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Alexis Madrigal: Hello. Hi. I’m Alexis Madrigal. I’m a staff writer with the Atlantic magazine and, oh thank you. It is my extreme privilege and pleasure to be here tonight. We are going to meet Stacey Abrams.
I’m sure you know pieces of her story. She’s a graduate of Spelman, UT Austin, Yale Law School. She’s a former minority leader of the Georgia assembly, the author of “Lead From the Outside,” and eight novels somehow.
She’s the first Black woman ever nominated by a major party to run for governor. And she received more votes than any Democrat in Georgia history. She also wants to get home in time to watch Game of Thrones, please welcome Stacey Abrams.
Stacey Abrams: Thank you. I would say you guys look lovely, but I can see no one.
Alexis Madrigal: Since I started telling people I was doing this interview, the first thing that everyone said to me, to the point where it even got annoying to me, is a question that I’m going to ask you. Are you running for president?
Stacey Abrams: I don’t know.
Alexis Madrigal: You don’t know.
Stacey Abrams: I don’t know. Would you like me to elaborate?
Alexis Madrigal: Yes, go ahead elaborate. Elaborate.
Stacey Abrams: So this like, 1,400 people can leave after they hear the answer. No, look, I think we have an extraordinary crop of folks who are running, but I think part of the opportunity for 2020 is having candidates who are talking about the right things, but also doing the right things.
I would join the race if I believed that I would add to our ability to win. If I don’t think that that’s what I can do, I’m not going to run, and I think it’s too early to know where we are in that process.
Alexis Madrigal: Okay. Now you can all get rid of your anxiety that I’m not going to ask her that question. We can go back to the beginning. Why don’t you tell us just about how you grew up a little bit?
Stacey Abrams: So I am the daughter of a shipyard worker. My dad worked at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi. My mom was a college librarian. Both of my parents… Yes, go libraries. Yes. Both of my parents are from Mississippi. My dad liked to joke that he was from the wrong side of the tracks, but my mom’s from the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks. And her family, she is the only one of her seven siblings to finish High School, let alone go to college and get two masters degrees.
My dad–yeah, she’s awesome. My dad is dyslexic and he grew up in Southern Mississippi in segregated schools that were deeply under-resourced, and so he was never diagnosed. Most people just assumed he was just dumb, they couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t read, but he has this amazing aural memory and he would never miss a day of class so he could memorize what the teacher was teaching. And as he matriculated he found different people to help him sort of cement what he learned.
And when he was in 11th grade, my mom was in tenth grade, he met Carolyn Hall and he says he wooed her, she says he stalked her, we don’t really talk about it too much. So I tell the story of my parents because they are really the story of who I am. My mom and dad fell in love when they were 15, 16, and ended up going to college together. Got married in college went off–my mom got a graduate degree. They moved back to Mississippi.
But they were very intentional about creating their own idea of family. They wanted us to do three things: go to church, go to school, and take care of each other. And it becomes a bit rote when I talk about it. But the way it was lived was that we had a routine that helped cut through the misery of poverty, the anxiety of economic law, you know, lack. It helped bolster us when tragedies would strike.
And they had six of us, so we never had to have real friends because we were just friends with each other. And so they really helped us build a sense of, not only family, but a sense of community by making sure that we were always engaged in service to others. Which we would sometimes push back on, because we’re like, you know, we’re poor too. But my mom and dad wouldn’t let that–they wouldn’t countenance that as an excuse, they would like–look we’re going to go help because that’s what you do. My dad’s way of saying it was, you know, having nothing is not an excuse for doing nothing.
And so I grew up in this family where we read a lot. My mom had a whole library at her disposal. If you could reach it and read it you could read it. They soon revised that rule, after a while. We had chores and responsibilities. We had to take–we were assigned a sibling to look after. But I grew up in a family that was, as my mom put it, genteel poor, but we were, we had cultural experiences that kids in our community didn’t have. But we also had expectations of us that defied where we began. And so I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world because I had Carolyn and Robert as my parents.
Alexis Madrigal: What was school like where you were growing up?
Stacey Abrams: I don’t think I have time. So yeah, I was in–we were in sort of the best school my parents could get us into. We got to–we lived on South Street. So it was North Street, South Street, and then the streets started having like fancy names. So we lived on the like, the last poor street you could live on to get zoned into the middle class school.
The really good school was Bayou View and we weren’t going to be able to get anywhere near that. And so we went to Aniston Avenue. I did not have classes–although there were African-American students in my Elementary School classes–most of my time was spent in the gifted program, which meant I was only Black kid.
There were a lot of challenges and there were a lot of issues with expectations where I was–I’ve learned this later–but I was skipped from first grade to second grade because I’d begun reading really early on. But they originally wouldn’t move me because they were waiting for two young white girls to catch up with me, because they didn’t think it was appropriate for me to be the only kid who skipped. And the only Black teacher in the elementary school called my parents and said you know, Stacey is supposed to have been moved to the second grade, but they’re holding her back. You need to call. And my parents called.
And so I was sitting in first grade being mildly unruly because I didn’t want to do whatever that was they had me doing. And the principal came and got me. And all I knew about being in first grade was you don’t want to meet the principal. And so they came to get me and the principal walks me outside. Now, I’m in first grade. And the principal who’s really tall, Mrs. Holquist, walks me outside to the trailers, and all I can think about is–like am I going to die? What is this? And I’m just terrified.
And I see these trailers, these–I didn’t understand what trailers were. And I’m just like oh God, they’re going to put me out here. And I’m–I’ll apologize to Miss Kimber for calling her a fat pig. I’m so sorry. And the door opens and there’s this woman who I thought was an angel because the way the light hit her from behind, had this long blond hair. And she’s standing in the doorway. And I can just see the dark behind her and she smiles at me, and her name was Miss Blakesley, and I’m like, oh God, I am gonna die. There’s an angel here. And then they–she welcomes me into second grade. And so that’s a very long-winded way of saying this. It was complicated. We were not expected to be high performing students.
My older sister Andrea was in the gifted program, was the only Black kid admitted. I was the only one, my sister Leslie, I think there were maybe two. So we were always fighting to be recognized for who we are, but we were also isolated because we weren’t performing the same way the kids from our community were. And so there was always a tension in how we were educated and also what we were expected to be, based on that education.
