A collage of Stacy Abrams in front of a map of the United States. The US is black except for the state of Georgia, which is blue.

State of Disunion

Can Stacey Abrams Turn Her Debts Into An Asset?

The Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate could make history as the country’s first black female governor—if voters can get past the illusion of wealth as a reflection of merit.

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There are two female Democratic candidates named Stacey running in the May 22 primary for governor of Georgia. Whoever wins the right to be the Democratic candidate on the ballot in the general election, her election, if it happens, will make her the first female governor in Georgia’s history. Which is pretty exciting, either way. It would also be exciting because the last time a Democrat was elected governor of Georgia was 20 years ago. Georgia, while not as red as Alabama, is still red.

Stacey Abrams, if she were to win, would be the first black female governor ever elected, and the first black governor of any gender in Georgia. The number of black governors in U.S. history can be counted on one small hand.

However, Stacey Abrams—like 80 percent of Americans—is in debt. And that fact could ruin her shot at making history. In March, Abrams submitted financial-disclosure documents revealing that she owes more than $50,000 to the IRS (she is on a repayment plan) and also carries more than $170,000 in credit-card debt. Should she win the nomination, you can bet that her Republican opponent, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution already has, will paint her as someone who cannot be trusted with the finances of the state if she cannot even keep her own financial house in order.

Abrams has already anticipated this line of attack, and has gotten ahead of it with an excellent editorial in Fortune last week, in which she explained how her student loans are a function of the fact that her parents, a librarian and a shipyard worker, could not afford to pay for her higher education— and how her need to assist her parents with their medical expenses and raising their grandchild, along with taking out credit cards marketed to her when she was in college to pay daily necessities, led to the debt. She detailed the extraordinary wealth disparities between whites and blacks in the U.S., and between women and men, and the ways in which this structural inequality impedes access to education and the ability to succeed. Abrams was not making excuses; rather, she was offering explanations for the realities of income and wealth disparity and how they combine to hinder opportunity and success for millions of Americans.

We need people in office who understand these structural imbalances and the ways in which they narrow opportunity and often govern the trajectory of people’s lives. Abrams doesn’t just understand this as a matter of theory; she has lived it. And she recognizes, as so few GOP politicians are willing to admit, that these structural imbalances are not inevitable, they are not “natural,” they are not a reflection of lack of merit or of profligacy. They are, for many, the result of governmental policy choices. We make a choice as a society to not fund college for all, even though people with more education “tend to be healthier and wealthier.” We make a choice as a society to make health care a privilege rather than a right, so that people go bankrupt when they get sick or have to choose between food and medicine. We make a choice as a society to funnel the best jobs to those who can afford the best schools.

This country does not have to choose in this manner. We could choose to fund health care and we could choose to fund education, the way many advanced economies do.

There are millions of people in this country who are just like Stacey Abrams — not born into financial privilege, and struggling to climb out of a small mountain of debt. But there are few people in this country who have the courage of Stacey Abrams to run for governor in the absence of financial privilege. (Indeed, given the role of tapping personal networks—people with money—for campaign contributions, lack of wealth impedes many qualified candidates for running for statewide office.) The fact she shares the struggles of so many Americans and that those very struggles spurred her decision to run so that she can address those challenges for other Georgians should be seen as strengths of her candidacy. She gets it. As she notes, debt “is a millstone that weighs down more than three-quarters of Americans. It can determine whether we are able to run for office, to launch a business, to quit a job we hate. But it should not—and cannot—be a disqualification for ambition.”

You don’t have to agree with the policy solutions she recommends, but you do need to understand that having parents who lacked resources meant she had to debt finance her education; it meant that when her parents did not have the funds to pay their expenses or help her sister’s child, she stepped in and did so. It meant that when she graduated from college, she was in a financial hole she hasn’t been able to get out of. So while she was paying interest on and trying to pay back her loans, her peers who did not have loans could accumulate wealth — widening the already-existence disparity between them.

Contrast Abrams, and so many other Americans in the same boat, with the man who occupies the presidency.

He was born with every advantage, with a daddy who gave him access to millions of dollars (more than most Americans will make in their lifetimes) to play with when he finished his elite private college and repeatedly loaned him money when his businesses floundered. Trump filed for bankruptcy multiple times; after awhile, American banks would no longer lend him money. Trump has never taken responsibility for those bankruptcies, or for his frauds and other misconduct. And he has refused to disclose his finances or his taxes, so the American public cannot see just how deep into debt he is.

Trump gets to tout himself as a responsible and successful businessman despite impersonating people to try to convince magazines that he is worth more than he is, and no one holds him accountable for that, either. And despite running business after business into the ground, all the while breaching contracts and never helping anyone, Trump campaigned on a platform of “success” based on his self-branding (his Apprentice persona went a long way toward boosting this false image). Even many who recognized and professed to be appalled at his bigotry found themselves seduced by his claim to be a successful businessman. And in the process, all the advantages he was accorded, all the breaks and the connections and the get-out-of-jail-free cards he received, were routinely discounted, brushed aside. Few talked about the fact that not only was he given every advantage, he kept failing upward, and calling his failures success — and people kept falling for it. And now this empty barrel, to use one his administration’s favorite slurs, occupies the presidency.

But Stacey Abrams didn’t have the option of not disclosing her taxes or refusing to come clean on her financial disclosures—that’s a privilege accorded to the one-percent, to one party, and to one president, it would seem. Unlike Trump, Abrams has had to expose her financial past, and her mistakes, to scrutiny. She will not be given a pass on the fact that she is in debt and owes money to the IRS. Does anyone doubt that if Abrams wins the primary, she will be painted as someone who cannot be trusted with the budget of her state, or just hasn’t worked hard enough, by her likely opponent? Especially given how female politicians are attacked in general, no matter their privilege, and how white America tends to see the economic struggles of anyone but themselves as a function of lack of effort rather than of systemic, structural inequality, does anyone think for a minute that Abrams’s opponent will not tap into those views, when campaigning against her?

The (white) man most likely to be the Republican on the ballot (five white men are vying for the role) is far-right businessman/career politician Casey Cagle, who went after one of Georgia’s biggest employers, Delta Airlines, for the apparent apostasy of discontinuing its discounts to NRA members after the Parkland mass shooting. Cagle spoke to state delegates in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention in 2016, lauding Donald Trump for creating a movement and praising his skills as a businessman. There’s close to no chance Cagle doesn’t make Abrams’s finances an issue if she wins the primary.

While Trump is in some ways sui generis, in others he is just a grotesque manifestation of the fact that in this country, there seems to be one set of rules for white men, and another set of rules for everyone else. If she does become the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams will be held to a higher standard in the election than her opponent simply because she is a black woman. But she knows this, and she’s ready for it. Will Georgia voters, who helped put Donald Trump in office, identify with a candidate whose struggles mirror their own? Or will they again install someone from a political party that is dedicated to the illusion that wealth is a reflection of moral superiority and personal merit, and thus, that government has no role to play in addressing the enormous income and wealth inequalities that are making the American Dream increasingly impossible to achieve? We are about to find out.

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