IT'S AN INTOXICATINGLY HOT June afternoon in Atlanta, and scores of attendees at the African American Leadership Council Summit are watching Stacey Abrams, in a simple black-and-white shift dress, take the stage. The air, under twinkling hotel chandeliers, is crackling: Congresswoman Maxine Waters has just declared to the crowd that she is ready to impeach President Trump (to wild applause). Now it’s Abrams’s turn.
“I have an announcement to make,” she says, and the room is hushed, expectant. “We won.” The audience erupts into cheers, and Abrams takes a moment before adding, “I realize I’m not the governor of Georgia.”
“Yes, you are!” several people shout back.
“I’m not taking the oath of office. I’m not moving into the mansion.”
“OK, OK,” says a woman in the audience. “They’re saying that because I didn’t get all the numbers I needed, that somehow we failed in our mission. We didn’t fail. In the state of Georgia, we transformed our electorate.”
There is more cheering, and an air of reverence in the room. Abrams’s run for governor in 2018 ended in a loss of just 54,723 votes—a stunning, public blow. And yet she emerged from it as a kind of bellwether Democrat, a vision of her party’s future. She tripled Latino, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander voter turnout and doubled youth participation in her state. She inspired 1.2 million black Democrats in Georgia to vote for her (more than the total number of Democratic gubernatorial voters in 2014). And she gained the highest percentage of the state’s white Democratic voters in a generation. All of this despite widespread reports of voter suppression and a Republican opponent, Brian Kemp—Georgia’s then secretary of state—who oversaw the purging of about 670,000 registered voters in 2017 alone. Some 53,000 voter registrations were still pending a month ahead of the election.
Abrams refused to concede at first. “I sat shiva for 10 days,” she tells me. “Then I started plotting.” Many thought her next move would be a run for the Senate (there was the idea that Joe Biden was courting her as a vice presidential pick, rumors she has dismissed). But Abrams says her attention shifted to something more vitally important: saving American democracy itself. To this end, Abrams set up two nonprofits: Fair Count, devoted to making sure minority and poor communities are counted in Georgia during the census, and Fair Fight Action, an organization that works to secure voting rights of everyone in her state. Fair Fight Action sued the Georgia board of elections and secretary of state over charges of voter suppression in Abrams’s 2018 race. The state has unsuccessfully filed a motion to dismiss. Since then, Abrams has been traveling around the country to give speeches on her new life’s cause.
Abrams’s plain talk on voting rights has become so popular these days that it shows up in the stump speeches of many of the Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke. (Warren has called for a constitutional amendment protecting the right to vote.) Abrams’s fans also include celebrities. Oprah Winfrey, Will Ferrell, and John Legend were among those who came to Georgia to help get out the vote in 2018, and as the leadership summit in Atlanta winds down, I see Alyssa Milano outside the hotel, nearly unrecognizable in a backpack and glasses as she checks her phone. Abrams’s body woman, Chelsey Hall, greets and hugs her, and then tells her boss in the car that she saw the actress. “Oh, I was supposed to text her,” Abrams says.
We’re headed to Krog Street Market, an upscale food hall in a renovated warehouse. Hall is ostensibly taking Abrams to one of her favorite places for dumplings, but it is also a chance for Abrams to show off her appeal. As soon as she enters the market, people of all ages and races begin approaching her with grins and their phones.
At a soul-food stall, cashiers and cooks surround her. “Are you a fan of chicken? Are you vegan?” one asks. Abrams stops. “Are you asking if I like chicken? I’m a black woman from Mississippi; it’s like my religion,” she says. The group laughs.
As Abrams makes her way to the exit, a pair of women block her way. One is so excited, her hands are shaking. “You gonna run for president?” she asks after they take a photo.
Abrams smiles. “I’m gonna run for something.”
ABRAMS, 45, GREW UP with five brothers and sisters in Gulfport, Mississippi, a small lick of a city on the Gulf Coast. Her mother was a librarian at William Carey University, a private Christian college, and her father worked in a shipyard; they were also preachers and ran a restaurant for Abrams’s great-aunt. She calls her family “working poor”—they supported themselves but were also not strangers to having the power cut off. When Abrams was 10 or 11, the family attended a church across town, passing a more wealthy neighborhood on the way, and she and her siblings liked to imagine which house they would live in if they won the lottery.