Alexis Madrigal: And how did it–like how did it end up? How did you do in high school?
Stacey Abrams: I was Valedictorian. I may have mentioned that before.
Alexis Madrigal: They wanted to clap for you. I was just giving them the chance, you know.
Stacey Abrams: Yeah, I loved learning and I enjoyed, I enjoyed learning. I did not like school. I slept a lot. In class. In fact the first piece, the first paper I ever published was on Mesopotamian astronomy, and it was because in 11th grade, I would sleep through certain classes. Most of them. But I’d study, I mean I knew the stuff. And so, Mr. Mason who was our physics teacher, he and I had an agreement he would let me doze off, but my responsibility was to be able to take the test. And as long as I did fine on the test, he didn’t really care.
Well, we had one exam my senior year, I took physics II. And I fell asleep and we had a sub and she wouldn’t let anybody wake me up. And so I failed the test and I was about to lose–you know my GPA was going to plummet.
And so Mr. Mason–I went to him and begged if I could write a paper just to prove I actually knew something about the topic. And he was like fine go ahead, but you’re not going to be able to make up the whole thing. Anyway, so I wrote this paper and he was like, you’re a really good writer, and he submitted it to the Georgia State University’s Journal of the Astronomical Society of the Atlantic. And they published it, and I got my A back.
Alexis Madrigal: That’s amazing. What do, what do those of us who grew up out West–I, you know, born in Mexico, spend all my time on the West coast–what do we not understand about the South that you grew up in? Like out here on the west, westerners, you know.
Stacey Abrams: Look, I think there is a tendency to see the South through the lens of either “Gone With the Wind” or “Selma” or “Atlanta.” Like those are the three archetypes that people have for the South. When they see me. Now, they see someone else, they’ll add in “Dukes of Hazzard” and maybe “Designing Women.” And all of those archetypes have some semblance of truth, but we are a much more complicated place. But we’re also much more diverse than I think people realize.
I mean one of the challenges and opportunities in Georgia is that Georgia is 53 percent white, 32 percent African-American, seven and a half percent Latino, and four and a half percent Asian Pacific Islander. Sorry nine and a half percent Latino. So we have one of the most diverse populations in the country.
And when people think of the South they think black and white, they think pure segregation, and they do not realize just how complex the demography is and therefore how complex the economy is. And how sometimes isolated we are from opportunity because we are dismissed as still being what they remember from whichever show introduced them to the South.
Alexis Madrigal: Yeah. I think your siblings do an incredible job telling that story. I just–this is from Rebecca Traister’s article about you:
Her elder sister Andrea is an anthropology professor in Kentucky. Leslie was appointed by President Obama as a US District Court Judge. Richard’s is social worker in Atlanta. Walter, who attended Morehouse, struggles with drug addiction, has been incarcerated. And her youngest sibling, Jeanine’s an evolutionary biologist who was working at the CDC.
You kind of see this full spread of kind of life possibilities that came out of your family. And, big question, but we got time, what have your siblings taught you, how did they influence your life path?
Stacey Abrams: So my older sister taught me to read. Andrea has always been the most patient of us because she is 12 years older than the youngest one of us. But she’s always been responsible for us.
She taught me to read. She helped defend us against bullies. She is indomitable in her defense of us. But she’s mean when she’s mad. Like we’re–to this day my mom just chortles because we are afraid of Andrea. I mean, like we’re grown people. Half of my siblings have their own small people, but Andrea tells us to do something and we do it. And my mom’s like, you guys realize you can take her. We’re like no, we’re not gonna try it. But she’s also, she’s so smart and kind and she’s sort of the emotional core of our siblings.
Leslie is brilliant. She’s a federal judge. She became a judge before she was 40. Leslie is also just spirit. She’s exciting and she teaches us how to have fun. And this is someone who takes study and learning so seriously, but Leslie is as assiduous with her fun as she is with her studies.
Richard was the child I was assigned to be responsible for, so my job was to make sure he studied, that he does homework, if he got in a fight make sure he won, and then we’re both getting in trouble. And he struggled with a learning disability himself, and so his persistence and his attention to his own children comes through with just such clarity.
Walter is–he’s so smart and so troubled in some ways. But watching him each time he stumbles, watching him try to stand up again. There’s a resilience to him, because he knows what he’s capable of. He knows he’s one of us and he has the same capacity that we have. It’s just our experiences met him in a different way.
Jeanine is an amalgam of all of us, but uniquely herself. She is fearless and I think part of it is because, you know, we had, she had, my two brothers were sort of her closest mentors.
But together they’ve helped me really refine who I am. They hold me accountable. They are not impressed at all. But they are incredibly loyal. Like that’s the largest lesson. The loyalty that my siblings and I hold for one another and the loyalty we have to our family is immense and it requires everything. You don’t, there are no conditions on that loyalty. And I think that’s part of what keeps me doing the work I do, is that you don’t get to be loyal only when it’s convenient. Loyalty requires sacrifice, it requires pain, and the payout may be a long time away, but you don’t do it for the payout, you do it because that’s the thing you’re supposed to do.
Alexis Madrigal: Yeah, you know, your parents devoted their lives to the Church in many ways. What’s your current relationship to the Church and to faith?
Stacey Abrams: If you ask my parents not enough.
No, I’m a member of a local church. My younger sister Jeanine and I attend the same Church. Columbia Drive United Methodist Church. I am very very much steeped in my faith. I am not as diligent with my public practice of going to church. We went to church a lot as kids and I just decided I’ve saved up enough attendance days. The Bible doesn’t exactly see it that way, neither does the pastor, but I feel comfortable with my decision making.
But I do believe and practice my faith. And I we were raised First Baptist and then we became Methodist, and I remained Methodist because of the tradition of service that’s embedded in the United Methodist ethos, but I also have read the Bible. And and I read the Bible, I read the Quran. I did an investigation of the various faiths. Because my parents said we were taking–they were like, we’re not taking you to heaven with us, you need to figure out how you’re going to get there. They told us, you know, make sure you believe because there is no, this is not a joyride.
