What It Means to Be a Black Female Candidate

Stacey Abrams is rising fast in Georgia. Some things she learned along the way.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
July 31, 2014, 1 a.m.

Sta­cey Ab­rams is a self-identi­fy­ing in­tro­vert, a former bur­eau­crat, a busi­ness­wo­man, and the au­thor of eight ro­mantic-sus­pense nov­els. She’s also the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an to lead the Geor­gia state House’s Demo­crat­ic Party, and may have her sights on the gov­ernor’s chair.

It used to be the ac­cep­ted wis­dom that wear­ing mul­tiple hats holds wo­men back (al­beit usu­ally with re­gard to child-rear­ing), but Ab­rams sees hav­ing many fa­cets to her iden­tity as a strength. “I’m a tax at­tor­ney ro­mance nov­el­ist politi­cian … and a seri­al re­luct­ant en­tre­pren­eur,” she said. “That is a real­ity show wait­ing to hap­pen.” (Once, when an ex-boy­friend told her he found the premise of her spy nov­el to be im­plaus­ible, she pun­ished him by cre­at­ing a plot twist that put him in pris­on. “He lan­guishes there to this day,” she quipped.)

Ab­rams has been a named a rising star by EMILY’s List,which works to elect pro-choice Demo­crat­ic wo­men. This spring, she was one of three Demo­crat­ic wo­men honored by the group for her achieve­ments in lead­er­ship, along­side Demo­crat­ic Sens. Di­anne Fein­stein and Bar­bara Box­er of Cali­for­nia.

For now, however, she’s fo­cused on win­ning the House ma­jor­ity for the Demo­crats — and, giv­en Geor­gia’s his­tory as a red state, it’s go­ing to be an up­hill climb. Geor­gia Demo­crats are out­numbered 119 to 60, in con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts ger­ry­mandered to keep Re­pub­lic­ans in power, even as the state has be­come in­creas­ingly demo­graph­ic­ally di­verse and is mov­ing to­ward an ever-blu­er shade of purple.

I in­ter­viewed Ab­rams this spring as part of an­oth­er story on a new EMILY’s List train­ing pro­gram tak­ing place in At­lanta. (When she first ran for of­fice, a friend of hers handed her a big EMILY’s List bind­er of tips; it be­came her bible for her first cam­paign.) We dis­cussed wo­men and race and power, as well as how obstacles, some ex­tern­al, some in­tern­al, can be over­come. What fol­lows is an ed­ited ver­sion of our con­ver­sa­tion.

What do you think stops wo­men from run­ning?

We fear los­ing, and that that some­how sig­nals that we wer­en’t cap­able to be­gin with. It is easi­er to lose in private than it is to lose in pub­lic, and so there’s this fear that if you’re not go­ing to win, then why try? There’s also a tend­ency for wo­men to think that they need to be an ex­pert to win, that you have to know everything about everything — that if I don’t have a Ph.D. in every top­ic, then I’m cer­tainly not qual­i­fied to speak for people. I will tell you that my male col­leagues do not suf­fer from the same de­lu­sion. You don’t need to know everything. You need to know you don’t know everything, and be will­ing to learn about it.

Is run­ning harder for wo­men of col­or?

Wo­men in gen­er­al need to be asked to run, and wo­men of col­or ab­so­lutely have to be asked, be­cause too of­ten what you see around you in terms of lead­er­ship looks noth­ing like you. It’s hard to ima­gine your­self in a place where you don’t have a lode­star.

If you could give ad­vice to a wo­man who’s run­ning for of­fice for the first time, what would it be?

