Politics

Stacey Abrams Won’t Back Down

The Georgia power broker is taking the voting rights fight to the Senate.

Stacey Abrams holds a microphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images.

Listen to A Word … With Jason Johnson:

Most pundits acknowledge that the Democrats owe their control of the White House and Senate in no small part to the work of Black women. But one woman whose individual contribution stands out is Georgia’s Stacey Abrams. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Abrams about the national fight for voting rights, Hot Call Summer, and what’s next for her career. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jason Johnson: We’re going to start with the national fight for voting rights. A number of Texas Democrats came to Capitol Hill this week, lobbying the Senate to pass the For the People Act. For listeners who are unclear, what is the difference between the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act? And then beyond that, what have you and your organization been doing to help push both of these pieces of legislation?

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Stacey Abrams: So let’s think about it this way: We’ve got three attacks happening on our democracy. One is anti-voter. So laws that are trying to make it harder to register, to cast a ballot, and to have that ballot counted. Two, we have an attack on election workers. We’ve seen laws in Iowa, Florida, Georgia, Texas that are criminalizing, adding fines and fees, to election workers for technical mistakes that are often caused by obscure, arcane, or just poorly worded laws. And then three, you have subversion of democracy. The laws that we’ve seen in Georgia and attempted in Texas to actually give Republicans the authority to overturn election results they don’t like. Now, all of those things are happening in various ways across the country. And these are laws that are passing now. So with the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the day it takes effect, new laws like that cannot pass. They will be subject to what’s known as preclearance, and they have to get permission before those laws can take effect.

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The problem is every law that passed before the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is still the law, meaning they can still do exactly what they want to do. And so we not only have to stop new bad from happening. We’ve got to go back and clean up the old bad. And that’s what the For the People Act does. It actually will negate many of the laws that are taking effect right now. And in fact, it will anticipate that other states are going to do bad in between now and the next election. And so until the Voting Rights Advancement Act can take effect, it will actually clean up past bad actions. That’s why we need both laws.

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Stacey, you’re asking voters to make this a Hot Call Summer and call their senators demanding they support the For the People Act. With Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin saying he won’t back the bill, and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema saying she’s not willing to kill the filibuster to save it, neither of them seems to be affected by public outcry, or complaint, or embarrassment, or pointing out their own hypocrisy. What difference do you think calls from constituents will really make?

I would approach this in two ways. One is to say that in past iterations, both Kyrsten Sinema, who I think actually is a co-sponsor of S 1 right now, and Joe Manchin, who sponsored it in years past—they understand the intention of the bill. They may not agree with all of the components of the bill. And so part of the Hot Call Summer is that we need our elected leaders to know what we want. We elect people to stand for us, to speak for us, but they need to hear from us. And so I don’t believe that Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, or any other senator should not hear from their constituents. If we’re going to persuade them to change their minds, now is the time, and this is the way.

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But the second reality is we’ve got 100 senators, not 50. And the extent to which we absolve Republican senators of protecting their people, we are doing their job for them. The best way to get a politician to not act is to not hold that person accountable. This is about an accountability summer. No matter who elected you, you serve us all. And if you live in that state, you deserve to have leadership that sees you, that hears you, that respects you. And that means Hot Call Summer.

Black folks have been voting for Democrats for generations. We’re now six months into the Biden administration. When you still encounter Black voters who are skeptical or Black voters who are anxious, what do you tell them that the efforts over the last, say, two or three years have gotten them in the first six months of this administration?

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First of all, I always start with what is an obvious but necessary statement. Voting is not magic; it is medicine. Magic makes all the bad disappear; medicine mitigates the harm of the bad, and if we’re lucky, it makes the bad eventually go away. But there are some illnesses, some diseases that are just so pervasive that all you can do is stall them. And you can attack the symptoms. I would say that in the last two years we saw a leader, or a putative leader, who was willing to let half a million people die on his watch and allow an academy to collapse rather than admit that action needed to be taken. And in the last six months, we have seen a president, aided by Congress, actually deliver relief. We are lifting half of the children in poverty out of poverty because of an action taken a few months ago.