But Abrams’s parents made sure she read, (fiction, mythology, the dictionary, encyclopedias) and watched public television (the news, ballroom dancing, Sesame Street) and did theater. “They expected us to want more,” Abrams says. She was a good student, though she didn’t enjoy school, preferring to write on her own—everything from poems to Christian pop and country songs. She composed her first novel at 12, about her “tortured thoughts of being an outsider,” called The Diary of Angst. Her youngest sister, Jeanine Abrams McLean, remembers Abrams getting her to pretend to be from a foreign country whenever the two were in public: “So you had these two black girls in an elevator speaking in a French accent,” McLean says, laughing. “She was the kind of sibling you could call for anything—I could talk to her about boy problems, career advice, Star Trek.”
After graduating as valedictorian, Abrams ended up at Atlanta’s Spelman College—despite not wanting to go to college in the South (where she’d spent her whole life) or to an all-women’s and all-black school (since she’d never been allowed to date and grew up largely around white kids). But she went, trusting her mother’s urging, with the intention of becoming a physicist or a writer. Spelman was a cultural reckoning for her. “The notion of identity and the way I situated myself as a young person, as a black person, as a Southerner, as a woman—they were all challenged,” Abrams says. She felt a kind of freedom, dating and exploring new social scenes and running for student office. “I could experiment and fail in ways that were larger than my family but that weren’t going to ruin my life,” she says. She learned to take cultural clashes in stride. At the end of freshman year, her friends put together a slang guide for her because she “had no idea what they were talking about.”
Abrams has always had an outsider perspective—never quite feeling at home at school in Mississippi or at Spelman or at Yale Law School, which she would attend after earning her master’s in public policy at the University of Texas. She learned how to navigate each environment through close study. Eliza Leighton, who met Abrams during college, remembers her as having a keen sense of self: Abrams was “a listener, an observer, and a person making connections,” she says. As fellow undergraduate Truman Scholars, they stayed up late having detailed conversations about how exactly they would change the world.
In her third year at Yale, often an overwhelming time for most law students, Abrams wrote her first romance novel, the first of eight she would go on to publish under the pen name Selena Montgomery, all with suggestive titles like Hidden Sins, Deception, and Reckless. She initially wanted to try the spy genre, having loved James Bond movies, but found that publishers didn’t seem interested in such stories with black heroines. Last year, she published her first book under her own name, a blend of memoir and leadership advice titled Lead From the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change. The passages of self-help expectedly veer into the cliche?, but the personal narrative about her family (her youngest brother is an addict and in prison), her spiral into debt, and her self-doubt are blunt and engaging. She wonders at one point: “I was really good at being a black woman, when compared to other black women. But could I be more than that?”
The idea of running for governor came to her 17 years ago: As a young tax lawyer in Atlanta, she sought advice from the only black female partner at the firm. Abrams said she’d been thinking about running for mayor, but the partner encouraged her to think bigger. So Abrams considered the posts of insurance commissioner and secretary of state, carefully reading the state constitutional descriptions of each (“I am deeply nerdy,” she says). Eventually, after working on the 2002 campaign of Shirley Franklin, the first black woman to become mayor of Atlanta, Abrams considered the governorship. “That’s when I realized we can do this,” she recalls.
We are in the living room of her slate-blue Atlanta town house, neutrally decorated and filled with books (among them Ulysses, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and the cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat). It’s the home of a woman who likes to be at home. A sand-colored couch faces a pale fireplace, decorated with family photos, a picture of Abrams with President Obama, and a statuette of Lady Justice. A tray of chocolate candies has been set on a stand near the dining-room table.
The story Abrams wants to tell about Georgia is about how the state is no longer a foregone political conclusion. It, and the rest of the Deep South, is changing, she argues. Whites now make up just over half of the population in Georgia and are expected to be the minority by the end of the next decade. Abrams has worked to reach rural communities of color, and to register folks who have never been part of the political process. In 2013, as a member of the state legislature, she created a voter-registration nonprofit called the New Georgia Project, which completed 86,000 new voter applications.
