Meet Stacey Abrams, Democrat Who Could Become First African-American Woman Governor in US History

We speak with Stacey Abrams, who made history in Georgia last month when she became the first African-American woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor in US history. The former state House Democratic leader defeated Stacey Evans, a former state representative who ran as a centrist. Abrams faces a tough race this November against her Republican opponent, who will be decided during a July 24 runoff election between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp. If Abrams wins, she’ll become the first African-American governor in the Deep South since Reconstruction. “We can actually win elections without having to cater to these right-wing, harshly conservative policies that only serve to harm everyone,” says Abrams. We also discuss her new book, which offers advice to others inspired to run for office: Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to, well, the record 42 women running for 19 seats in the Senate. Currently, there are 23 women senators. Beyond the Senate, victories for female candidates in Democratic races have become a trend since the primary season began March 6, prompting some to predict the 2018 election will be a major year for Democratic women. Before this year, the last major boom in female nominees was 1992, after the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. So many women were elected to the Senate in ’92 that analysts called it the “Year of the Woman.”

Well, today we’re going to look at one of the most exciting races for governor. It’s in Georgia, where the former state House Democratic leader, Stacey Abrams, made history, weeks ago, by becoming the first African-American woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor in U.S. history. She defeated Stacey Evans, a former state representative, who ran as a centrist. If Abrams wins in November, she’ll become the first African-American governor in the Deep South since Reconstruction. Abrams is the former House minority leader for the Georgia General Assembly. She received the endorsement of numerous progressive organizations, including Our Revolution, the political group that grew out of Bernie Sanders’ run for the White House. Stacey Abrams addressed her supporters at night on May 23rd.

STACEY ABRAMS: We must remember that we’re in the state where the red clay gives life to generations of dreamers; a state where Martin marched on ballot boxes and challenged a nation’s conscience; a Georgia that gave us the Godfather of Soul, the queen of the Met, and sent a peanut farmer to the Oval Office. That is our Georgia.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Stacey Abrams on her primary victory night. This November, she faces a tough race against her Republican opponent, who hasn’t been decided yet. He’ll be decided in a July 24th runoff. It’s between Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

To talk more about this and much more, Stacey Abrams joins us from Atlanta. In addition to running for governor, she has won national recognition for her work to register 200,000 people to vote, including voters of color in Georgia. She’s the 2012 recipient of the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award, spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and has been hailed by The New York Times as one of its “14 Young Democrats to Watch.” And she has written a new book; it’s called Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change.

Stacey Abrams, welcome back to Democracy Now! We interviewed you in 2014 around the 200,000 people that you helped to register to vote. We’re asking you right now your feeling that night in May, when you won, making history in Georgia, when you won the Democratic nomination for Georgia?

STACEY ABRAMS: Well, Amy, thank you so much for having me back. And it was an extraordinary night, not just for me and what it symbolized for women and women of color, but what it symbolizes for Georgia and for America. We’re changing the face of leadership in this country. And that means reflecting the very different experiences and lives that folks have, recognizing that that change is a good thing for Georgia and a good thing for America.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the issues you ran on.

STACEY ABRAMS: I’m running on very clear progressive values, Democratic values. We talk about educating children from cradle to career. And that’s something that resonated across the state of Georgia. We talk about a diverse and inclusive economy that works for every Georgian, no matter where you live.

There’s a woman I met in Macon. Her name is Pam, and she had two daughters, one of whom was about to give birth. She was sending her daughters off to college, getting ready to raise her grandchild, because she knew that college degree was one of the best guarantees for her daughter. But when I asked her what she wanted for herself, she didn’t really know. You know, she had been a cashier at the Piggly Wiggly for 20 years, and no one had ever asked her what she wanted. And it turns out she wants to start a daycare center, so that she can not only take care of her grandchild, but help other young women who are forced to make terrible choices about whether they can pursue their dreams. And she wanted to be able to take care of those kids, too, but didn’t think anyone would invest in her. I want to the governor who invests in Pam and Pam Inc.

And the third issue we talk about is having proven leadership that makes certain that the state works for everyone. And that means expanding Medicaid, doing in Georgia what Virginia was able to do last week. But it’s also talking about criminal justice reform, continuing the good work that’s been done here, but also thinking about how do we deal with issues of transit and transportation, the environment, really making certain that government works for everyone. Those are the issues we talked about, and it resounded across the state of Georgia, from rural parts to urban parts and across every racial demographic.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we talked to you in 2014. You were our guest, along with Ben Jealous, at the time head of the NAACP. He now is running for the Democratic nomination of governor in Maryland. And you were talking about the 200,000 people that you had helped to register to vote. Can you talk about this? Clearly, in November, turnout is going to be key. In fact, during the primaries, more Republicans turned out than Democrats. Did this concern you? And how many people overall in Georgia simply don’t vote?