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That is something we’ve been talking about in this country for generations. We are watching the deployment of health care to more communities because it’s a lot cheaper now because of the work of the American Rescue Plan. And we know that there’s even more coming. And so, I do not try to dismiss the skepticism, the cynicism, the despair—those are all legitimate because these are challenges that have been a part of our communities for too long. But I also acknowledge the progress made, slow, plodding, inexact, and not permanent, but it is better than it was. And that’s because we showed up.

You have been linked to more jobs than any other political figure in America, next to maybe, like, Michelle Obama. What is your decision-making process? How do you decide what jobs you’re going to pursue or what your next step will be?

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I will say there are a lot of insiders that I’ve never met and couldn’t pick out of a lineup, but my rubric is very clear. One, is that work that I want to do? Two, is it work that I need to do? And am I the best person to do that work? Sometimes there are things you want to do that you don’t need to do. And sometimes there are people who are better suited to that work than you are. The U.S. Senate for me was a perfect example. I was proud to support Raphael Warnock when he got ready to run, because he was a better person for this job. And while it is work that I think is important, it was not work I needed to do. I think Jon Ossoff is an exceptional senator, and I’m glad they’re there together. And I have no interest in life in ever joining them in that job.

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My responsibility is to not be persuaded by or seduced by title or the manifestation of potential power, but to really think about why do you do this? Because the minute you don’t know why or the why becomes too fuzzy, that’s when people start making choices that you later question or read about. And so I try to stay away from that.

There was a lot of discussion last year, when Biden said, “Hey, I want to pick a Black woman as VP.” So can you share what that process was like being on that shortlist?

Let’s start with the fact that the first question I received about VP was in 2019. And so before these additional metrics were brought into the conversation, I was getting this question. And I answered the question the same way every single time, because the answer never changed, which was that yes, I was interested, and yes, I was capable. When we got to the shortlist portion of the conversation, there were hours and hours and hours of conversations with the vetting team, with attorneys. I had to be able to provide documentation of a number of issues. There are questions you wouldn’t think of asking that become a necessary part of the conversation about what you’d be susceptible to, what you can provide, what surprises are out there. And so I will say it was a very intense, very intentional process. It was incredibly respectful. I appreciated being included in the process in a very real and comprehensive way that is sort of the equivalent of an intellectual colonoscopy. And so I’m good having gone through it, but would not say, “Try this at home.”

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Hypothetically, what is Stacey Abrams’ pathway to the presidency? When you go to sleep at night, and you say, “I want to be president,” what’s the path you see?

So here’s how I frame this. I’m often asked about the reaches of ambition. What are the things you want? And if you start a job, if you do work and you only ever want to do the thing you’re doing, congratulations. But most people start jobs thinking I want this next role and this next role. And if you are someone who believes that you can contribute, you want to maximize your contribution. You want to do the most amount of good for the greatest number of people. In the United States, in politics, that is the presidency. But to get to that job, you can’t be so focused on getting it that you don’t do the work.

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And so, while I answered the question of what my highest ambition is, my focus is on doing the work that’s in front of me now. I am not the governor of Georgia, but the work I told citizens I would do if they elected me is work I continue to pursue. In addition to fighting for voting rights, I have an organization called the Southern Economic Advancement Project. We have been part and parcel of convening 12 Southern states to ensure that COVID recovery actually works. We’ve got this great set of tools out to help communities actually get the money that’s being deployed. $1.9 trillion. Do you know how to get the money that should come to your community? Well, we’re doing the work to make sure you get the resources you need.

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Through Fair Count, the organization I created to focus on the census, we are doing COVID vaccinations in the state of Georgia, especially in communities that have been abandoned or underserved by the governor. And so, my responsibility is to not focus on this very House of Cards climb to the presidency, but to say, “If that is the ambition, what work am I doing that I believe would be made more effective and more broadly deployed if I had that job.” And that’s how I approach my work.

Listen to the entire episode below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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