S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate, and I’m your host, Jason Johnson Stacey Abrams is one of the most powerful women in politics, widely credited with bringing Georgia into the Democratic column in twenty twenty
S2: three demand in this moment, leadership of moral character that is willing to admit its moral fallibility. We need leaders who believe
S1: in us now. Abrams is a Democratic powerbroker fighting for voting rights and thinking about her own political future. Stacey Abrams coming up on a word with me Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to A World, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host Jason Johnson. Most pundits acknowledge that the Democrats owe their control of the White House and Senate and no small part to the work of black women. But one woman whose individual contribution stands out is Stacey Stacey Abrams. Abrams first stepped into the national spotlight for many during her run for Georgia governor in twenty eighteen. Her opponent, Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, rigged the election, purging hundreds of thousands of Georgia voters from the rolls and hampering turnout in black parts of the state to pull off a tainted victory in twenty eighteen. Abrams acknowledged his victory but didn’t concede.
S2: This election is about all of us, as is the resolution of this moment. I acknowledge that former Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor in the twenty eighteen gubernatorial election. But to watch an elected official who claims to represent the people in the state baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people’s Democratic right to vote has been truly appalling.
S1: Abrams didn’t spend the next few years brooding about what could have been. She started the Fair Fight Voting Rights Organization and the Fair Count Census Organization Fair Fight, along with other allied groups. Faced with massive voter suppression from now, Governor Brian Kemp and then President Donald Trump still flip Georgia to Joe Biden in twenty twenty, making him the first Democrat to win the state since Bill Clinton in 1992. Then later to seal the deal, Abrams and allied organizations sent Democrats John Asaph and Raphael Warnock to the Senate. Stacey Abrams joins us now. Welcome to A Word.
S2: Thank you for having me.
S1: 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, like what have you and your organization been doing to help push both of these pieces of legislation?
S2: 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 we’ve seen in Georgia attempt 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. 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 Amendment Act can take effect, it will actually clean up past bad actions. That’s why we need both laws.
S1: Is timing involved because, as you know, state legislatures can oftentimes move faster than the courts, right? They can call a special session. They can try and push a law at the last minute. Is there a window in which either of these acts has to be passed in order to be effective in protecting voter rights and protecting vote workers heading into the twenty, twenty two midterms?
S2: It depends. And that’s that’s not me being evasive. It really does depend on the state. So we know that in some states, the laws as they are passing will affect not only the midterm elections on a federal level, but they’ll affect mayoral races, they’ll affect county commission races and school board races. And so the sooner these bills are negated, the faster we have real democracy in those communities. There are provisions in the For the People Act that address redistricting. There is a timetable for redistricting. Those decisions will likely be made at the end of this year between September and December. And so if there are going to be provisions that actually allow communities of color to be represented in redistricting, because right now we fear that there will be a great push by Republicans to say that they’re not discriminating against communities of color, they’re just discriminating against Democrats. And this is a problem because in twenty nineteen, the Supreme Court said that was fine, that you can discriminate against political parties, not against races. We know that there is a timetable for that. We’ve got a succession of deadlines that we need to hit. But the reality is something has to happen before twenty two, because if nothing happens, then the likely effect on the 2002 elections will be that we lose access to democracy for a number of communities for quite some time.
S1: 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 Krysten Sinema saying she’s not willing to kill the filibuster to save it. Why do you think a calling campaign is going to help when they don’t seem to care about the criticism they’re getting nationally?
S2: I 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 one 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 your constituents. In fact, I think that’s one of the best ways if we’re going to persuade them to change their minds, now is the time and this is the way. But the second reality is we’ve got 100 hundred 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 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 call summer.
S1: Black folks have been vote 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? Our efforts over the last just say, two or three years have gotten them in the first six months of this administration?
S2: Well, 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 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 economy to collapse rather than admit that action needed to be taken. And in the last six months, we have seen a president aided by a Senate and the 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. 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.
