Politics

The Case for Stacey Abrams

Don’t just unify the electorate, expand it.

Abrams in a pale blue blazer appears over a backdrop of red stripes and a blue "2020 VEEP STAKES 2020" badge.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images.

This is an installment of Veepstakes, Slate’s series on who Joe Biden should pick as his running mate.

Stacey Abrams has a lot going for her as a public figure, but the case for Joe Biden to make her the Democratic vice presidential nominee, out of all the many options he has available to him, begins and ends with two numbers. The first is 60, which is the percentage of Black citizens in Georgia who, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, voted in the 2016 election. The second number is also 60, and it’s the percentage of Black citizens in Georgia who voted during the 2018 election. That was a midterm year, and it is a rule of United States politics that voter turnout during midterm years, particularly among Democrats and nonwhite voters, is much lower than it is when the presidency is being decided. But with Stacey Abrams on the ballot in Georgia’s gubernatorial race, that iron truism did not hold true. (Overall turnout in 2018, across the country, was 49 percent.)

Abrams ultimately lost her race, against Republican Brian Kemp, by a 55,000-vote, 1.4–percent point margin. But she was working against some serious headwinds: For one, if she had won, she would have been the first Black woman to serve as governor in the history of the United States. For another, Kemp was not only the Republican candidate for governor but, as the incumbent Georgia secretary of state, the supervisor of its elections, and he had spent the previous several years implementing the kinds of polling site closures, registration purges, and error-prone “protections” against “voter fraud” that have the cumulative effect of disenfranchising low-income voters and voters of color. Also, Georgia is Georgia; the previous Democratic gubernatorial nominee there, a white man, lost his race by 8 points. Abrams got 900,000 more votes than he did.

There are a number of reasons one could point to to explain how Abrams got 68 percent more votes than any other Georgia Democrat in history. She has an impressive résumé, having made her way from a six-sibling family in Gulfport, Mississippi, to Yale Law School, then winning a caucus vote to become minority leader of the Georgia Legislature at the age of 38. She has a public presence that is both authoritative and disarmingly nerdy—see this live appearance with MSNBC host Chris Hayes, in which she captivates an audience while adeptly explaining both her egalitarian vision for Democratic movement building and her side career writing romantic thrillers under a pen name (!). She also managed to put together a platform that successfully balanced the interests of lefties and just-win normies, and received primary endorsements from both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

But what set Abrams apart even from other 2018 overperformers like Beto O’Rourke—and what makes her an ideal choice for Biden to elevate into a central position of Democratic power—was that she founded and ran an organization called the New Georgia Project. That group ran a public-information campaign about voting rights, and litigated Kemp’s suppression tactics in court, and registered more than 200,000 voters.* Abrams has since founded a similar national organization called Fair Fight. LeBron James recently announced that a group he’s founding will be collaborating with Fair Fight, and in a Slate piece about the subject, civil rights lawyer Perry Grossman explained such work is essential to achieving any of the goals sought by the protesters who Biden would ostensibly be trying to appeal to by picking a Black running mate like Abrams. If such a gesture is to be more than tokenism, it will need to involve a figure who will not only symbolically represent young and/or Black Democrats but substantively activate their nascent electoral power—by getting them registered, motivating them to vote, and helping them overcome the systemic legal obstacles that have been designed to prevent them from doing so.

Abrams, more than any other Democrat, has demonstrated that she can do that; and that she chose to do such work instead of running for Congress to accumulate more conventional qualifications is a strength of her VP candidacy, not a weakness. It is also worth noting, given Biden’s age and casual attitude toward facts, that Abrams is not just known for her work on the public-facing side of such organizing but for her command of detail. A New Yorker profile quotes a Georgia Democratic colleague calling her “our Google” for her ability to answer technical questions off the cuff, while a Time piece supported by reports from 2011 describes her as having essentially saved Georgia’s Republican majority from itself by obtaining an analysis of a tax reform plan that showed that it would have raised taxes on 82 percent of residents. While it’s true that Abrams has not worked at the federal level, it’s not as if she’s never had to deal with the practical side of politics—and while the “experience question” might be germane if she were being considered as the running mate for, let’s say, Pete Buttigieg, there is really very little danger that the administration of 47-year District of Columbia veteran Joe Biden would suffer from a shortage of Beltway insider knowledge.

Going by her policy positions on topics like “Medicare for All,” Abrams does not qualify as a leftist; she’s more moderate even than Elizabeth Warren, another detail-oriented politician alongside whom she’s often discussed. But what she shares with the left, and what distinguishes her from the generation of Democratic leaders that came before her, is an unwillingness to accept the parameters of American politics as they were inherited from the Reagan era—to toil in a world in which low nonwhite turnout and Republican obstructionism are bemoaned but never addressed. Biden is trying to defeat Donald Trump by personally embodying a set of values held in common by both young leftists and older moderates. Abrams aspires to this same “unifying” spirit, but not only to that: She also wants to expand the playing field of American politics, and to enforce its purported rules, so that there are alternatives to white-nationalist minority rule besides electing a less racist white man. She represents the possibility of inclusive democracy not just as rhetoric but as substance—and that, more than any congressional résumé line item, is what a Biden administration will need not just to win but to fulfill its historic potential.

Correction, July 8, 2020: This post originally misstated that the New Georgia Project had become Fair Fight; they are separate organizations.