Democrat Stacey Abrams entered the campaign for Georgia governor on Saturday with a pledge to expand pre-kindergarten programs and make technical college education free, promising she’d bring a “bold and ambitious approach” to state government that will invigorate the economy.
Abrams, who heads her party’s caucus in the Georgia House, said that as governor she’ll embrace the same knack for compromise with Republicans who have controlled the statehouse for more than a decade when she sees common ground. But she said she would stick to a fiercely progressive agenda on some of the biggest partisan divides, including efforts to restrict abortion or pass “religious liberty” legislation she views as discriminatory.
To emphasize that point, her announcement coincided with formal endorsements from Emily’s List, the influential left-leaning group, and Democracy for America, a progressive PAC with about 1 million supporters across the nation.
“Georgia is ready for a Democratic governor. My success demonstrates that difference doesn’t have to be a barrier,” Abrams told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Southern politicians have to reject a notion that difference is a barrier and that we can’t all be committed to progress and equality.”
Abrams faces a fellow state legislator, Stacey Evans, in the Democratic primary of the wide-open race to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal. Four Republicans are already running: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Brian Kemp and state Sens. Hunter Hill and Michael Williams.
Democrats face long odds flipping the Georgia governor’s mansion, which has been in Republican hands since Sonny Perdue’s 2002 upset victory. But partisans hope to capitalize on the state’s changing demographics and the same angst over President Donald Trump that is propelling Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District race.
Abrams, 43, has made her pursuit of Georgia’s highest office no mystery, and she filed paperwork to run for the seat earlier this month. She is set to launch her campaign at a rally in Albany, a community that she said reminds her of her Mississippi upbringing.
The kickoff in Albany, a 150-mile drive outside of vote-rich Atlanta, was meant to symbolize not only her connection with rural Georgians but also the dichotomy in her own family.
Her sister Leslie Abrams, the first black female federal judge in Georgia, lives and works in Albany. Her brother Walter, whom she has spoken little of publicly, is serving a prison sentence stemming from a drug addiction and a long-undiagnosed mental illness.
“I want a state that lifts up Walter and lifts up Leslie – and treats both as our children and our possibilities,” she said. “And I want to believe that when Walter finally returns, he’ll have the same opportunities for success that anyone has.”
Her background will play a prominent role in her campaign. Her parents struggled with poverty while raising Abrams and her five siblings in Gulfport, Miss. The family later moved to Atlanta, and Abrams graduated from Spelman College and Yale Law School.
She won an Atlanta-based seat in the Georgia House in 2006 and built a national profile as a leading voice for the party in the South. She has already received a flood of attention for her run: She would be the first black governor in Georgia – and the first black female governor in the nation.
Her opponents have long criticized her style and tone, as well as her willingness to negotiate with Republicans on controversial measures. One of her testiest decisions was support of a 2011 law engineered by Deal that slashed funding for the state’s HOPE scholarship program.
Evans, her Democratic opponent, called that day the darkest of her legislative career. Abrams said the rising costs of the lottery-funded program gave her little other choice but to seek a compromise.
“HOPE was dying,” she said, calling Deal’s initial proposal a series of “drastic cuts” that would have gutted the pre-kindergarten program. “If we had refused to work and help that program, we would have lost a generation of children who don’t get a do-over.”
She added: “Sometimes fighting for Georgians means working with the other side. I’m willing to risk my leadership to make certain that Georgians get what they need from their government.”
'Finding innovative ways'
Abrams said she’ll campaign on a pledge to expand the state’s universal pre-k program, which now serves 80,000 4-year-olds, to also include 3-year-olds. She would urge schools to teach computer science courses earlier and back legislation to make technical college courses tuition-free.
“It’s about finding innovative ways to invest with what we have,” she said of how she would pay for it, adding that she’ll spend the next few months touring the state to talk with residents and community leaders to hone her policy.
Abrams might be best known nationally for the New Georgia Project voter registration group that she founded. It aims to register hundreds of thousands of left-leaning voters within the next decade - and has become a favorite target for state Republicans.
She also has another claim to fame: She’s a prolific author of romance novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery, and she wrote her first book while in her third year at Yale Law. She’s been known to insert characters from the Georgia political scene into her work.
More recently, Abrams has taken on kinship care as a cause, often talking about the problems her parents had navigating the legal maze after they took in a granddaughter – Walter’s daughter Faith - to raise.
The Democratic primary is shaping up to be an all-women contest that could determine the direction of the party: Should it appeal to moderates and independents who have drifted to the GOP, or should it double-down on mobilizing liberals?
Supporters of Evans, a Smyrna attorney who announced her campaign last week, hope she can attract voters in metro Atlanta’s fast-changing suburbs that once reliably voted Democratic.
Abrams also talks of broadening the party’s base, but one of her biggest strengths may lie in the traditional supporters of the Democratic Party: Black women make up the biggest bloc in Georgia's Democratic electorate.
In the interview, Abrams said the state's changing demographics - Georgia is expected to be majority-minority by the mid 2020s - will give Democrats a tantalizing opening next year.
Mark Taylor lost the 2006 race for governor by about 400,000 votes. Jason Carter lost in 2014 by about 200,000. The key to closing that 200,000-vote deficit, she said, is showing how Democrats can “change the trajectory of the state” forever.
“We can be a state that expands on our progress and is bold and imaginative. Or we can continue to serve only those that are privileged and leave people out,” she said. “I not only have the commitment to this type of service, I have the background and experience to make it work.”
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