STACEY ABRAMS: So, we’re excited about what the primary results showed, because while more vote—Republicans voted than Democrats, Democrats had historic turnout. Sixty-five percent more Democrats turned out for this primary than turned out four years ago. And Republicans actually lost ground. They had fewer folks voting than they did in 2014. So, that’s an incredibly, I think, encouraging sign for us.

But, writ large, the work that we did with the New Georgia Project, which continues now as an independent organization separate from me, is that we have to increase the franchise for everyone. No one should lose their right to vote. But also, everyone should embrace the fact that they have that right. And that’s what the New Georgia Project has done and will continue to do.

But I’ll tell you this: We have enough voters who share those values of education, of economic security, of really strong and effective leadership. We have enough voters in Georgia to win this election. Because it goes to the last point you made. It’s not just about whether you’re registered, although that is critical, and we will continue to make certain that it’s top of mind that voter suppression doesn’t win the day, but it’s also about having values that voters want to voice. And what our campaign has been grounded in is engaging people so that they know that if they vote in this election, change will come, that their voices matter.

I built a campaign that’s been very different from a lot of campaigns that preceded me. Rather than spending a lot of money trying to convert Republicans into Democrats, I’m spending the bulk of our resources encouraging voters who share our values, Democratic-leaning voters and independent thinkers, so that they know that if they vote, they actually will get a different result. Because what’s really happened is that the unheard and unseen have given up. And I believe that with the right candidate and the right message and the right investment, we can turn them into active voters.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this number, you face a—this November, a tough race against one of the Republicans who is running in the Republican primary. Their runoff is July 24th. And I want to play excerpts from their campaign ads. This is Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

SECRETARY OF STATE BRIAN KEMP: I’m Brian Kemp. I’m so conservative, I blow up government spending. I own guns that no one’s taking away. My chainsaw is ready to rip up some regulations. I got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself. Yep, I just said that. I’m Brian Kemp. If you want a politically incorrect conservative, that’s me.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who faces the runoff with Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle. This is the ad by Cagle.

LT. GOV. CASEY CAGLE: We’ve got the deportation bus! That’s right. You heard me. The Michael Williams deportation bus. You want to find out where we’re coming? Go to DeportationBus.com. We’re going to implement my 287(g) deportation plan, that’s going to fill this bus with illegals to send them back to where they came from.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Lieutenant Governor Cagle. They are—he’s running against Kemp in the runoff. Now, Kemp is the man that you were dealing with, as secretary of state, in the midst of the governor’s race in Georgia between Nathan Deal and Jason Carter. That year, Secretary of State Brian Kemp accused your group, the New Georgia Project, of voter registration fraud. But an investigation found just something like 51 potential forgeries out of 80,000 applications the group submitted. And the group was the one that brought attention to these, when going through those signatures. In September 2014, audio was released of Kemp warning fellow Republicans that Democrats might win because they’re registering minority voters. The audio was released by Better Georgia and features Kemp speaking at a July 12, 2014, event in Gwinnett County. This is a clip.

SECRETARY OF STATE BRIAN KEMP: After we get through this runoff, you know, the Democrats have worked hard. There’s been all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines. And if they can do that, they can win these elections in November.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about each of these possible opponents in the governor’s race, beginning with who we just listened to, which was the man you took on in 2014, Secretary of State Kemp?

STACEY ABRAMS: I will say this about both Secretary Kemp and Lieutenant Governor Cagle. Secretary Kemp has unfortunately built a very strong record of voter suppression. And, yes, he and I have—we’ve conflicted a number of times. And I think I’m very—well, I don’t think, I know—I’m very proud of our record of beating him, of forcing him to restore the canceled registrations of thousands, of compelling his office to do the right thing when it comes to voter registration. But also, I think it’s a challenging conversation to have, both with Secretary Kemp and with Lieutenant Governor Cagle, because rather than focusing on how we move the state forward, they have both focused, unfortunately, on this quieter form of bigotry, of how they want to harm communities and hold us back. I will correct one thing that the commercial played about the deportation bus: It was actually another Republican candidate, who lost. But Casey Cagle, unfortunately, has echoed those sentiments of treating those immigrant communities as less than in the state of Georgia, of trying to harm the LGBTQ community in Georgia.

But I’m running a positive campaign, where we talk about what we can accomplish together. And that’s the reason I ran the New Georgia Project. It’s the reason, actually, I wrote the Minority Leader book. Because I want us to understand that those who are on the sidelines, those who find their voices muted or find their voices actually silenced have power. And there is no more profound power in a democracy than the power to vote. And so, my mission, both as a candidate and a writer, is to talk to folks about how we own that power, how we hack the opportunity to really take control of our government back, because we have so many opportunities, not only in Georgia, but nationwide. And I know that in the state of Georgia, if we invest in our voters and if we lift up our values, we can win. What we’ve seen happen in the last few election cycles, unfortunately, was a disproportionate investment in trying to convince Republicans to vote Democratic. What we are focused on is a people-powered campaign, where we own the franchise and where we say, if we value our voters and if we’re willing to go to every corner of the state and talk to every single person, we can actually win elections without having to cater to these right-wing, harshly conservative policies that only serve to harm everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant Governor Cagle is the politician who threatened Delta Air Lines, whose home base is in Atlanta. I just was in Atlanta on Saturday speaking to a Delta flight attendant. He threatened to end a tax exemption for Delta, because they stopped giving any kind of discount for NRA members? Is that right?

