Stacey Abrams doesn't think you should wait. Whatever it is that you know you were called to do, you should start. That's what she did. It didn't matter that an African American woman had never before been governor in any one of these 50 states. It didn't matter that she wasn't born rich and had the debt to prove it. It didn't matter that she was not a size 4 or 6 or 10.
“You don't have to be born wealthy, you don't have to be born beautiful, you don't have to be born white, you don't have to be born into a family of brilliant people, you just have to be. By being, you're already started,” Abrams says. Before a single vote was cast in one of the most contested elections of 2018, she raised her hand and said, effectively, "I vote for me" — and then on Nov. 6, she voted for herself.
"I work to make sure I know what I'm talking about."
Since she lost the Georgia gubernatorial race by fewer than two percentage points, Abrams, 45, has been written up by publications from The New Yorker to Vogue as no less than the future of our democracy. When you meet her, her conviction and dignity are palpable. It sounds reductive to say they are Obamaesque unless you remember how distinct these qualities were in a man she calls “one of the truest scholars of leadership that we've seen in a generation.” What I am here to ask her is not how she came by this dignity, which seems innate, but how she has managed to keep it.
Abrams grew up poor in Mississippi, raised by educated parents whose career options, she says, were limited by their race. As an undergraduate at Spelman College, in a now famous Excel spreadsheet, she plotted a different trajectory for her own life. She has approximately followed its steps: campaign work, public policy internships, a master’s degree from the University of Texas, a law degree from Yale. She spent 10 years in the Georgia legislature, where she became the minority leader and earned a reputation for explaining to other elected officials the bills that they were trying to sign into law. In 2013 she launched the New Georgia Project, a voter registration initiative that attracted funds from major national donors such as George Soros and gave Abrams visibility in the national party. So by June 2017, when Abrams announced her gubernatorial candidacy, she was ready.
“My sense of self is grounded in the fact that I work to make sure I know what I'm talking about,” she says.
"I was not going to fake a boyfriend. If I find him, great, but I wasn't going to pretend that he existed."
The governor’s race was bitterly fought. Her opponent, Republican Brian Kemp, was the sitting secretary of state and therefore controlled the election process. Throughout the race, Abrams alleged voter suppression by Kemp’s office, and she refused to concede the election for 10 days. Abrams claimed that Kemp’s office had engaged in practices such as poll purging and improper voting precinct management that disadvantaged minority voters and reported that her own precinct had informed her that she wasn’t allowed to vote, saying she had already submitted an absentee ballot. Citing the unprecedented turnout, Republicans called Abrams a sore loser.
We sit together in a quiet, empty hotel lounge in New York City identical to others where she has talked to reporters trying to explain the why and how of Stacey Abrams. I wonder whether, in moments like these, Abrams, a self-identified introvert, feels relieved or restless, waiting to get back to work.
If it’s the latter, she has a powerful patience. Dressed in a simple sweater and slacks, she calmly answers every question I throw her way, starting with how Stacey Abrams shrugs off other people’s fear of her. Every woman of color I know talks about a wicked alchemy that happens: Other people’s fear and mistrust becomes your own insecurity and sense of lack. How does she slingshot around that booby trap? And I want to know how she came to belong, as a leader, on a national stage, and to feel that she belongs, which is not the same thing.
First of all, I should know that her confidence happened gradually, and that she had to work for it. Stacey Abrams, like Beyoncé, was not built in a day. “I spent a lot of time worrying about who I was in comparison to those I was around,” she says.
"I refuse to let someone tell me that I am less than because they think my body is more than me.”
When she ran for governor, it turned out other people did, too. Advisers proposed a whole list of alterations to turn Stacey Abrams into a more palatable candidate, and Abrams mostly passed.
“I'm not going to change my hair, which a consultant suggested I do,” she says. “I was not going to fake a boyfriend. If I find him, great, but I wasn't going to pretend that he existed or create some notion of relationship. I wasn't going to wait until there was a more opportune moment for someone with my complexion, which was also a suggestion.”
