Debt, jail and government cheese: Stacey Abrams thinks she can turn Georgia blue by getting real

"The reason we get in trouble in politics and in life is that we think that our secrets will remain that way"

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published May 26, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

Stacey Abrams (Kevin Carlin)
Stacey Abrams (Kevin Carlin)

Stacey Abrams made history this week when she became the first African-American woman nominated to be a candidate for governor from any major party in the United States. The former minority leader of the Georgia Statehouse easily defeated Stacey Evans in the Georgia Democratic gubernatorial primary on Tuesday.

It was an extremely difficult journey as she faced racism, sexism and smear campaigns. Abrams joined “Salon Talks” before her historic election to discuss race, class, literally being a minority leader and her new book.

“As one of six kids my parents taught us that you don’t talk about what needs to be done, you do it, you find ways to do it, so for me it’s less about courage and more about necessity. No one is going to do more for you than you will,” Abrams told SalonTV’s D. Watkins. “No one is going to see your needs more than you can. My job is to think about how can I do that for myself, people who had lives like mine, and people who have lives that are completely different, but will benefit from real change.”

D. Watkins: D. Watkins here with Salon TV and today I'm joined by the amazing Stacey Abrams, “Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change."

How are you doing today?

Stacey Abrams: I'm well, thank you. How are you?

Watkins: I'm inspired already, just sitting here. I've been up admittedly watching your speeches all night and you're a very powerful person when you get behind a podium. Did you ever consider a career of being like a motivational speaker or like a pastor?

Abrams: No, both of my parents are Methodist ministers now. My mom was a librarian when I was growing up. My dad was a shipyard worker but they became pastors when I was 15 and I've organized my life to never go into the ministry; when I'm in church and I feel the spirit too much, I get a little worried. I go back to being a lawyer or a politician.

Watkins: They gave you that gift.

Abrams: I am incredibly grateful and I think that I'm a pretty good mix of the two of them. My dad's a very fire and brimstone kind of guy. My mom's more cerebral, but an amazing storyteller. I try to sort of merge what I learned from how they communicate and try to channel that when I talk.

Watkins: No, I just, I thought it was amazing and now you're running for governor of Georgia.

Abrams: I am.

Watkins: What does that mean to you? Because we briefly talked about before we started, how there hasn't been a lot of black governors in the history of this country. Let alone black women; you can count these numbers on one hand.

Abrams: I mean, there have been two black women who were appointed, one in Wisconsin and the other in Texas, but for brief periods. There have been two black men who had been elected, Doug Wilder and then Deval Patrick. David Patterson was appointed after the governor had to step down, but no black woman has ever successfully received the nomination to run for governor or for her party or actually ever been elected.

There's something very powerful about thinking that I could change that. That I could change what the face of leadership looks like. But for me, it's much more about what you can do with that power, that the governor of Georgia, the governor of any state, can help talk about poverty, talk about inequality, deal with issues of criminal justice reform. That the work that you can do as governor is extraordinary work that can transform lives.

Watkins: You have to be an extremely brave person to take that step. Where did you get that courage from? What does it feel like knowing that potentially you can be in history books for the rest of your life?

Abrams: My mom and dad were both, they were civil rights activists as teenagers. They grew up in Mississippi in the 1950s. My dad got arrested when he was 15, helping register people to vote, and the willingness to go to jail for a right that he wouldn't have for six more years, assuming they were successful. My mom was very active in the movement as well. They raised us to believe —I'm one of six kids — and they taught us, you don't talk about what needs to be done, you do it, you find ways to solve problems.

For me, it's less about courage and more about necessity. No one's going to do more for you than you will, and no one's going to see your needs more than you can. My job is to think about how do I do that for myself and how do I do it for the people who had lives like mine; and people whose lives are completely different, but who would benefit from real change coming.

Watkins: You just felt like, "politics is going to be my thing," because I know you started out kind of young. You were already in politics, it was 17 years old? How did you get into politics?

