The candidate for Georgia governor wants voters and the media to focus more on her business and political cred than her race or gender.
Since she announced her candidacy, Stacey Abrams has been making headlines because if she wins the race for the Georgia governorship in 2018, she will become the first Black woman governor in United States history.
That’s a big deal.
For an experienced leader like Abrams, it’s also a natural next step. She’s been the minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives for a decade, the first African-American to lead in the House and the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly. She was the Deputy City Attorney for the city of Atlanta and ran several businesses.
Before that, she won a fiercely competitive federal Harry S. Truman Scholarship and attended Spelman College, where she graduated with honors; earned a master’s degree at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and earned her law degree from Yale University.
What seems like a historic victory in the making is just that—a campaign that is built on considerable, measurable time and experience—and that’s worth as much respect as the historic nature of Abrams’ campaign.
In the midst of campaigning, she also has a new book coming out in April 2018, Minority Leader, about how women and people of color lead when they’re not expected to.
We recently spoke about the diversity of Georgia, leading with faith, and why she wishes more people would focus on her past accomplishments and resume rather than the color barrier-breaking, glass ceiling-smasher she is poised to become.
What do non-Georgians get wrong about your state?
They misunderstand our dynamism, our racial and economic demography. Georgia is a state near parity between people who are White and people of color. Fifty-three percent of our population is non-Hispanic White, and 47 percent is people of color. That is an important dynamic!
If you ask most people, they think of Atlanta, and they see it as majority Black city, or they think of our state as the south, which they see through the filter of their most recently viewed southern movie. Our state has a strong African-American population, and our Latino population is growing. We have a White population that has to work in concert with communities of color. The challenge is how people miss our uniquely southern diversity here, that dynamism of Georgia.
It’s hard to understand the diversity of Georgia if you don’t understand the size. We have 10.5 million people! Because people are not aware of our state’s racial diversity and size, they can be surprised by the idea of an African-American woman becoming governor. I think one mischaracterization is that as an African-American woman, I must only be able to engage people who look like me, which is deeply offensive. We have to acknowledge race and gender—it’s disingenuous to ignore either—but it is problematic if we then constrain expectations because of those issues. I’m Southern and Georgian, and I possess a broad capacity to speak to a wide constituency.
What are some of the most pressing issues for Georgians that you also see reflected nationally?
There are core issues we focus on in this campaign that impact every county and city in Georgia, the same as they impact the country.
The first is education—making certain that we’re educating from cradle to career and thinking about not just adequacy but excellence in education, and what supports we need to provide to build that base and foundation.
We also focus on supporting a thriving and diverse economy, which plays out in issues such as income inequality, especially as it pertains to low-wage workers, and how income stagnation writ large impacts communities and their ability to thrive.
The other thing we’re addressing is the impact of electoral politics and partisan rancor, and the question of whether government is an effective tool for the delivery of services and protection of rights. On the national level, there is this constant, daily conversation about how and whether government is effective. But Georgia is at the forefront of a lot of national issues, from expanding access to Medicaid to voter suppression.
It’s an interesting thing to have to make the case that government can perform its most basic functions. What else about this election cycle has most surprised you so far?
I am so emboldened by how excited people are. This gubernatorial race ends in late 2018, and we only started talking about it in June 2017 and already we have had tremendous events and lots of new social media friends. Even if some of them are Russian bots, they’re very nice. There is a real hunger and enthusiasm for what good government can look like, and how I can be a part of it.
Recently, I was at an event for airport workers, and they are fighting union battles. And I was surprised when one woman asked, “I know you’re here to talk about labor stuff, but can you talk to me about community?” She said this was stuff she didn’t think about a lot, but she has a very sophisticated analysis that I keep observing. The ownership I see people taking over government and their right to have an effective leader is extraordinary. It follows the horrific, terrible consequences of another election, but it has moved people who do not see themselves with agency and authority over how government and politics works to demand better.
You’re pretty open about how important your moral and ethical framework are to your campaign and your ability to govern. How do you imagine moral leaders can better steer the nation?
I do talk about this in my campaign, which is that my parents raised me and my siblings with three pillars. One pillar they gave me is a moral framework through which to make decisions and understand my larger community, not just my faith community but how we are all part of this Earth and that responsibility. My Christian faith teaches not to disparage other religions and faith, and according to the Bible, believers from other faith traditions experience no diminution in God’s eyes. Truly religious leadership should not be a justification for oppression but should function as a driver for good and for important causes. We have to think about how we leverage faith.
It would frustrate me to try to speak about the moral principles of faith in the midst of so much cacophony about pseudo-religious values happening in our political discourse right now.
It could be frustrating if you allow others to dictate what your faith means. Being Black and a woman, trying for a job no other black woman has had, and also as a Southerner, I can either let people tell me what I am, or I can show you who I am. I’m not going to let who I am and what I believe be hijacked by anyone else.
You’re a novelist under the pen name Selena Montgomery, as well as a businesswoman, lawyer and legislator. All of those jobs demand a lot of writing, and a high caliber of writing skill. How are those seemingly different types of writing related for you, and how do they inform one another?
When I first published, one reason I wrote my romantic suspense novels with a pseudonym is that I also had a piece coming out about the unrelated business income tax exemption. You know, slightly divergent topics.
These are divergent responsibilities and ways of thinking, but writing is the through line, no pun intended. My responsibility, whether in writing a treatise on tax policy or putting together a grant proposal for a nonprofit or branding a business, is the same. The basic skillset is that you have to get people to listen to you on paper, to attract and hold them all the way to the end. You have to be a storyteller and use clear and effective communication.
Speaking of communication, is there an especially important issue you don’t get to discuss often enough as you continue your campaign?
One reason I’m running is my level of experience and the work I’ve done. I don’t come with the goal of learning on job. For the job as CEO of the state of Georgia, I bring to this a serious level of expertise, with 10 years as a lawyer and 10 years as a businesswoman. I spent a decade as a legislator, leading my caucus, and I wish more attention were paid to my level of experience.
This is an important metric because women have trouble being elected to executive offices. Their credentials aren’t amplified and their campaigns become about personality or the issue of the day.
This is a job running a state, and I bring to it a level of expertise and proven experience that you don’t see very often. I’ve run a profit-and-loss account for a business, I’ve created jobs, I’ve won elections, and I have passed legislation.
Particularly as someone who is woman, a person of color, and thus a woman of color, I wish my street credentials received more attention. It better focuses voters, and ignoring these conversations is why we end up with elected leaders who don’t have the capacity to govern or lead.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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