Nor was she going to wait to run once she lost 100 pounds. “I am a heavyset woman, and yes, it's possible that instead of some of the things I've done, I could have been training for marathons,” she says, but she’s not going to take that on. “I refuse to let someone tell me that I am less than because they think my body is more than me.”
Instead, she asked herself, “If these are the 10 markers, which two am I willing to compromise so I can give people some space to accept me?” Her solution: “I found a style that met the public imagination of what a leader looks like, but also met my need for comfort and my personality. I wear my hair natural, but I also see my stylist every week to make sure it looks as good as it can.”
There was more scrutiny to come once the campaign was underway. When Abrams released her tax returns, they revealed that she was $54,000 in debt to the IRS, with over $100,000 in credit card and student loan debt. The opposition questioned how she could do the work of being governor when she couldn’t manage her finances. To show them, Abrams hit the campaign trail, talking openly with voters about their own financial struggles, the decision she had made to cover family expenses rather than pay her tax bill, and her plan to pay what she owed. As of May 2019, she had repaid it in full. “They tried to use money as a way to shame me," she says, "but I'm proud of where I ended up and what I was able to do.”
"It is a very humbling and disconcerting thing to see yourself on the side of a building."
The most transgressive thing Abrams does is not political but personal: She admits to being flawed — to being human — and dares to like herself anyway. "I don't look at myself and say, ‘Oh, if I only I was this,’" she says. "I don't have that kind of time, and I can't afford that much therapy.”
What Abrams is, what she has become, is a living, breathing symbol of the belief that your vote matters. It can change your circumstances and thus your life. If it did not matter, much less effort would be expended trying to prevent you from using it.
In the lead-up to the Georgia election, people of all different backgrounds began to see their vote in this light. In the Edgewood neighborhood of Atlanta, just blocks from Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood home, a group called Millennials for Abrams commissioned a larger-than-life mural of Abrams that bore a simple phrase: “Vote.” The day after the election, when Abrams had not yet conceded the race, the artist added to the mural. It now reads, “We Voted.”
"In America we are taught that people should already agree. I don't believe that."
Abrams couldn’t believe anyone would paint a mural of her. When she saw on Twitter that it was being unveiled, “I thought they were joking,” she recalls. “It is a very humbling and disconcerting thing to see yourself on the side of a building. But what was heartening for me, was when, instead of taking the mural down, they added the D. They said 'We voted' as a clarion call — to say that no matter what the outcome is, our power is still ours. We still have the power to make changes, we still have the ability to fight against those who would steal our voices and deny us our choices. It's not about a single person's election. It's not about me.”
The mural artist, Fabian Williams, told Arts ATL, “I wanted Stacey to have sort of a smile, but not really — kind of like the Mona Lisa, where she knows something we don’t know. That look of confidence. It was one of the most difficult murals I’ve ever done.”
In the almost 10 months since the election, it seems that Stacey Abrams has won far more than she has lost. She’s channeled what she’s learned about how broken the systems of voting and representation are into three nonprofits. Fair Fight (formerly called Fair Fight Action) was formed to staff and train voter protection teams in battleground states. Fair Count will advocate for education and fairness around the 2020 census, which will affect $900 billion in federal funding for critical issues such as education and health care. Instead of entering the 2020 presidential race, as many thought she would, Abrams recently announced Fair Fight 2020, an initiative to train polling workers in 20 battleground states ahead of the election.
Along the way, Abrams has become one of the most respected members of the Democratic Party, shining more brightly than many of the candidates who are running for the Democratic nomination. To those who hadn’t noticed it before, her rising star became more visible in February when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer chose her to give the Democratic rebuttal to the State of the Union.
“Stacey Abrams is a persistent, dissatisfied force for fairness, justice, and equality in Georgia and across America,” Speaker Pelosi said in an email. “She has inspired millions to engage in our democracy.”
