‘You don’t run for second place’: Stacey Abrams on a possible 2020 bid

Abrams could be a game-changer as a Democratic candidate for president, but she is carefully weighing her options

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they dont run for president.


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    With some two dozen Democrats officially in the race for 2020, Stacey Abrams is the only one by the starting line unsure if shell compete.

    Indecision is a label most politicians will go to great lengths to avoid. George W Bush declared himself the decider, while the former White House spokesman Sean Spicer memorably characterized his old boss as unbelievably decisive.

    But Abrams is leaning into her indecision, seeing it as an opportunity to more fully and intelligently explore her possible paths forward after her dramatic run for the governorship of Georgia last year ended in defeat but catapulted her on to the national stage.

    We often push ourselves to make quick choices simply for the expediency of either ourselves or whoever is asking the question, she said in a private side room of the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington DC, where shes just off-stage from a speech at a liberal thinktank conference.

    If you havent fully investigated, you can decide in haste and repent at leisure, she said.

    Whatever Abrams does next, other 2020 runners will be watching closely.

    I believe she would change the game, said Aimee Allison, founder of She The People, a group that works to elect women of color. She would change the calculus for the countrys strongest Democratic voting bloc: black women and other women of color.


     

    Thats not an uncommon opinion.

    I
    I believe she would change the game [of the presidential race], said Aimee Allison, founder of She The People, a group that works to elect women of color. Photograph: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

    I would be absolutely terrified if I were any of the candidates running that she might jump in the race, said Democratic operative Jess McIntosh whos been excited about Abrams since 2012, long before she was a household name.

    Abrams Georgia campaign didnt land her the job she wanted indeed, she chalks up her loss to the voter suppression issues she went to war with in her campaign.


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    But that race, along with everything shes done since as founder of two new voting-rights not-for-profits and a rising voice in Democratic politics, has now made her the most popular progressive not in the race, as the Washington Post put it recently.

    In Washington, Abrams has just finished her remarks in the hotels grand ballroom as the keynote speaker at the ideas conference put on by the pre-eminent liberal thinktank Center for American Progress. And already shes been artfully demurring on 2020.

    Theres a solution to the current crisis in American leadership, Abrams told the audience at one point. It is not, however, having everyone in America run for president but that is also not an announcement.

    With practically every other star in the party currently running for president, Abrams has become the Democrats de facto headliner for such speeches, delivering a State of the Union rebuttal, meeting with party leadership and top-tier presidential candidates, and pulling off major donor events for the Democratic National Committee.

    Shes just back from a west coast tour promoting her new book Lead From The Outside a kind of memoir-cum-empowerment guide for the less advantaged. (When it was published last year the New York Times book review compared Abrams writing to a young Barack Obamas.)

    Im not sleeping a lot, Abrams admitted.

    For months, political media have been reporting that shes set to reveal soon whether shell run for president, with various outlets drawing out pros and cons of her possible timelines. But Abrams herself doesnt seem overly concerned with reaching a verdict.

    Until recently, she says her every waking thought revolved around the Georgia governors race; and reconsidering her options in the wake of a loss, for her, means careful deliberation.

    Im shifting gears in a way that is consequential for more than just me its consequential for anyone I ask to support me, for anyone who gives up another job to come and work with me, she says.

    Ava
    Ava Duvernay and Stacey Abrams speak onstage at the National Day of Racial Healing at Array in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

    Its everyones responsibility to make decisions that arent driven by satisfying one persons notion of what you should be, but by fully understanding who you will be when you decide to move forward.

    What comes next is a question shes has been weighing for months, having recently realized she does not want to run for Senate, a conclusion reached through what for Abrams is a characteristically systematic process of deliberation: asking herself what she wants, why she wants it, and how to get there.

    Harry Reid, the former Democratic leader of the Senate has expressed disappointment that so many of his partys political powerhouses opted out of Senate bids this cycle. But Abrams rejects the idea that choosing whats best for her is somehow unpatriotic, adding its hubris to think that only she could win.

    My decision had nothing to do with whether I could win or not I think I could win, she said of not running for Senate. It really had to do with, is that the right fit for me? As I think about whether Im going to run for president, its a similar conversation.


     

    Though she hasnt answered the in-or-out ultimatum so many have put to her, shes still offering valuable insight into what kind of political leader shed be. Its one who arrives at big decisions only after careful consideration, and who seeks political office only when shes clear about why she wants it.

    As Abrams put it recently, When I ran for governor of Georgia, it was not for a title, it was for a job.

    In that sense all the hyperventilation about whether shell be throwing her hat into the presidential race or waiting for another shot at the Georgia governorship in 2022, misses a larger point.

    Her vision for Democrats is powerful in its simplicity: that America will realize its progressive ideals when its electorate looks like its citizenry.

    In speeches traversing the country, Abrams has detailed the litany of ways voters in her state have been kept from the ballot box and flagging what she sees as other examples of voter suppression efforts under way in Texas, Arizona, and elsewhere.


     

    Stacey
    Stacey Abrams campaigning at the St. James Baptist Church in Forsyth, Georgia in 2018. Photograph: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

    Shes also shared hard-won solutions and strategies, detailing the three-pronged attack she deployed in her work with the New Georgia Project, the non-partisan group she founded back in 2013 to help reach and register more than 800,000 voters in poor parts of the state.

    But, of course, those efforts still left her short of the votes needed to win in Georgia, and its yet to be proven that her strategy is scalable nationally. The theory does appear to be what shes testing, however, and its appeal is powerful.