And so I came back to being Christian and back to being Methodist because it is the closest set of rules and expectations, but it’s also a faith that’s renewing to me. I don’t exploit it to convince people to support me, but I can hold my own when people try to use it against the values that I know to be true.
Alexis Madrigal: I want to ask you kind of a two-pronged question about kind of your education. One is sort of–you went to three very different kinds of schools, you know, HBCU, UT Austin, big public school, and Yale Law school and I kind of–I want to know how the kind of those three places came together and whether you feel like they cancel each other out– like how did they, how do you think about these three very different places in your mind?
Stacey Abrams: So my mom tricked me into Spelman. I did not intend to go to a Black college, a woman’s college, or college in the South. And I wasn’t allowed to date till I was 16. I had not–other than the last years of high school, and even then it was a little bit, I did not spend a lot of time in the academy around African-American students. And I wanted to leave the South with a deep and abiding passion.
So Spelman’s the only Southern school I applied to. By the end I was thinking, I was deciding between Sarah Lawrence, Vassar, Swarthmore, and Spelman. And my mom convinced me to go visit Spelman. She–first she said, just apply and you don’t have to go. So I applied. And then I got in and she’s like, well, you don’t, you don’t have to go, just go visit. And it was a day out of school, so I wouldn’t have to sleep in class. I was like, okay fine. So I’ll go visit.
And I get there and I met Johnetta Cole, who’s the president of Spelman, who’s this extraordinary woman and has a sonorous voice that just, you know, the voice of God. “Hello, Stacey Abrams.” I’m like, I need to go to this school. And then I saw Morehouse, which is an all male Black college. And that produced what I consider a philosophical conundrum, because the issue was, if you see guy who’s the most beautiful Black man you’ve ever seen in your life, and then you see his roommate who’s even cuter, like, what do you call a man who’s more beautiful than the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? I figured it would take four years to figure it out. So.
So Spelman for me was an opportunity to challenge my own insecurities about being a Black woman. About being someone who is introverted. I wasn’t shy, but I wasn’t very social. And this was a place that was going to force me to be in spaces and with people I was afraid of. I didn’t consider myself very attractive, and it was like walking onto the set of a movie sometimes. And these were wealthy Black kids, by and large. And so there was a–you realize that class issues and race issues are not interchangeable. They are very different in their ways. And I had to confront that in a way that was very acute because of how small Spelman was.
Then I get to Texas, and when I grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi, the population was 50,000 people. You could put the entire city of Gulfport in the Texas stadium. That was way too many people.
And so I mean, I was in Texas, I was in Austin, but I was at a small school. I was at the LBJ School. But the very big difference about being in a public university and being around that many people all the time–it was an important way to really start to sort where I wanted to be, not only in terms of the academy, but also where my spirit sort of fit.
And then I was actually going to stay at UT for law school, but the Hopwood decision came down and that was the decision that eliminated affirmative action in Texas schools. And there was a precipitous drop in the number of African American and Latino students who were going to be admitted to the LBJ School, and I figured if I’m gonna go to a school that is that non-diverse I might as well go to Yale.
And so they admitted me. And Yale was the most rarefied experience I’ve ever had. I mean Spelman gave me a glimpse, but you have never seen privilege until you’ve been to an Ivy League College like Yale. And to get into the law school, it’s 270 students. You know, I think I like fell off of the waitlist at the very last minute, but you meet people who from the moment of their birth expected perfection of themselves and knew that their destiny had been laid out for them. And I’d never seen that before, not at Spelman, not at Texas.
And it wasn’t a certainty born of arrogance, it was born of experience. And that is just a very different way of thinking. To sit in the classroom where people aren’t afraid to answer the question because their father wrote the case that you’re talking about. Or their uncle was the lawyer who argued the issue. And so that to me was the first real experience with just an extraordinary level of privilege that you cannot learn and that you cannot fake.
But what I wanted to figure out is, if I can’t learn it, I can’t fake it, can I create my own version of it? And so that was my Yale. So I don’t think they were–they weren’t contrasting experiences in the sense that they contradicted one another, but they were each in their way an additive experience that helped create the person I became, because I had to figure out how to navigate all three of those spaces in pretty short order.
Alexis Madrigal: And less institutionally, but more like the way that you have actually come to think, who do you see as your intellectual predecessors, like people who really taught you like, this is how I see the world beyond like your family and you know, upbringing?
Stacey Abrams: I’ve pulled from a lot of different places to figure out who I am and how I think about things. And I pull from fiction, I pull from real people.
I love reading political biographies because I think it’s important to understand people’s mistakes. I like biographies writ large for that reason. I don’t like autobiographies. I think people lie to themselves and to others.
Alexis Madrigal: You’re like, speaking as the author of a memoir…
Stacey Abrams: Well, which I didn’t want–. But honestly, I mean part of the pushback I had with my editor when I was first, or my agent when I was first writing the proposal–I didn’t want it to be a memoir, because I tend to find them full of well-intentioned mendacity. Like you lie to yourself about who you are, because you need to be able to look yourself in the mirror. And people mis-remember their history.
You know, there’s the Mark Twain quote, you know, “I remember everything whether it happened to me or not.” You know, so I’m bastardizing it a bit, but that’s the nature of writing your own story. That you tend to tell the best parts of who you are. Or when you’re telling the worst parts you tend to romanticize it. And it’s hard to see yourself in real relief.
And so what I like about political biographies and biographies writ large is that you get to see that people can be great in their accomplishments and terrible in their humanity. Robert Caro is going to drive me to drink if he does not finish the LBJ compendium.
But that is a man–LBJ is someone whose extraordinary insights into poverty and the needs of our community and the role that government can play, the nature of power, but he was an awful person in some ways, who lied with impunity, treated people with such carelessness, and was an avowed racist. And so I really love reading about him because I think you can extract every time something new about who to be, but who not to be.
There’s this amazing biography of Simone de Beauvoir that I love. A woman who had to navigate the rarefied world of philosophy and still make her intellectual mark, but also try to determine how her femininity fit into her world view.
I like real people too. So, but I tend to prefer them when they’re distilled and you can really understand how they became who they are.
Alexis Madrigal: I want to ask you, I was going to do politics first and go through your run, but LBJ is a good crossfade into the sort of policy questions that I have for you. And you did say in one of your interviews, I wish people asked me more policy questions.