S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more with Stacey Abrams about the defense of voting rights. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. Did you know you could be listening to this show, ad free, all it takes is a slate plus membership. It’s just one dollar for the first month and it helps support our show. Plus, it lets you hear all Slate podcast without ads and read unlimited articles on the Slate site without ever hitting a paywall. So sign up now for Slate plus at Slate Dotcom. Again, a word plus that slate dotcom. Com a word plus. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about voting rights and other political issues with Stacey, Abrams, Stacey. We’re going to take a moment. We’re going to talk about you. You have been linked to more jobs than any other political figure in America next to maybe like Michelle Obama. First, there was a question if you’re going to run for Georgia’s Senate, then there was speculation you’re going to be Biden’s VP after the election. People wanted you to run the DNC and now everybody wants to know what you’re going to be doing in twenty, twenty two. My question is, what is your decision making process? How do you decide what jobs you’re going to pursue or what your next step will be?
S2: I will say there are a lot of insiders that I have 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, too, is at 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 John USCIRF 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. And so 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 in indictments. And so I try to stay away from that.
S1: So I want to dig into one of these positions in particular, so there was a lot of discussion last year, Biden says, hey, I want to pick a black woman as V.P. There was discussion of you. There’s discussion of Val Demings. There was a discussion of Susan Rice. To the degree that you can share with us, there’s a vetting process, there are interviews, there are discussions. We assume that you would have to have to be a VP. So can you share what that process was like being on that short list?
S2: So let’s start with the fact that the first question I received about VP was in twenty nineteen. 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 the short list portion of the conversation, there were hours and hours and hours of conversations with the vetting team, with attorneys 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 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 I’m good at having gone through it, but would not would not say try this at home.
S1: Hypothetically, what is Stacey Abrams pathway to the presidency? Is it just like a a a massive write in campaign? Is it that you win the nomination in twenty, twenty four? Like, hypothetically, how would you when you go to sleep at night and you say, I want to be president, what’s the path you see.
S2: OK, so this is a very clever way of trying to get me to tell you what I’m going to do with my life. But nice try.
S1: No idea what you’re talking about. Yeah.
S2: 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 there that you don’t do the work. And so while I answer 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 covered recovery actually works. We’ve got this great set of tools out to help communities actually get the money that’s being deployed one point nine trillion dollars. 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 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, you know, 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.
S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more with author and political leader Stacey Abrams. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking with Stacey, Abrams about politics. Well, I want to ask you about a time where there may have been a little bit of disagreement with sort of activists on the ground and former elected officials, elected officials like yourself. So, you know, a lot of people last year were saying, hey, we need to boycott Georgia because of all these restrictive voting laws. But you and I and several other politicians actually said, no, that’s actually not the best way to go about achieving change. I want you to sort of tell us a little bit about why you took that position, why you said, hey, look, in this particular instance, I don’t think a boycott of the state is going to achieve what people want.
S2: I begin with acknowledging and celebrating the effectiveness of boycotts, we know that when you leverage your economic power, you bring attention and often change the challenges. Boycotts take a long time, and they require a level of commitment, dedication and strategic organization that we often applied when we are remembering what we saw on eyes on the prize, not when we think about how long it took to plan and how long it took to execute. And my belief is that boycotts are the last resort, but the first responsibility is to stay and fight, and in particular to those who wanted companies to leave Georgia. The abandonment of the South in times of trouble is often what gets us into more trouble. And so this notion that because bad action is happening, that we will abandon the victims and leave them to the clutches of those doing wrong has never sit well with me. I grew up in Mississippi. I came of age in Georgia. I want people here helping. I want people who are not here sending in resources and sending in their prayers and their support. I do not need you to prove you stand with me by leaving me. And that’s my challenge right now with the boycott. Now, there may come a time where boycott is the most effective economic lever that we can pull, but it is not yet and it is not now.
S1: That line you just gave, you know, you don’t have to show that you’re with me by leaving me, I thought was fantastic. It’s very romance novel. Eskil, want to talk a little bit about about your writing so. Well, in addition to your political work, you’ve been writing novels for years. Your latest is While Justice Sleeps, which I very much enjoy. Can you briefly give our listeners an idea as to what the novel is about? Sell it like I got sold on it for even for people who don’t read these kinds of books.
S2: While Justice Sleeps is a political legal thriller, and it is based on the idea that a Supreme Court justice who is the swing vote in a pivotal case, falls into a coma and he leaves the power of attorney and guardianship to his twenty six year old law clerk who has to figure out what’s happening, why he’s in a coma and who’s trying to kill them all while doing it as her justice sleeps.
S1: As I go through the book, I see so many elements from so many different genres in this book. So I’m curious, you know, what inspired you for this work? Was it was it West Wing? Was it was it Homeland? Was it, you know, a mystery writer that you love? Was it Leupen the third? What were some of your inspirations in your writing?