That is what began her troubles with Kemp, whom Abrams calls a “cartoon villain” and who alleged that Abrams’s group must have committed misconduct in registering so many voters so quickly. Although Abrams’s organization was cleared of those charges, Kemp’s office illegally canceled nearly 35,000 voter registrations from 2013 to 2015. Abrams describes more insidious forms of suppression—like the extremely long lines at polling stations in black neighborhoods. “Voting rights is the foundational issue in American politics and American society,” says Heather McGhee, a political analyst and fellow with the progressive think tank Demos. “Simply put, if we don’t all have an equal say, how can we expect to have an equal chance?”
ABRAMS IS AN AVOWED INTROVERT who has taken more personality tests than she can remember—but she also has a certain swagger. While talking with an aide about being recognized in public, she recalls, “Someone at the airport came up to me and said, ‘Has anyone ever told you that you look like Stacey Abrams?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, my mom.’ ” She delivers the last line with a confident shrug. She knows her political influence depends on her going out and spending time with ordinary voters—“I try to be as committed to those moments as I can be,” Abrams says—but she’s happiest alone. She loves to cook and watches, as she puts it, “an inordinate amount of television”—from Chopped to the Canadian sci-fi series Travelers and episodes of the cult sitcom Community. She just finished Genki Kawamura’s international bestseller If Cats Disappeared From the World. Abrams wants to write more, too: a teenage superhero novel that is halfway done, an almost-ready legal thriller, and the last in the trilogy of romance novels. “I get these plaintive tweets and emails asking if I’ll ever get it done,” she says. “But some of them come from my sisters, so. . . .” Much of her favorite music remains pre-1999 country: Travis Tritt, Garth Brooks, Patsy Cline.
Abrams is still surprised at how much people like her. “There’s something about the commonness of my story that resonates, and the averageness of some of my aspect”—she laughs—“and not in a bad way, but people can see themselves in me.” She tells me she is single and is “terrible” at dating. “I’m very poor at reading romantic cues,” she says, “and I have had conversations with men that I liked who were like, ‘I liked you, but you didn’t seem interested!’ I had no idea! I thought you were asking me all those questions because you wanted to know what I thought.” Her romance novels, she tells me, are a form of “self-tutelage,” and she thinks she can get better at dating with practice but has “lived a life that has made practice harder.”
I get around to asking the question so many have asked: Will she run for president in 2020? “For me, the calculus is ‘Am I the right person, and is this the necessary time?’ ” Abrams says. She has been meditating on what she can bring to what she considers an already “solid field of candidates.” The day of the conference, she held meetings with O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg, and she spoke with both of them about the same thing. “First, I expect candidates to talk about voter suppression,” Abrams says. “The second is that the South has to be part of any strategy for victory. My mission is to ensure that Georgia is seen as a competitive state for the general election.”
To many Americans, Abrams’s wider platform has been eclipsed by her focus on voter suppression. But if she does decide to run, she says, her policy priorities will remain the same: expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage, enacting criminal justice reform, ensuring reproductive rights. Abrams is no Democratic Socialist and is content to talk about her values within a traditional capitalist framework. Her values were made in Georgia, she says. “I think we spend a lot of time figuring out which shade of blue we are on the spectrum, and it depends on where you live, it depends on what’s possible, it depends on how evolved your economy is,” she tells me. “I’m fighting for getting a state minimum wage above $5.15 an hour. There has to be a recognition that, on the spectrum, progress looks different because of where you are. But that doesn’t mean you don’t dream of more.”
Abrams’s next mission is saving jobs in her state; after Georgia’s passage of one of the most extreme anti-choice bills in the country this past spring, banning abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy, several Hollywood productions have threatened a boycott. The entertainment industry hires nearly 100,000 people in Georgia and generates $9.5 billion locally. Abrams doesn’t think a boycott ahead of an election year will sway state legislators, many of whom have staked their platforms on banning abortion. She is advocating that the only long-term solution is to change the composition of the legislature itself, and as I leave her home, she is getting ready to fly to Los Angeles to meet with studio executives to convince them of the need to invest in voting-rights reform and Democratic campaigns. Just days earlier, Governor Kemp canceled his own scheduled meeting with the industry. Abrams is not the leader of a state or country yet, but she is already acting like it.
Due to an editing error, in the print version of this story, Vogue mischaracterized the work of the Georgia nonprofit Fair Fight Action. It does not work to register new voters in Georgia, only to secure voting rights for everyone in that state.