On a balmy evening in early January, a young, diverse crowd gathered in a restaurant courtyard in Duluth, Ga., a majority white suburb of Atlanta. They were there to hear from candidate Stacey Abrams, who aims to become Georgia’s first black and first female governor.

It was a Young Democrats meeting, and a few of the 40-or-so attendees were as young as high schoolers — although many adults were scattered throughout the courtyard. The audience greeted Abrams, who was Democratic leader of the Georgia House of Representatives until last August, with hearty applause and palpable excitement when she arrived. And she loved them back, emphasizing the importance she places on the support and work of the young political activists in the room. 

Stacey Abrams speaks to Young Democrats in Duluth, Ga.
Stacey Abrams speaks to Young Democrats in Duluth, Ga.

Young people are an attractive voter group for Democrats in large part because they are more liberal than older generations. And Abrams will need all the liberal votes she can get to win in historically red Georgia, where Republicans have a “trifecta” of control over the governor’s seat and both state legislative chambers.

“Young Dems, you will change Georgia this year,” she declared. “We are running in 2018, because we know that the transformation of our state, that the transformation of our nation begins with us, begins with young people standing up and saying, ‘Enough!’”

Abrams’ strong advocacy for young people in politics is rooted, undoubtedly, in her personal history. She began her political career at the age of 19, while a student at Spelman College, working in the youth services department in the office of Atlanta’s then-mayor, Maynard Jackson. She was allowed high-level participation in that position — she described “sitting in meetings with the CEO of Coca-Cola and the mayor of Atlanta talking about how we should tackle issues.”

That experience showed Abrams not only that young people are capable of being a part of major decisions, but bring a crucial and invaluable lens to a wide wage of issues, from city violence to environmental policies. After all, the decisions being made deeply affect the futures of young Georgians. Even those who aren’t old enough to vote yet “are certainly old enough to advise,” Abrams said. “They should have authority over how that happens and agency to believe that they should be active participants from the beginning.”

Abrams promised the crowd that, if she is elected governor, she will create commissions that include young people as “active and viable participants” in policy and political discussions. She already employs high school interns on her campaign.

In a one-on-one interview after the meeting, Abrams said winning the support of young people is vital to her campaign because they represent the future of the state. To reach that demographic, her campaign relies heavily on technology, including three main apps that her campaign uses consistently: Hustle, a mass texting app; Organizer, for mobile canvassing; and Hubdialer, for phone banking. Social media, of course, is another tool the Abrams campaign uses to stay in touch with the younger contingent.

Progressive Proposals, Political Skills

In her talk, Abrams laid out “unapologetically and authentically progressive” proposals to address some of the issues plaguing young people in Georgia, including the student loan crisis, the state’s public education system, the “Me Too” movement and the lack of effective public transit and challenge of affordable healthcare.

As governor, she would work to instate science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM) programs in every public school system, make scholarships for public colleges more need-based, greatly expand the public transit system, and uphold the Affordable Care Act, she said.

As for the “Me Too” movement, Abrams said she feels “deeply gratified by the unity that I have seen among women to again own their agency and demand better action.” She believes “there is something karmic about what is happening today.” Should she take the reigns of leadership in Georgia, she promised to continue the crusade against sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

As is the case at every Stacey Abrams event, the unavoidable challenge of being a black woman running for governor of Georgia, a state that has only ever elected white men to that position, loomed over the meeting. At one point, Abrams, herself, noted that she’s a stark contrast from the typical Georgia gubernatorial candidate. “You may have heard that I’m not quite like the other candidates running… I’m a little taller,” she quipped.

Explaining how exactly she plans to overcome that hurdle, Abrams displayed confidence in her abilities, qualifications and strategies. “How do you do something that no one has done before?” she asked. “Part of it is, I’ve done it before!” she said, reminding the audience that she was the first woman to ever lead a political party in the history of Georgia and the first person of color to lead in the Georgia House.

But what will be equally important, she said, is her ability to reach across the aisle and negotiate — a crucial skill to possess in a red state like Georgia. With all of the skills in her arsenal, Abrams looks toward the future election with fortitude. She says of Georgia voters, “Yes, they will see my race and they will see my gender, but they will also see that I am the candidate who has a plan that will make their lives better.”

This story is part of Running Women, a project looking at women-led organizations working to elect more American women to office and following 15 of their most compelling 2018 candidates.