Abrams: When we were growing up, my mom and dad would make certain that we volunteered all the time. My dad's point was: We may have nothing but that's not an excuse for doing nothing. My mom, her way of saying it was, no matter how little we have, there's someone with less. Your job is to serve that person. I watched my parents do that first through volunteering and then through the ministry. Those were not the avenues I really wanted to pursue, but I was more fascinated by what are the structures that make poverty possible, that make oppression sustainable. I understood that the government was an intricate part of it. It was also the nonprofit sector that tried to solve some problems but didn't have the resources. And the for-profit sector, which is not designed to solve inequality issues.

Watkins: You were an attentive student in high school, really serious.

Abrams: Oh, very much, I was.

Watkins: Like two pair of glasses.

Abrams: I was very diligent. When I finished high school, I was interning and I was supposed to be a typist on a campaign. Someone was running for Congress and they gave me a speech to type and I did not like it. It was not effective and I rewrote it because I was also 17 and obnoxious. I rewrote the man’s speech and they read it and he liked it. They made me a speechwriter on his campaign.

Watkins: Look at that. Anybody ever tried to talk you out of politics because this is a dirty game and it seems like you have a really supportive and loving family.

Abrams: My mom asks periodically if I'm sure this is what I want. My older sister, she's a cultural anthropologist and she will occasionally just push back and say, "Are you sure this is what you want?" I'm an introvert by nature.

Watkins: Are you sure?

Abrams: I really am. I watch an ordinate amount of television by myself and put it this way on the spectrum: I'm like this close to being someone who lives in a cabin in the woods.

I find poverty problematic. I think it's immoral, I think it's economically inefficient and I'm a very goal-oriented person. My goal is to solve these problems and it turns out you have to talk to people to get it done. I've overcome my fear because I'm not shy, I'm just, I'm more reserved and that's made politics difficult. Politics usually requires that you're a glad-hander, that you enjoy engaging and talking and chatting and hanging out and that's not what I do. What I do care about are people's problems. I want to talk about how I can help solve them and usually if you're having a conversation with me, I forget the niceties. I won't ask about your dog, but I will ask if you need help figuring out, finding the best kennel, like that I can do for you.

Watkins: The refreshing thing about that perspective is, I don't always want to be in conversation with a politician that's trying to charm me. I want somebody to get straight to the facts. How is my vote, and me getting out here and advocating for you, going to help me in my current situation?

Abrams: Exactly.

Watkins: That's what we want to know.

Abrams: Politics is fundamentally the conversation about how do you use power and for me the conversation has to be how do you use power to help those who have the least amount of power. Where folks get, I think, tripped up with power is that they start to think it's theirs, but it's always borrowed. You're borrowing it from someone for something and eventually, someone's going to want it back or want to take it from you. When you start to think that it's yours, that's when you start to make mistakes. That's when you find people becoming more corrupt, or worse, when they start just forgetting that they should be doing anything at all because corruption is terrible, but so is just inactivity.

A willingness to accept the situation as it is because it just seems too hard to try to change it. That's one of the reasons I wrote the book because I want more of us to understand what we have, we have access to power too. It doesn't always look the same and it's hard to get and hard to hold, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Watkins: That's how I felt when I read your book. I felt like, it was talking directly to the reader and offering a lot of solutions, which is another thing that we don't really get. You got a lot of people registered to vote in Georgia. You already understand how important grass-roots work is. Is that going to help in your race? You feel like you got a chance to create a lot of your potential voters?