Possibly the most inspiring part of that speech was that Abrams did not take potshots at the president, nor did she fall into a preacher-like rhetoric of condemnation. That’s not Abrams’ style. She was, as she always is, respectful. She means it when she says that her strategy is always to meet people where they are.
"If that's your definition of friendship, mazel tov."
“In America we are taught that people should already agree. I don't believe that. I believe that if I want you to share my values or to do something about the values we share, I need to come to you because I'm the one making the ask,” Abrams says.
By many accounts, that is what she did in Georgia.
“We were the first campaign to have a black media briefing,” says Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams' former campaign manager. “We were the first campaign to lead the gay Pride march. In terms of our engagement, we were the first campaign that would openly court immigrants and campaign for immigration rights. We didn't get cute on how we talked about undocumented workers. And we didn't throw people under the bus and avoid that entire topic. I mean, I can just give you example after example after example of we how did not run the Georgia playbook.”
More people voted for Abrams than for any Democrat in a statewide election in the history of Georgia.
There's a thing that happens when you are talking to Abrams where the wisdom almost is too much; there's more than you deserve. There's enough, to quote her fellow Georgians Outkast, for "me and you, your momma and your cousin, too," and you want to share it. I want to know who Abrams shares it with, at home, in her personal life. How does she gauge trust?
“The fundamental problem I have with self-care is it creates a new set of obligations. I don't want another obligation.”
Like many women of color, I feel like I’m the bridge builder for a lot of people. To put it bluntly, I have dozens of white friends. A lot of my white friends count me as their one, or one of very few, friends of color. She smiles when I say this.
“The fact that they consider me a friend does not mean I consider them to be friends,” she says. “I'm OK with that. I am more than comfortable with giving more than I get, but when I say friend, it has to be bilateral. It cannot be you just need me and I give. If that's your definition of friendship, mazel tov. I recognize that there are a lot of spaces I enter where I am ‘friend to,’ but we are not ‘friends with.’ What's most important is that we recognize the difference.”
Abrams keeps her circle tight — Groh-Wargo is the CEO of Fair Fight. Abrams’ little sister, Jeanine Abrams McLean, is the program director at Fair Count. With them, she is still Stacey Abrams, but the version who watches Jessica Jones and always has cheese in the fridge. McLean says that for all of her gravitas, part of what makes Abrams great is her sense of humor and fun. After all, this is a woman who outside of her activism and public services has published eight romance novels and for whom “self-care” can mean rereading the entire Nora Roberts compendium. (“The fundamental problem I have with self-care is it creates a new set of obligations. I don't want another obligation,” Abrams says.)
“Her thinking about things [is often] 10 steps ahead of everyone else,” says McLean. “She has plans for everything. So she can come off as serious, but she's crazy funny. She will call me in the middle of the night with corny jokes.”
"Hope isn't when things are right; hope is when things are wrong. It's the only possible remedy to that darkness."
This, too, feels like part of a master class in being human that Stacey Abrams is teaching as she goes along: Have levity. Let off steam in law school by writing steamy romance novels, complete with cheesy titles and a pseudonym worthy of the genre. Find the person you can call in the middle of the day or night when you feel like being goofy. Because Abrams talks less about power and position and more about the work and what it takes to keep going. She is talking, in other words, about hope.
“Hope hurts,” she tells me. “When you're facing a xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, racist leader, hope means that you have to consistently push against the comfort of cynicism. Hope says, ‘I'm going to weather this difficulty because I know something else can be out there.’ Hope isn't when things are right; hope is when things are wrong. It's the only possible remedy to that darkness.”
She adds, “Our mission [as leaders] is to make certain we push toward the light.”
Photographer & Director: Brooke Nipar
Stylist: Mecca James-Williams
Fashion Market Assistant: Ryan Gale
Hair: Hair styling by Clark Vincent, represented by Ken Barboza Agency
Makeup: Jaleesa Jaikaran, Management+Artists, using Lancome
Manicure: Rachel Shim using Zoya
Videographer: Fiorella Occhipinti