First and fore­most, know what you be­lieve and know why you be­lieve it. Part of it is just sit­ting down with your­self and un­der­stand­ing how deep your con­vic­tions run. Then, if you have the for­tune (or mis­for­tune) of get­ting elec­ted, and com­prom­ise is re­quired, if you have to con­front the real­it­ies of the bill sit­ting next to you, you’ll have a met­ric against which to meas­ure your move­ment. The second thing is to know what oth­ers be­lieve. Too of­ten we enter the polit­ic­al space think­ing it’s about us, and it’s not. It’s about the people who elec­ted you and the people you’re work­ing with or against. If you don’t un­der­stand what they’ve got and what they’re do­ing, they will beat you. But if you can un­der­stand what mo­tiv­ates them, that gives you a tool to use to get what you want done.

How did EMILY’s List help you in your cam­paign, and how do you think the group can help wo­men more gen­er­ally?

It’s about hav­ing someone else val­id­ate your ca­pa­city to lead, and that’s what EMILY’s List did for me. They helped me at the very be­gin­ning without know­ing it; they came in when I’d star­ted run­ning and helped me. But, more re­cently, when I be­came lead­er [of the Geor­gia House Demo­crats], EMILY’s List was there to help me think about my lead­er­ship. What do I need to be do­ing as lead­er to so­lid­i­fy that role, but also, how do I build my ca­pa­city to do even more? Hav­ing wo­men who look like you and sound like you, who think something of you and will tell you — that has a val­id­at­ing ef­fect that can­not be un­der­es­tim­ated.

What did you learn from oth­er po­s­i­tions you’ve held, par­tic­u­larly from your time run­ning your own small busi­ness, spe­cific­ally at NOW Corp., the fin­an­cial ser­vices firm you cofoun­ded?

People like to talk about run­ning gov­ern­ment like a busi­ness, but there are very few people who’ve ac­tu­ally had to make payroll and man­age staff. They don’t really get how that fits to­geth­er and how that fits to­geth­er in the con­text of gov­ern­ment. Gov­ern­ment is a busi­ness, but in a tra­di­tion­al busi­ness, your ob­ject­ive is to please a cer­tain cus­tom­er base that you choose. Gov­ern­ment is the only busi­ness that has to please every single per­son, and none of those people have the ex­act same needs — it’s the most per­verse busi­ness that you could pos­sibly have! So if you’re go­ing to run it like a busi­ness, you have to be will­ing to really frac­ture how you think about your cus­tom­er base. If you couple that with need­ing to un­der­stand how bur­eau­cracy works, and how laws get made, I figured I had a fairly in­ter­est­ing back­ground, and I should try it. And I did. And they let me come. And I’ve been there ever since.

What have you learned from writ­ing fic­tion, and how does it in­form your work as a politi­cian?

I think that cre­at­ive frac­tur­ing of con­ver­sa­tion is ne­ces­sary. You can’t get to new ideas if you only think about things the same way, and I try my best, wheth­er it’s in busi­ness or in polit­ics or in fic­tion or in law, to think about things us­ing both sides of the brain and be­ing as in­tern­ally dis­rupt­ive about my own ideas as I can be. When you do that, I think you find where your flaws are, where your mis­takes are made, but it also lets you get past the heav­i­ness of the con­ver­sa­tion. These are big things we’re deal­ing with — abor­tion and poverty and crim­in­al justice. If you let your­self get bur­ied be­neath the heft of what you’re try­ing to pur­sue, you’ll nev­er get it done.

Why are these dif­fer­ent iden­tit­ies im­port­ant to you? Why don’t you de­vote your­self to one thing?

If I lose my lead­er­ship, if I lose an elec­tion, if I get fired from a job, I’ve got mul­tiple backup plans. But more than that, who I am is not tied to any of those things, so I’m not go­ing to make — or do my best not to make — dumb choices try­ing to hold onto one of those things. I’m not go­ing to sac­ri­fice my eth­ics to stay the lead­er, be­cause if I lose this for some reas­on, there’s something else I can do. And if our busi­ness fails, I’m not go­ing to make dumb choices about cook­ing the books, be­cause I know I can start an­oth­er busi­ness. All of these things work to­geth­er to give me op­tions, and when you have op­tions, you can make smarter choices.

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