Stacey Abrams: Yes I did. I didn’t mean it, but go ahead. I’m joking.
Alexis Madrigal: And one of the things that you’ve said several times is that you would like to end poverty.
Stacey Abrams: Yes.
Alexis Madrigal: And the last national level politician who said he wanted to end poverty was LBJ.
Stacey Abrams: Absolutely.
Alexis Madrigal: So what do you take from how people, what–how it actually worked, and what people remember of the war on poverty?
Stacey Abrams: The war on poverty ended abruptly because of his mendacity. Because of the lies he told and the way he tried to manipulate the outcome of, or manipulate the story of Vietnam. That overshadowed so much of what he could have accomplished. If he’d had a full term, a full second term, I believe we would be having a very different conversation about poverty.
He understood infrastructure was critical. He understood the investment in education. The way he critiqued access, he understood that if you gave people access to the resources to take care of themselves and their families regardless of their entitlement or their merit, you could transform community. The creation of Head Start, the creation of Medicaid, the creation of the welfare reform programs.
All of those pieces solved key issues. You can’t learn as a child if you’re starving. And as an adult, if you’re constantly scrambling to make ends meet you aren’t thinking about advancement. If the structure of our government served our people to pull them out of poverty and then say now seek your fortune, that’s transformative.
It failed because he was the, not only the architect, but he was the only cheerleader who had the power to make it so. And when he floundered, he stripped those who shared his vision of the power they needed to drive it to fruition. I truly believe if he had not lied, if we had not become embroiled in a war of his making, that the war on poverty would have been won. But we will never know because he squandered that power in pursuit of pretending he wasn’t flawed in other ways.
Alexis Madrigal: And you know a lot of the, yeah, it also seems like a lot of the recent scholarship on the war on poverty says that it actually did work and brought down poverty among the elderly, like massively. And pretty much every program that kept running did in fact help people. And one of the things that I’ve been asking myself, and I’ll ask you, is like, why then the war on poverty is remembered as a total failure?
Stacey Abrams: It was expensive and it wasn’t an instantaneous fix. We as a nation state in the last 40 years have been trained to evaluate programs not on their intent and their merit and their capacity, but on their instant success. And it’s expensive. It’s expensive to lift people out of poverty, but the long term return on investment is well worth it.
But politicians have too often made their bones on the immediate return. And ending poverty is a long-haul investment. You’re not going to see anything from it immediately. You don’t know that Head Start works until graduation day. You don’t know if, and there’s no way to prove, that food stamps save someone from starvation. And the other challenge is that often any manipulation of the program, any fraud that exists, overshadows everything else. And fundamentally we tend to think of poverty as deeply intertwined with race, and racism is persistent. It is a way to justify our lack of humanity. And we like to forget the war on poverty had success because the people who are most immediately affected and had the most to lose by its termination were people of color.
Alexis Madrigal: Yeah, it’s the moral loophole. Yeah.
Stacey Abrams: Although let’s be clear, the strongest users of most of the welfare programs are white people. But the demonization of those programs tend to always fall on people of color.
Alexis Madrigal: Another policy question, sort of tied up with the politics of the day. Last week, there’s a lot of news, anti-abortion news out of the South. Catch us up. You’ve been in the fight for longer than most people who tuned in more recently. What’s happening, and what should people here in this audience do about it?
Stacey Abrams: First of all, these are forced pregnancy bills. That’s all it is. They wrap them up in euphemisms, and they’re not new. This has been part of a 40-year strategy to overturn Roe versus Wade. And that strategy, we have to recall, is to force back to state level decision making whether woman has bodily autonomy. Because the end of Roe v. Wade does not end abortion. It ends the right of the federal government to hold States accountable for providing access.
And so if you look at the TRAP laws, which have been a series of laws put in place to limit access, to put privileges or location issues, or fairly spurious ideas about what facilities have to look like, there’ve been these series of legal maneuvers that begin in state legislatures, that have all been intentionally designed to create a body of case law that allows the Supreme Court to reverse itself on Roe v. Wade.
At the same time, in concomitant fashion, the conservative Republicans have been taking over state legislatures where they could winnow away at the very basic notion that you can have a right to an abortion. So when they finally received the access point of a Supreme Court Justice who would be that deciding vote, they could end access to abortion on a federal level and therefore revert it back to the States.
And if you’re in a state like the South or the Midwest, you are damned. And that is the intention. And so the bills that have moved, they’ve moved through, Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana is about to do one, Mississippi has done one. But at the same time Rhode Island just refused to put into law and inculcate that it will never follow suit.
And so what we have to recognize is that these forced pregnancy bills are designed to strip away bodily autonomy from women. But the fact that you don’t live in the South does not mean you’re immune. The ability to provide a medical treatment being eradicated because of someone’s notion of morality is deeply problematic. It is.
You know, I was privileged to work with four Senators who are running for president, all of whom I’ve worked with in different ways. I know there are six women running for president, I don’t know the other two. I do know these four women. And I mean personally, I don’t know them. I do know, I know the four Senators.
I know their names, Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson. But my point was bringing them to the table is that they have all worked with me on these issues and we’ve have these conversations. But this is part of a long-term assault on what it means to be free in America. What does it mean to have privacy in America?
What does jurisprudence tell us about who we can be, because if we can errode some of the most basic premises of Roe v. Wade, including the right to privacy, then we are well on the way to reversing advances that we all seem to believe are inviolate, and they aren’t. Because once you knock out that underlying question of privacy as an American right, and you determined that the states can decide, that’s how sodomy laws came into being. No one is free if we cannot create a national standard for that freedom.
Alexis Madrigal: So, one of the things that I’ve been most impressed with is–in your speeches and policy positions–has just been this kind of constant drive to go to like the systemic underlying conditions that are like generating things and changing the conditions of politics. And I wanted to talk about the voting rights work that you have been doing. And I thought maybe you could start–because I read somewhere that you first came out saying voting rights was like a dominant issue when you were 20.
Stacey Abrams: Yes, nineteen.
Alexis Madrigal: 19. So–.
Stacey Abrams: Just in case PolitiFact is out there.
Alexis Madrigal: Yeah. So what did you see then that convinced you that it was an issue of such importance, and what are you working on now?
