More than a few people in Washington are puzzled about what Stacey Abrams is up to. I can point them to a book that will help clear things up.
Some weeks ago, a panicky Washington Post columnist chastised Abrams, along with Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, for engaging in “vanity” enterprises when all three Democrats should be candidates for the U.S. Senate.
O’Rourke and Bullock, of course, are running somewhat anonymous presidential campaigns. Abrams, columnist Dana Milbank alleged, has been holding herself out for a vice presidential slot when the country’s future depends on Democrats winning control of the U.S. Senate in 2020.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment not just for Democrats but for American democracy,” Milbank wrote.
I knew Abrams had an answer to this, but we no longer travel in overlapping circles. It was Wednesday before were able to schedule an hour at the same table in a small bistro in the Kirkwood section of east Atlanta. Abrams arrived sans entourage. This is her neighborhood, and she usually hides herself in the backroom of Le Petit Marche.
“There’s a bit of myopia that sees D.C. as the source of all the problems and the source of all the answers,” Abrams began. “It ignores the reality that is particularly acute in the South, that before you can even argue that narrative, you have to be able to participate in the process.”
The former Democratic candidate for governor has told all who would listen that the U.S. Senate would be a poor fit for her — that her natural tendencies are executive, not legislative. Which may sound strange, given that — during last year’s campaign — a key part of Abrams’ resume was her 10 years in the state Legislature. The last six as House minority leader.
“Had I not become leader, I would likely have not run for another term,” Abrams said Wednesday.
But that is mere personal preference. The larger gap between Abrams and those who would push her into a U.S. Senate contest is historical.
I mentioned a book. It is David Blight’s recent biography of Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned abolitionist. If you’ve no time for the entire thing, skip to the last few chapters.
Having fought to make the Civil War about putting an end to slavery, Douglass lived long enough to see his dream undone — and African-Americans returned to servitude in the South, through disenfranchisement and lynching. Violence was an essential part of both tactics.
Nearly every major advance of black rights in Georgia and elsewhere has provoked a white backlash. Brown vs. the Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering an end to school segregation, gave us a state banner with the Confederate battle emblem only two years later — a middle finger that was sent up the flagpole.
Gov. Carl Sanders, a racial moderate, was followed by Lester Maddox, our last segregationist governor. And never mind that Barack Obama was succeeded by Donald Trump.
The guess in Georgia is that we’ll be a majority-minority state by 2025. Abrams is making a historically justified bet that the real fight prompted by that demographic hand-off won’t be in Washington, but in thousands of polling booths across the state. It is the harder battle, because the enemy has no face — and because it will be conducted under the auspices of a weakened Voting Rights Act.
Her cause has become the disruption a 154-year-old cycle of one step forward, two steps back. “The reality is there never will be a moment when power is ceded. That’s part of Frederick Douglass’ narrative,” Abrams said.
Those who want her to run for the U.S. Senate assume “that there’s greater priority that needs to be given to this institution that is understood, because of how diffuse and effective suppression is. There’s not a clear target to hit. In fact, there are multiple, miniature targets,” Abrams said.
“It is a much simpler narrative to say if we win the Senate, then all will be well. But of course, as a daughter of the South, I know that national belief does not translate into local action,” she said.
“When I talk about it nationally, I point out to folks that we don’t have a single democracy. We have 50 different democracies served by 3100 administrative units — between counties and parishes,” Abrams said.
In the 11 months since her defeat, the former tax lawyer’s approach has been granular, made possible by a huge fund-raising operation built in the governor’s race.
A massive federal lawsuit calling for an overhaul of Georgia’s election bureaucracy could come to trial in late March — about the same time as the state’s presidential primary.
Abram’s preeminent group, Fair Fight Action, has also assembled a core of lawyers who have begun popping in on county electoral board meetings, where precinct closures are decided. They have begun lobbying cities to create Election Day holidays to give workers more time to vote.
And they will keep an eye on the General Assembly when it returns to Atlanta in January. “We assume there will be legislation. Our hope is they will not try anything too egregious, but you never can tell,” Abrams said.
Abrams and her people will be heavily involved, financially and otherwise, in the Democratic effort to win control of the state House in 2020, and thus earn a seat at the redistricting table that will follow next year’s census.
And there’s the census itself. Yet another Abrams’ group, Fair Count, is watching that. And she is attempting to export her voter-protection system to 20 other states, including all of those in what was called the Deep South.
Separately, it is small stuff. Collectively, it’s more than any vice president could think of tackling.
Yes, you’ll still see Abrams on TV. She’s gotten pretty good at it, and the exposure is necessary to fund what is becoming a rather large operation. But she insists this isn’t about Stacey Abrams.
Yes, she continues to declare victory in defeat. “We won,” refers to the moral victory of 2018, she says. (Though I think she also uses it to needle Republicans.)
More seriously, Abrams argues that, had her aims been personal, the lawsuit mentioned above might have challenged the results of the 2018 election. It doesn’t.
“We have to demonstrate that this is larger than any single candidate,” Abrams said. “Unless we re-center our focus on the voter as the victim, we won’t keep the attention on the fundamental problem.”
And that, Mr. Milbank, is what Stacey Abrams has decided to do rather than run for the U.S. Senate.
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