Former Georgia State House of Representatives Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who has been widely credited for mobilizing voter turnout in Georgia — including during the 2020 presidential election — shared insight about her career and the current political climate in a virtual event hosted on Feb. 19 by the Annenberg School for Communication.
In a conversation with former National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Ben Jealous, Abrams, the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate who served for seven years in the Georgia State House of Representatives, discussed hot-button political issues, shared her thoughts on the future of the Democratic Party in the South, and offered both personal and career advice for Penn students. President Amy Gutmann introduced the two speakers and offered opening remarks.
During the event, Abrams reflected on her decision to found the voting rights organization Fair Fight in the wake of her 2018 loss to former Secretary of State of Georgia Brian Kemp, who faced allegations of engaging in voter suppression of people of color.
“Fair Fight was designed because I could either fight that election and try to make myself governor, which would have been selfish and irresponsible … or I could decide my responsibility was to fix the system,” Abrams said.
Abrams’ organization is credited with mobilizing turnout among urban voters and voters of color, which helped deliver the hotly contested state of Georgia to President Joe Biden and propel Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to victory in their runoff elections in January, giving Democrats control over the Senate.
Jealous and Abrams met at a Black labor organizing event over 25 years ago, and Jealous also ran for governor of his home state of Maryland in 2018.
When Jealous asked Abrams what gave her the “chutzpah,” the audacity to do things that had not been done before in politics, including being the first Black woman to run for governor as the nominee for a major party, she pointed to a lineage that began with her ancestors, who were enslaved, and culminated with her parents, who were civil rights activists in Mississippi.
“That’s the legacy I am born of,” Abrams said. “So when I think of what I want, I don’t think of it in terms of what I can personally do. I think of it in terms of what should be.”
Abrams then explained how to address partisan gerrymandering, social media regulation, and the crossing of party lines to accomplish goals. She emphasized the importance of listening to what other demographic and political groups prioritize as their “self-interest,” referencing a time when she successfully worked with the Tea Party to block anti-environmental legislation by stressing that pollution would lower property values.
“It may have had the environmental impact I wanted, but it had the economic needs that they held to be most important,” Abrams said. “And we were able to work together fairly seamlessly for three years to hold the line.”
Drawing on this experience, Abrams offered fellow progressives advice on how to appeal to voters in the South, a region that many see as a place where Democrats should focus their attention.
"Progress is not just an ethos — it's a position. And if you're going to try to create progress, you got to start where you are," Abrams said. "For some who think of progress and progressivism as an absolute, that's what they get wrong about the South."
On a personal note, Jealous asked Abrams about a pursuit that some may not expect from a politician, activist, and entrepreneur: writing romance novels. Under the pen name Selena Montgomery, Abrams has authored eight romance novels, which together have sold more than 100,000 copies.
“They are quintessential stories of humanity,” Abrams said of the romance genre. “It is about wanting something, not knowing how to get it, fighting to get it, and then fighting to keep it.”
Throughout the event, Abrams frequently offered advice to attendees, motivating the audience to “play to win” and not to "edit your ambition."
"Ambition does not allow itself to be thwarted by not getting what you want," Abrams told the audience. "Sometimes it's an opportunity to expand how you think about it or understand what you need to do differently."
Event attendees were especially impressed by the way that Abrams bounced back from her 2018 election loss, and used it as an opportunity to effect change on the national level.
"In the case of Stacey Abrams, I think she's had a greater effect out of office than she might have had if she was the governor of Georgia," College sophomore Hank Katz, who attended the event, said.
He was most inspired by the way that Abrams turned her loss into an opportunity.
“I think the biggest inspiration for me was how you're not always successful, and how she's lost her fair share of elections and been the victim of our political system, unfortunately, but you just have to keep fighting,” Katz said. “And with time, things change, if you really stick with it.”