Stacey Abrams: So as I said, I have these amazing parents. My parents grew up during the Civil Rights era. They both were very involved in getting people registered to vote in Mississippi and fighting back against Jim Crow, and they were teenagers. My dad went to jail helping register people to vote. My mom was doing the same work, she just didn’t get caught. But they made certain we understood how fundamental the right to vote was, not just as a right in and of itself, but as the way to gain access to the services and supports you need.
When my parents would take us out to volunteer, I used to you know, I would go and do my part, we would go to soup kitchens and homeless shelters. But I was always vaguely, well not vaguely, I was directly concerned. I’m like, there are six of us and two of you. How are we going to fix Mississippi? I don’t know if you guys can count, but that’s a lot of poverty.
And my mom and dad would explain the importance of direct service. But I was always taken with the question of systems. Like shouldn’t there be a system that could make this go faster so I can go home and watch the Super Friends? And my mom and dad said that’s called government. And I’m like, well government is bad. It sucks at this.
And as I was getting older, my mom had, you know she, their answer to many of our questions was go read about it. And so I started reading more and more about government. I read about politicians. I read not only about American politicians, but international conversations. And so as I grew up, I was trying to think through, how is it that our government is so out of touch with the needs of its people? And that was directly related to voting. When I got to college, you know, I was 17, 18. I would go to City Council meetings and County Commission meetings. I was very nerdy.
But I also watched people make decisions about neighborhoods like the one I lived in at Spelman, which is in one of the poorest parts of the city of Atlanta. And the person who is supposed to be speaking for this community, I never saw in the community. And to me the issue of voting rights was not just an issue of do you have the right to vote, but do you have the right to vote for people who actually represent your interest? And then I started thinking through and talking about how do people get to run for office?
And the impediments and barriers to just being able to stand for office were extraordinary. Let alone being able to use your right to vote. And if you had to work all day, if you had these other challenges, it just to me became more and more evident that even in a place as given to the benefits of African Americans as possible, like Atlanta, you still have all of these challenges.
And so I was part of a union program called the A. Philip Randolph Institute. I got to know other students. I then participated in a protest that stopped the governor of Mississippi from shutting down a Black college to turn it into a prison. And even in that process we found out that one of the threats that they were using against protesters was that they wouldn’t be able to vote. Or that your vote won’t matter.
And so I got invited to be a youth speaker at the March on Washington when I was 19. And I understood from that very beginning that the right to vote undergirds every other right we hold to be true and valuable. But what really solidified it for me was when I was 24, I was a part of an international program called the Salzburg seminar, and I worked with a young woman from Colombia and a young man from Sierra Leone. The young man from Sierra Leone had been a forced fighter, he’d been conscripted, and he not only escaped but he helped create an entire organization to help lost boys come back into the community.
And she was from Colombia, her family who tried to flee, but they were on the wrong side of the rebels. And watching how hard they were fighting just for the notion of democracy. And watching our country, which had democracy, but not fully realized, has just always rekindled in me the responsibility of moving this forward. And that, going back to my parents, that it’s not enough to solve it for one person, you have to solve the system. Because if the system is broken, everything else is erratic and can fall away the minute you have the wrong person who comes into power. Not that we have any recent experience with that at all.
Alexis Madrigal: So you mentioned how hard it is to stand for office. So take us back to your very first State Rep race. What year is it? What’s going on? And how did you make that call? Because you had businesses, you had novels to write, you had all these things happening. You’re like, I’m gonna get a part-time state legislator job that’s going to be full-time and prevent me from doing all these other things.
Stacey Abrams: Well, my mother refers to my life’s path as a trajectory of downward economic mobility. So I was Deputy City attorney for the City of Atlanta and in 2005 I was–. So I worked with the Mayor of Atlanta, who’s an extraordinary mayor, Shirley Franklin, but she cemented for me that I did not want to be Mayor of Atlanta. Because the work I watched her do, the work I got to participate in, was constantly being overturned by the state legislature. We passed a living wage law. It was preempted. We would try to do these novel things to solve the endemic problems in Atlanta and every time it was–and this was the first time Georgia had a Republican governor and a Democratic mayor of Atlanta at the same time.
And every good idea, every progressive notion, was undercut and undermined and preempted. And I actually spent time at the Capitol because part of my job in the city was managing the lawyers who were sort of helping the lobbyists translate the little legislation coming through, and when I spent time over there, I realized there were very few people in state government who’d ever actually had to do city government.
You had a lot of people who’d been city council or county commissioner, or mayors, but very few bureaucrats. No one who had to actually have to make this stuff happen. And so for me as someone who believes in systems, I needed to understand, how do you fix the system of passing laws that make no sense?
And I looked around. I was trying to figure out, okay if I want to run, I said okay, well I need to be in the state legislature. And at the time I hadn’t quite formulated that I would want to run for governor immediately, but that was an idea.
Alexis Madrigal: It was on the spreadsheet. The spreadsheet of gold.
Stacey Abrams: It was in a second column because it was still a little iffy. It was either Governor or Secretary of State, I hadn’t quite decided which one.
Alexis Madrigal: There is a spreadsheet. That’s a real thing.
Stacey Abrams: There is a spreadsheet. Yes. I do have–we don’t have that kind of time.
And so I was looking at which job would make the most sense, and I realized if I wanted to be an executive in the state level, I needed to understand the process of making the laws. And so I wanted to run for the state legislature. I looked around and there was a seat that I, based on some, a tragedy that occurred, I was able to predict the seat was likely going to come open. And it did. I entered the race. I was running against a 12 year incumbent who represented that district and had been drawn out during the last redistricting. And then because there were people who didn’t like him, but didn’t know me, they put a third person into the race. They actually recruited someone to run against me who was from the neighborhood where I lived.
And I was like, okay, I can’t claim that I have the experience of Mr. Maddox, and I can’t claim that I have the cultural and community knowledge of Dexter Porter, but I said nobody knows more about government than I do. So I ran as a technocrat. I would do these Town Hall meetings where I would just let them ask me questions for as long as they wanted. And I was pretty good at answering them.