    Voting rights seem like something everyone should support nobody in either party wants to be seen as being pro-disenfranchisement after all but getting more Americans registered has a clear Democratic skew.

    Perhaps that helps explain why Republicans have been skeptical of voter registration projects in the past. Or even why a Republican-led statewide ethics commission has been launched into her gubernatorial campaign and allied groups that worked to expand voting access.

    Abrams team has called the investigation a partisan witch-hunt, following an election in which her opponent held on to his job as secretary of state a perch from which he was able to purge more than 1.5 million registered voters from the rolls, including 850,000 people kicked off for not voting in two consecutive election cycles, and an additional 53,000 whose registration applications imperfectly matched their drivers licenses.

    Abrams lost by just 54,723 votes.

    Now, though she may not be running for president, Abrams is keeping a presidential-campaign level schedule, lecturing at Brookings on one day, and zipping cross-country on a book tour the next.

    Wherever she goes the political reality is this: whether or not she runs, Stacey Abrams is already influencing the presidential race.

    From the airwaves, at fundraisers, and in one-on-one conversations with presidential candidates, shes making her priorities the why of whatever form her political candidacy ultimately takes known, and known widely.

    Her speech in Washington was addressed as much to the presidential field as to the policy wonks sitting there in the room.

    Whether we have 23, 24, 25, or 150 candidates for president we should demand from every single person they must speak about voter suppression every day until every person who is legally entitled to vote has the right to vote in the United States of America, she told them.

    They must also be willing to look every voter in the eye and say, I see you. I understand your challenges. I see the barriers you face and Im willing to tackle those obstacles, not through vague language and not through programs but through action, through policy, and through determination, because when we see our voters and we give them their voices, we will see the change we need in America and will survive for another generation, she said.

    A week earlier Abrams had put out a video rallying against new anti-abortion laws alongside Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, a show of political force implicitly (if not subtly) putting Abrams on the same level as top female presidential candidates.

    Stacey
    Stacey Abrams, left, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, right, called voters to rally support for Abrams at an event in Jonesboro, Georgia. Photograph: Ben Nadler/AP

    Of course, that may be more a display of political might than any indication of actual intent. She is certainly determined to carve her own path.

    Media reports suggesting her name was on the lips of certain presidential candidates as a desirable running mate, including rumors shed been singled out as the prohibitive favorite of the current presidential frontrunner, Joe Biden, were not well received by Abrams.

    Abrams is well aware that shes on a shortlist of Democrats who can generate excitement nationally and knows better than to let the Washington whisper mill sell her abilities short by casting her as another guys number two.

    And so, having received no phone call to which she might respond, Abrams took this particular piece of her mind to national airwaves, explaining to the unacquainted why you dont run for second place.

    She is still angry about the story.

    I think it is deeply problematic that there would be a discussion of relegating any woman to the role of second when the primary has yet to fully take shape, she said. I think its a reflection again of this notion of what leadership looks like.

    Abrams was schooled early in the soft bigotry of seemingly ordinary assumptions.

    As a middle school student she won a local writing contest only to learn the white woman distributing the $50 prize, upon seeing Abrams, did not believe she could be the winner one of many regrettable stops along the way to a remarkable adulthood which taught Abrams to distrust peoples artificially low expectations for her. Also, the rigid societal strictures around what women and particularly minority women can or cannot do.

    As a young person, she thought winning a Rhodes scholarship seemed an impossibly high achievement and she threw herself upon the challenge. Shes recalled the rejection she received as deeply painful, but it also taught her something perhaps more precious than a win: that defeat isnt fatal.

    Before she served as leadership in the Georgia statehouse, she lived more lives than anyone but a cat, making her way as bureaucrat, businesswoman, tax attorney and when she found herself wanting to read more fantasy about people who looked like her as an author of romantic suspense fiction, under the nom de plume Selena Montgomery.

    Her life story is a powerful statement of expanding the possible and Abrams wants to help others do the same. But in the 2020 contest, sexism is already out in force, disguised as a seemingly straightforward question: can a woman running for president really win?

    Stacey
    Stacey Abrams arrives to speak at the National Action Networks annual convention in New York City. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

    Abrams has heard it all too often, recalling how during her last campaign well-meaning people would praise her capability and smarts before whispering what they perceived to be a fatal political diagnosis, but youre a black woman.

    In fact whats fatal are such misperceptions and Abrams thinks her attunements to such pernicious dynamics would help set her apart from the field.

    After Pete Buttigieg warned dismissively about the lure of identity politics, Abrams was center stage explaining how the term had become a dog whistle for conservatives and a disappointing number of liberals who mischaracterize the real need for awareness of challenges faced across backgrounds as either a willful politics of division or, even more crudely, as the practice of simply voting for whomever looks most like you.

    Voters need elected officials who can not only reflect their needs but also understand their obstacles, Abrams tells me offstage.

    We should not see that identification as a detraction. If you cannot see the obstacles or if you refuse to countenance them as real then how are you going to help those communities advance?

    As for the notion identity politics is voting for whoever looks like you? For white men, its called American history.

    Many have only ever had the choice to vote for people who dont share their identities, she tells me of minority voters. The opportunity to expand their choices is a good thing, it is a reflection of a growing and maturing democracy where we can have the marginalized stand up and see themselves reflected not only in their voting patterns, but in their choices for election.

    And she adds, The demographic inflection point that we are in as a nation is accelerating.

    Its a fancy way of saying that America is running out of time to get stuff right, but only she knows what role shell seek to play in this historical moment.

    And, for the moment, shes not telling.

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