to make some history for women and African Americans?
It’s deeply humbling, and it’s energizing. I have the opportunity to bring to fruition that which I and so many others have worked for for so long. I get to do so in a way that is inclusive and that is grounded in values that I’ve always held to be true.
You’ve been endorsed by Emily’s List. How important has its support been to you?
Emily’s List has been instrumental in my growth and my progress. When I was first elected in 2006, Emily’s List was one of the first organizations to really reach out and help me with training. After I became minority leader in 2010, they were supportive of the efforts I had to win elections and raise money.
In 2014, I became [its] first Gabrielle Gifford’s Award winner. That Rising Star Award really helped to cement the national conversation about Georgia. From that moment, I had a different profile and was able to reach out to communities and to investors who normally would have looked askance at Georgia and thought, “Eh, maybe not.”
In this campaign, they’ve stood with me from the moment I announced. They’ve provided not only access to financial support, they’ve also been willing to provide introductions, provide advice and to just help build the narrative about why [victory] is not only possible, this is likely. We can get this done.
How important is the women’s vote for you? You launched a 1,000 Women Strong program — how that’s going?
Women will comprise almost 60 percent of the primary population. Typically, women are the largest block of voters in the general as well. So, women are critical.
1,000 Women Strong has more than 1,000 women lifting up my name and volunteering and investing and doing the work of pushing out this conversation [about issues that affect women]. We call it a people-powered campaign, and it’s certainly got women power way behind it.
You’ve broken a lot of barriers before in your career. How did you do it? How will you do it again?
You shouldn’t elect me because I’m a woman. You shouldn’t elect me because I’m a person of color. But to be able to navigate those challenges and to reach this position where I would be the first, it’s a signal that I am resilient, that I have been innovative, that I know how to be inclusive and how to listen to everyone.
I credit my family. I’m from a very large family and, once you have to negotiate dinner with five brothers and sisters, you learn how to have conversations and how to build real narrative. It’s even more important when you’ve all gotten in trouble and you’re trying to convince your parents that the punishment they’re about to give out could be modified.
The strengths that I have come from two extraordinary parents, who raised me to believe that our origins weren’t going to dictate our future, and that I could be whatever I wanted.
That sounds sometimes a little cliché. But when you live through it, when you’ve seen people who have your same profile struggle, it also creates a sense of responsibility. I am driven by a sense of gratitude. No matter how hard the institutional limit may be, I’m still in a place of privilege where I get to stand for office, I get to speak for others.
Also, as a woman, I’ve learned to be pretty fearless.
The primary is first up. How are you approaching the primary contest and that competition?
My focus is on winning. I am reaching out to communities of color and centering them in my conversation — not to the exclusion of anyone, but with the understanding that, to build a real coalition, you have to be able to have conversations across and about race, across and about gender issues, across and about communities that are typically marginalized. That is the core of my campaign.
I also am a proven leader with a resume that is unmatched in this primary. I was the leader of the House Democrats for 7 years. I am an entrepreneur. I am an attorney. I am a leader of a nonprofit organization. There is no metric upon which I have not demonstrated a superior capacity to lead.
I’m running as an unapologetic progressive, because I’ve got a record to back it up.
So my last question: Is there anything about being a romance novelist that helps you as a candidate?
Absolutely. Part of the reason I love writing romantic suspense novels is that I get to do different jobs. So, one of my novels is about an ethnobotanist and another was a barrister. Had one who’s a journalist. I get to write about places and things that may not be native to who I am, but it gave me insight into these different worlds.
But more than that, being able to write, being able to tell stories, means that you learn how to effectively communicate and hear the stories of others.
So, as a candidate, I genuinely enjoy hearing about the lives of those around me. Some of them may end up in a book one day, but the better part of it is I get to go into these different worlds and know that we’re all connected in ways that none of us expected.