S2: So the the actual state of story narrative came from a conversation with the attorney who was one of my mentors and just extraordinary woman named Teresa Wynn Roseborough. She was the partner who helped me come to Sutherland when I was a practicing attorney and we were having lunch in twenty eight. After I’d left the law firm, I’d left the city of Atlanta. I was in office and she said, Have you thought about the fact that the only people in our Constitution give them permanent jobs? Lifetime appointments are judges and they are also the only people for whom we have no provision for removing them. If they can’t do the job. If a president loses his faculties, you can remove him using the 25th Amendment with someone in Congress. Just vote him out of the office in two or six years. If it is a judge, they can only be removed for high crimes and misdemeanors or death. The inability to do the job physically or mentally is not the actual threshold issue. You cannot use that to impeach. And so that idea caught me and I literally went home that day and wrote the first scene with Howard when it has been in the book for ten years. It has never, never left. I love reading, I love storytelling, and I love almost every genre, all of those genres and all of those writers, especially the best storytellers, influence me. My mission is to tell a story that moves you from page to page, chapter to chapter. And when you get to the end, I may have stretched credulity, but I haven’t broken it. I have talked about issues that you never thought of, but you at least believe that it could be true. And if you’re an expert on the topic, you respect that. I did enough research that I know what I’m talking about a little bit. And if you aren’t an expert, you think I’m really smart. And so my mission is to make sure that when you’re immersed in a story I’m writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, whatever I’m writing that you believe I know what I’m talking about and that you enjoyed being there with me, even if it was difficult.
S1: Look, I’ve met politicians who’ve said their dream job would be to, like, quit the politics thing and travel the country in a band or play music or be an artist. I mean, George Bush is off making paintings now. Did you ever think at some point in your life, let me skip this law thing, let me leave this politics thing behind and just be a writer? Like, was that ever a dream of yours?
S2: No, it’s who I am. I right. I do not see these as separate veins of who I am. I see them as separate manifestations. You know, right now our time is now. My book I wrote in twenty nineteen on voter suppression and the plight facing our democracy, but also the opportunities for our democracy. They are drawn from the exact same ethos that makes me run for office and makes me write fiction. I want to paint a picture of what we can be and whether I’m doing that as an entrepreneur, as a writer, as a politician, as an advocate, I am telling a story and doing my best to craft that story so that it feels real and attainable. I would be less of myself if I cordoned off my writing and said, well, I’m going to just go and do that, because if all I’m doing is writing for me, I’m not doing the pieces that fuel my writing. And if I am only practicing politics and not writing that, I’ve abandoned part of what animates me and helps me stay in touch with the communities that I seek to serve. And so for me, these are all woven together. I pull strands on it and sometimes give primacy to one part over the other. But there all of a piece
S1: I have to ask you this. See, this is the question that you thought I was trying to ask earlier, but we got to close with this. What is next for Stacey Abrams in the next two years? What’s next for you? For fair fight? For fair account? What sort of on your schedule for the next 18 months?
S2: Well, right now, I need people to go out and get the paperback edition of our Time is Now. It’s new out this month, and we are excited about how it fits into this moment as we talk about all of these issues. It’s a book that really explores how we get a fair fight in our elections. How do we protect democracy? I have a whole chapter on the census, which is something that I think as communities of color, in particular in disadvantaged communities, plot their future, we’ve got to see this instead of seeing it as an invasion of privacy every 10 years. This is to be a 10 year organizing opportunity. And I’m doing the work through the Southern Economic Advancement Project that drove me to run for office in the first place way back in 2006, which is that how do you serve the communities that are often on the margins, often distance from opportunity? I may run for another office that will amplify that work, but my responsibility is not to focus on the job title, but again to always focus on the work. And so making sure we’ve got democracy, making sure that the census actually serves all of us, and being certain that we are delivering the policy prescriptions necessary to improve communities. That’s what I’m going to be doing from now until as far as I can see.
S1: Stacey Abrams is the author of While Justice Sleeps, he’s also the founder of the voting rights group Fair Fight Stacey Abrams. Thank you so much.
S2: Thank you.
S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate Dotcom. This episode was produced by Ahyiana Angel and Jasmine Ellis Ashar. Solutia is the managing producer of podcasts Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.