I’m like look, my own version of you know, political Jeopardy, or government Jeopardy. But I went a step further and I would actually try to find them answers. And so over time, even though I was not from the community and Mr. Maddox had been there forever, I actually won 50% plus one of the–I got 51 percent in my first race. Now, I also raised an absurd amount of money for a State House race. I raised a little over $100,000. My combined opponents coffers I think equaled 15,000. But I–.
Alexis Madrigal: Was that to send a message about, you might be coming for the Governor’s chair?
Stacey Abrams: No, that was to win. I didn’t…So I wasn’t from there. So I had to learn my entire district and I hired, I believed in organizing. I believe that you needed people on the ground knocking on doors. And so I hired all these field organizers. And then I hired–and I paid them a living wage. So they were some of the best paid field organizers. I didn’t have any friends to volunteer for me because I hadn’t lived in the neighborhood very long. So I had to pay everybody who helped me. But it turns out that’s a great way to do quality control.
I sent out lots of mail, but I also showed up at everything, and the day after I won, Mr. Maddox called me and he said that–I mean, he was really gracious. He was like, you kicked my butt. But I was like, thank you. But yeah, that was my first race, and after that I didn’t have any opposition until I decided to run for governor.
Alexis Madrigal: Well, let’s pause briefly on your time as the minority leader in the assembly. You know that–people talk a lot about it, you know, you were able to, if not work across the aisle, sort of work to prevent the worst things from happening. But what’s something you learned there that people wouldn’t assume, or that they haven’t heard a lot about?
Stacey Abrams: I really talk–so I did a commencement speech recently, and I revisited a theme. And that is, it’s critical to understand your opposition, not for opposition research sake, but for humanity’s sake. That I may not share their beliefs and I may despise some of the outcomes, but we are–we share a common title, and we share common space, and you have to understand the people you’re working with, even if you won’t ever agree with them. And that’s hard.
And it causes causes tensions. People were very taken aback that I had relationships with Republicans. That they would bring me their bills to look at before they would submit them. And my Democratic colleagues would get really agitated, like why are you helping them? And part of my responsibility, or my response was, because if it’s going to be law, it should not be bad law. If we’ve got to live with it, we don’t have the luxury of hoping that a court will throw it out. We have to make sure that whatever crosses the governor’s desk has to be as close to–not good, but it can’t be evil.
Because evil hurts real people. And I’ve been that person. I’ve been the person who’s been the victim of a bad law that nobody wanted to fix because they were certain the court would overthrow it. We can’t rely on the courts to save us, and when you’re part of a process, it’s your job to be part of that process. But they weren’t going to trust me and show me these things if it was always about being in opposition to one another. They knew what my job was, it was literally was my title. My job was to defeat them.
But my responsibility as a legislator was to make sure that what passed the state house was as good as possible. Now if it was in violation of morals and violation of my core values and my core beliefs, I would fight it tooth and nail, and we were pretty successful a lot of the time. But for those things that were in the middle, I’m not going to let bad happen just to be able to collect political points in the future.
Alexis Madrigal: Let’s talk about your gubernatorial campaign.
Stacey Abrams: Really?
Alexis Madrigal: You’ve obviously had to talk about it a lot. One thing that I–in reading a lot of the coverage–one thing that I found really fascinating is how few times you were asked about some of the tactics of the campaign when obviously that was a core part of your strategy, was the system that you set up in the field. So maybe you can can talk about that a little bit, just the what you put in place and how you spent your money differently?
Stacey Abrams: Sure. And this actually goes to the question that someone may ask later about me not running for the Senate. Yeah, yeah. Okay. So when I run, when I ran for the State House, I invested in people that I kept reinvesting in. So even when I didn’t have races, I found other races for them to work on. When I ran for governor, I wasn’t running just to win. I was running to set up a system that allowed Democrats to win going forward. And that meant that I couldn’t run a primary campaign just based on defeating my opponent.
She was important, but my responsibility was to build a system that would allow a Democrat to win the Governor’s mansion, and to win statewide in the state of Georgia. That meant one, talking to communities that were typically left out of the body politic.
That’s why I was very intentional from the beginning of centering in everything I did, both in my written and spoken word, but also in our activities, centering disadvantaged communities, centering communities of color and centering marginalized communities. And we went and talked to Black press, Latino press, Jewish press, Asian press LGBTQ press–we were the first ones to do round tables with all these groups.
In the primary we set up offices across the state. We resourced groups to do their own independent work, especially young people, because they didn’t want to do what we told them and we didn’t really know what we needed, so we said here’s some resources, tell us what you think we should do. But we also built infrastructure.
I, we hired people in-house. A lot of political campaigns rely on consultants for most of their work. We did not. We built almost everything we could inside, and we used consultants to make it better, but I needed to be able to end the campaign having built the capacity for digital work to be done in Georgia by Georgia folks who understood the community. We could do field organizing and we had field operatives across the state so that you didn’t have to send everyone out from Atlanta. That we were actually grooming and training everywhere. And we ended up hiring I think more than–I may be lying–I think it’s more than a thousand people across the state who are now inculcated in how to do this work.
We invested in radio in rural parts of the state, but we didn’t just do Black radio. We did country radio. We were on Korean radio. We were on Latino radio, Spanish language. We built infrastructure because this is the fundamental reality. Elections are math. Nothing more complicated than that. You need more people to vote for you than for the other person. But that means you need to add more people to your column than the last time. To do that means you have to treat every single voter as a persuasion target. In a political jargon, persuasion typically means I’m going to convince a Republican to vote Democratic or Democrat to vote Republican.
You rarely hear Republicans talking about persuasion. They don’t really care, they focus on turnout. They don’t say it that way, but that’s what they do. They’ve done the persuasion. Democrats have not and so what we did differently was that we believed that every voter was a persuasion target, especially voters from communities that were discounted as potential voters. Largely people of color. But we also wanted to make certain that we invested proportionally in their likelihood of voting. And so while we spent money on Urban Radio and on country radio, we spent more on Urban radio, but we told the same story to everyone. We used the same narrative. But the tactical reality was we actually ended up building capacity in areas where no one had been before. Which meant we were able to get more votes in places that no one had ever seen.