STACEY ABRAMS: That’s correct. He actually was successful. He stripped the language from a bill, and he took away that jet fuel tax exemption that was proposed. But here’s the thing: I am proud to say that I have never gotten better than a D or an F from the NRA—it’s the only bad grades my parents have ever been proud of—because I will always stand on the right of—on the side of gun safety. And this is to someone who understands those who want to own weapons. I come from a family that hunted. I know how to hunt, but I don’t do it. But I get to make that choice. But I also understand that the higher responsibility that every person who uses a firearm has is the responsibility for gun safety. And I see absolutely no conflict between being a gun safety advocate, who’s been endorsed by Gabrielle Giffords, and believing that you can have a Second Amendment.

And that, again, is the contrast that I have with both of my opponents. I’m not going to fearmonger to win an election. I’m going to focus on the positive opportunities we have for a bright future for all of our families, where everyone has the freedom and opportunity to thrive. And that’s really why I’m running. It’s why I’ve been doing the work I’ve been doing for the last 18 years. Because I believe that we can do better by our people.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to this discussion. Our guest is Stacey Abrams, Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, made history in May by becoming the first African-American woman to win a major-party nomination for governor in the United States. This is Democracy Now! Back with her in a moment.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Georgia on My Mind” by Ray Charles. This is Democracy Now! Our guest, Stacey Abrams, Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, made history by becoming the first African-American woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor in the United States. If she wins in November, she’ll become the first African-American governor in the Deep South since Reconstruction, the first African-American woman governor anywhere in the United States. She served seven years as the Democratic leader in the Georgia General Assembly, her new book titled Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change.

In a short graphic novel about your life, called Walk Together, it tells the story of how in 1991 you were denied entrance to the Georgia Governor’s Mansion, at first, when you went there, along with other high school valedictorians who had been invited. Now, if you win, you may be a little closer to calling the mansion home. Talk about what happened then?

STACEY ABRAMS: In 1991, I was a high school senior. I graduated as valedictorian. But my parents, who are incredible people—at the time, they were graduate students at Emory University getting their masters of divinity—we didn’t have a car. My family couldn’t afford one. And so we relied on public transit. That day, we took the public bus to the Governor’s Mansion. We got off the bus, and we walked up the driveway. All the other families were arriving by car. And the security guard looked at my parents, looked at me and refused us entry. He told us we didn’t belong. He didn’t ask to see our invitation. He didn’t check his checklist. Luckily, I have very aggressive parents who believe in their children and will always stand up for us, and so they had a very vigorous and engaged discussion with the guard, and he finally agreed to check the checklist and found my name on it.

And the point of the story is, I was allowed inside, but I don’t remember meeting the governor of Georgia. I don’t remember meeting my fellow valedictorians. What stuck with me from that day was this man, standing in front of the most powerful place in Georgia, telling me I didn’t have the right to come inside because of who he saw when he looked at me, when he looked at that bus that my parents and I got off of.

My mission in this race, my mission in the way I’ve lived my life, is to make certain that we create space for everyone to belong, that when we walk together, when we have good leadership that sees all of Georgia, that no one will ever feel that they are not a part of our history and also part of our future. And that’s been, for me, the most important piece of that story, not the narrative that some may have extracted from it about how I was left behind, but more about the opportunity to go inside and change what it means to be the governor in Georgia, to be a governor in the Deep South.

AMY GOODMAN: Stacey Abrams, among those who have endorsed you is Our Revolution, the outgrowth of the organization of Bernie Sanders. What does that endorsement mean to you?

STACEY ABRAMS: I was privileged to be endorsed by Our Revolution, to be endorsed by Senator Sanders, but to also be endorsed by Hillary Clinton. And for me, it’s a function of bringing together every faction and every part of the Democratic Party. Valerie Jarrett came down, the former senior adviser to President Obama came down, the Saturday before the election. My campaign is grounded in the notion that we can bring everyone together to win, because our opponent is not the Republicans. Our opponent is the inaction. Our opponent is the lack of educational opportunity for every child. Our opponent is making certain that economic opportunity isn’t relegated to the privileged, that we have to fight back against those who would deny has access to healthcare. And so, I’m excited to have everyone at the table with me, from Our Revolution to Secretary Clinton to Valerie Jarrett, because what it signals is a broader understanding that Democrats and Democratic values are the only way for progress in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Stacey Abrams, I’d like to ask you to stay so we can do a post-show interview, and we’ll post it online under web exclusives. Stacey Abrams is Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia. Her new book, Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change.

That does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! is accepting applications for our paid video production fellowships. Go to democracynow.org.