We ended up with more votes than any Democrat in the history of the state of Georgia, and we did it by tripling Latino turnout, tripling Asian Pacific Islander turnout, increasing youth participation by hundred and thirty nine percent, increasing Black turnout by 40%, and also increasing Democratic share of the white vote for the first time since Bill Clinton. Those were all done as a tactical reality. Thank you.
But if it’s only about me then I failed. And I know I’m not Governor, but my point about failure is if all of that work only can only be leveraged to my benefits then I was a crappy candidate. My responsibility was to build an infrastructure that the next candidate can use, and I believe whoever runs for Senate in 2020 from the state of Georgia can use this playbook and can use this infrastructure.
If I’m the only person who can be the Governor of Georgia than we have done or sorry, it’s on my brain–if I’m the only person who can be the U.S. Senator from Georgia, then I have failed in my responsibilities as a part of our progress. I used our tactical domain and our strategic imperative to create a platform that any efficient candidate who is willing to do the work can use to win.
Alexis Madrigal: How many of you want to ask questions out there? There’s some people that want to ask questions? Let’s pull up the lights and let’s let people ask you questions. They’re gonna love this. All right. There’s gonna be people with mics, they’re going to be running around.
Stacey Abrams: You like, you guys really actually do look good. Now that I can see you. Hi.
Alexis Madrigal: Yeah, right?
City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming from the front all the way to your right.
Stacey Abrams: Hi there.
Audience Member 1: Thank you so much for being here. Electoral College.
Stacey Abrams: Yes.
Audience Member 1: Riff on that.
Stacey Abrams: Electoral college is an anachronism that needs to go the way of the dinosaur. And we have to remember, it was designed because there was a belief that people weren’t adequate to the task of picking their own leaders. No. And so I think it should be abolished. I sponsored the national popular vote legislation in Georgia. We almost got it through and then this pesky 2016 election happened and suddenly they were like, never mind.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the center of the balcony towards the front.
Audience Member 2: Hi, I’m one of the co-leads of Sister District project in San Francisco. Thank you. As you may know the Sister District project is focusing on flipping state legislators back to blue around the country by marshalling navy blue resources in places like San Francisco and other blue places, and my question for you is, when did we lose sight that state legislatures were so critical? Everyone’s always focused on the shiny Congress and not their state legislatures, as we know with this anti-abortion renegades going on right now, is so critical. So if you could speak to that, I would be very happy.
Stacey Abrams: I would go so far as to say, we’ve always focused on the presidency. Because people don’t always vote in Congressional elections, either. The presidency–we spent, I mean at this point, we spent trillions of dollars explaining what the presidency is. It’s hard for people in Congress to explain what they do.
And for state legislators, because a lot of them are part-time, people know that it’s a process, but our Civics education does not do justice to what a state legislature does. And when people think through–again using Roe v. Wade is the perfect example. People are focused on Roe v. Wade, but they think that the court is going to solve the problem. And if the court overturns Roe v. Wade, then abortion disappears. They don’t understand that what it’s going to do is force the conversation back to the States. There’s been a very strong intention on the part of those who want to control state legislatures to obfuscate what they do, and there has been, I think on our side, a laziness of understanding, but also of explanation.
We can solve this problem by having the conversations about what state legislatures do. And one of the challenges I had when thinking through my next step, is that I fundamentally believe that so often on our side of the aisle, when we cultivate good leadership, we immediately send it forth to the federal level and we do not do the work of actually investing and cementing leadership where we are. But that is not an announcement about my next job.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back of the orchestra towards the center.
Audience Member 3: Given the strength of the economy and I feel like President Trump’s rhetorical skills that he has, what do you think it’s going to take to defeat President Trump in 2020?
Stacey Abrams: Okay, so I do not–no, no look. I think we overread what happened in 2016. The consequences were dire and horrific for many of us, but we’ve misremembered the election. He did not win the popular vote.
So 3 million more people in America opted for Hillary. He won the Electoral College by a combination of 77 thousand votes across three states. And those are all states that are currently carried by–in 2018 elected Democratic leaders. We keep trying to frame a 2020 strategy around 77,000 people, when we have six million Democrats who voted in ’08 or ’12 who stayed home in ’16. Solving a 77,000 person problem by ignoring 6 million people is bad math.
So I reject the idea that we need to defeat Donald Trump. He is not an aberration, but he is also not emblematic of some grand new Republican strategy. They didn’t know he was going to do it either. What happened was, and I acknowledge Comey, the Russians, the emails, you do the litany. But we can control only what we can do in an election, and our side did not do the work necessary to turn out those 6 million people. That’s a solvable problem.
And so if you look to the economy as one of the markers of something he could lift up–this is someone who has managed to step all over his own economy by running a trade war at the exact same time that he was actually starting to see more benefits from the Obama economy. But when you’re talking to the average person, they do not feel that they’re in a good economy.
When you have stagnant wages, when, yes, inflation is under control, but that inflationary rate is still running neck and neck with your actual buying power, and it’s a purchasing power that has not increased in more than a decade, then we don’t have to fight him on the economy, we fight him on the reality.
The reality is if you’re a farmer, you’re about to be bailed out yet again because he has broken his promise. But more importantly, we talk about the positives of what we can create with an economy that is actually led by someone who believes in Americans and their values. And so we don’t need to defeat Trump. We need to win America. And there are six million people out there waiting to hear from us.
Alexis Madrigal: You’re just calling down the run Stacey run chant. That’s all I’m saying.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the center of the balcony to your left.
Audience Member 4: Ms. Abrams, as you know, partially, I mean mainly due to his personal antipathy toward President Obama, Trump has made it his mission to go about gutting the Affordable Care Act as well as he can. At the same time, on the Democratic campaign trail it has become something of a litmus test to express support for a Medicare for All type system, basically overhauling our nation’s Health Care system as we know it.
In your opinion, do you think that we should start from scratch with a something such as a Medicare for All system, or should we go about with incremental changes, such as adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act? What would you do if you were president?
Stacey Abrams: I will tell you what I’m going to think about as a voter. So I think that’s a false dichotomy. We have to recognize that winning the House, the Senate and the presidency does not guarantee us the ability to change fundamentally the Healthcare System of America unless we sweep 60 votes or we have the filibuster eliminated. But that’s a whole other conversation.
I think that protection of the Affordable Care Act has to be a constant drumbeat because that’s what people know, and that’s what they understand, and we have to do the work necessary to explain why that should be, why that advance should be preserved. But I do believe that we need to have a public option.
I do not believe that we are in a place, nor do I necessarily believe we should eliminate private insurance. I think for some, private insurance actually serves a real purpose. And I do not believe in taking away something that is working for some but I do believe there should be access to health care for every single person, including a public option.
Now so only a few of you clap for that because most of you’re thinking well, never mind, I’m not voting for you. Which is fine. But here’s my point. Litmus tests on our side cannot be so stringent as to force out actual conversation. It is an important, there is an important debate to be had about how we make this happen.
Part of my reticence about eliminating private insurance comes with the fact that that means eliminating hundreds of thousands of jobs. And there’s a consequence to that that we haven’t fully vetted with the American people. So people who think yes, this sounds like a fantastic idea haven’t necessarily done the deep dive of understanding, how do you unravel a healthcare finance system that is so tied to almost everything we know and love, including the training of new doctors.
And so if you want graduate medical education to continue so that people can afford to become doctors and provide service, then this notion that we can simply eliminate X and have Y isn’t completely true, but we need to have the debate. And that’s what I want. I want us to have a robust debate about how we advance Health Care and how we guarantee that no one in America gets sick and cannot get help. That’s our fundamental responsibility.
Alexis Madrigal: Of the current presidential contenders, is there someone whose platform you like, or like, this person is–?
Stacey Abrams: Yes.
Alexis Madrigal: Answer the question you’re asked I guess, you know, yeah.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the orchestra all the way to your right.
Stacey Abrams: So I’m going to talk about Fair Fight, but to my right. Yes.
Audience Member 5: What are your views on economic boycotts to protest egregious policy choices. Specifically, should California government and industry, including Hollywood, boycott states like Missouri and Georgia because of their forced pregnancy laws?
Stacey Abrams: Thank you. So I believe in economic boycotts. I’m Black. Whether we’re talking about civil rights in the United States or the end of apartheid, boycotts work. They have an effectiveness that cannot be denied. However, they don’t always work and the way they work sometimes have contravening effects that we don’t often see and therefore don’t have to address.
The challenge I have with using a boycott from Hollywood against Georgia, which would primarily be the place, because Ohio and Missouri both have very weak investments in the entertainment industry–they both are trying, but Ohio’s in the midst of debating their tax credit and I don’t think Missouri has one–is this. These laws were passed as I said, to force a conversation from the Supreme Court, and so regardless of which state you’re boycotting, the question is still going to be asked. And that question is going to be decided in the Supreme Court.
The only way to provide protection is to make certain that when that decision is made, that people on the ground have the ability to withstand that decision and to reverse it at the state level. Because if we presume that they’re going to overturn Roe v. Wade, then we need state legislators who are in place to actually pass progressive laws. We need to have the infrastructure of healthcare providers who are still able to operate in the state because they have been well funded.
My belief is that the more strategic approach that we can take today is not a boycott of a single state because it will have some effect, but that effect is more soporific–or it’s not soporific–but it’s more, it makes us, it’s more palliative, it makes us feel good, but it doesn’t have the effect we need. Republicans have built armies of legislators to strip us of our rights. Our only long-term protection is the installation of legislators who will give us our rights back.
Therefore my belief, is that rather than a boycott–which again if your values tell you don’t spend your money there, go with God, I understand, but if you’re going to do it, I think the money needs to be invested in actually making sure we win elections.
And to my, so, and to my friend and the balcony who asked about Fair Fight, one example is that we’ve created an organization called Fair Fight Action that’s fighting to create a fair electoral system in Georgia, but recognizing that voter suppression is rampant, insidious and pervasive across the country, and that the only way to fight back is through litigation, legislation, and advocacy.
Fair Fight is currently raising money for providers in Georgia, but we’re also raising money to make certain that we have candidates who are able to run fair elections so we can actually take the House back in the state of Georgia in 2020 and 2022. If we can do that we can draw the lines that then make us the majority for the next decade.
You want to stop bad bills, get good legislators. And so for me right now, we have to move beyond the immediate goal of trying to reverse a single law, and we have to focus on the long-term systemic responsibility of changing the lawmakers. That is how you create permanent change in the United States.
Alexis Madrigal: Let’s do one or two more.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the balcony to your far left.
Audience Member 6: Hey there. Thank you so much for this evening. This is wonderful. I’ve been reading Martha Nussbaum, who’s a modern philosopher, who talks about the emotions of a nation and how critical the nation’s emotional life is especially for justice.
And so I’m curious, what emotions do you think our country most needs, and if there’s anyone who has the combination of policy you believe in and the ability to cultivate those emotions who’s currently in the race?
Stacey Abrams: You think you’re slick, you’re not.
So I believe right now we have to acknowledge and harness a righteous indignation. And that is a good thing. I would even go so far as to say, a righteous anger. We need to be angry about the lack of shame in our politics. The fact that we have an erosion of our national identity, and erosion of our morality, happening before our eyes, and we are so overwhelmed by the ignominy that we have seen for the last two and a half years that we have lost the ability to be outraged. And outrage is an important emotion. If you are not outraged, you are not called to action. And so I think outrage is important.
I also think hope is important. And hope hurts. It is a painful emotion to have. When you grow up in communities where hope dies, sometimes it’s a bit of a relief because you’re not waiting anymore.
But when you stop waiting, you start despairing. And so I want us to have the emotion of hope. This belief that more is possible. It’s going to be hard and we’re going to be disappointed by the very people we look to to provide that hope. But it also often creates and galvanizes within each person a sense of responsibility.
And the last is joy. And that sounds wrong in this moment. But I want us to have the emotion of joy because we have seen ourselves come together to respond to things that we thought were never going to change. Not only did I see young people take on ownership after when Black Lives Matter came into being, what we saw happen in Parkland, what we’ve seen happen with the Dreamers. For a generation of people who were born into both optimism and tragedy, I am joyous about their continued engagement. About the fact that more young people voted in this last tenure of our election cycle than any time in recent memory. Because that is a perfect example of the combination of hope and outrage that we need to have.
Alexis Madrigal: Stacey Abrams. That’s all we got.
Stacey Abrams: Thank you.