Abrams: Absolutely, in fact, we've taken a lot of heat from the traditional political pundits who say that we're spending too much money. We've raised a pretty substantial seminar campaign, but we have been spending it and it's called the burn rate, which is just a euphemism for you're not holding your money to go on television at the end. For me that's the wrong approach and it may work for some but in Georgia, in 2018, we leave too many voices unheard. We let too many people not be touched by political campaigns. And the reality is people don't vote for you or against you. They vote for themselves and if you don't give them something to vote for, if people don't believe there is something that will help in their lives, they are not going to come and vote. We've really been investing in that kind of outreach. Our campaign has already reached out to more than a million voters in a primary. We've already held more than 200 voter contact events in neighborhoods where hardly any politician shows up. I want people to believe that with my election it is their election. They are sending someone to the governor's office who will actually remember why she showed up and we'll tell them before she gets there what she's going to do so they can hold me accountable.

Watkins: What are you telling them to make them believe you? What are you saying to make them believe? People, a lot of people are just jaded, and we know we should vote. We know our ancestors fought for it. We know it's our civic duty and we know these things and then like, you worked really hard to vote for a candidate and it's like, "before I voted for this guy, they were shooting around my mother ways." What do you tell that person? How do you get that person to keep like doing that civic duty and voting and playing their part?

Abrams: People have to have something that they're in it for. I have a younger brother who has been in prison. He has a heroin addiction and he is bipolar. When I started this race, he was serving his second stint in Mississippi State prison. And Georgia, like Mississippi, has terrible prisoner reentry support. You can't get healthcare, you can't get a job when you get out, you can't find a place to live. I asked Walter for permission to talk about it because I want people to know I know what they're dealing with. They're not worried about a 401K. Some of them are, and I want to talk about that too, but for a lot of the folks who don't vote, they're worried about their cousin who's getting out of jail for the third time and the second time he went back it was because he couldn't find a job.

Watkins: Contrary to what people may believe, people don't want to come back to prison.

Abrams: They don't.

Watkins: People don’t want to go to prison.

Abrams: Recidivism occurs because you lack access, because you lack proper pathways for reentry, and it becomes systemic because all of the things that you're told you're supposed to do to stay out you were precluded from doing so.

If you can't get a job because you have to tell people you were in jail, how are you going to pay for the rent, and that's assuming anyone will lease you an apartment because the best place you could probably live is a place where everyone like you lives. If you're in a common community where everyone is struggling and where everyone does the thing they knew how to do, that got them in jail, that's likely what they're going to do again. When you layer that with addiction and with mental illness, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that until we break that cycle, people are going to struggle, and so one of the things I talk about is Walter. I talk about the fact that my family, I remember eating that orange government cheese that melts really good.

Watkins: That’s not the first time I ever heard about government cheese. We got them all and the cheese comes in a big block, they slam on the table, boom, cracking in half.

Abrams: It was really orange and you were like, that color does not occur in nature, but it sounds really good on a grilled cheese sandwich.

Watkins: You don’t like cheddar, I know. I love government cheese is not cheddar.

Abrams: It’s not cheddar and there was a patina to the cheese that was very different, but I talk about it that because a lot of folks like to walk away from their history, away from what led them to where I am. I grew up working poor. We had the lights cut off. The water wasn't on, my mom would call that urban camping. So, what I talk to folks about is one you need to know; I know where I started and you need to know I'm not that far away from it. Sometimes what happens is we succeed and we like to forget the challenges. One of the ways I'm hopeful that people will engage is because I talk about where I was. I talk about where I am. I talk about the fact that even though I have had an extraordinary life — I have been able to go to Spelman College, UT Austin, Yale Law School — I'm still in debt, I'm still struggling sometimes to make certain I can meet all of my responsibilities. I never fail to, but I still have to work at it and I hope they hear in that a story that's true to them and they vote because they believe that I'm not going to forget them when I get in.

Watkins:   Yes, that's one thing I learned as I was learning about your story. It's just you do care, and I feel like you care and you obviously have an understanding of these issues. A lot of times I feel like somebody running against you can try to use that to try to smear you in a way. Like if you're talking about debt that's brave and honest, that's an American thing. Like everybody is going through it. It's not like a strange thing, but you're brave enough to talk about it and people on the other side or people who are trying to go against you, they try to use that in a way that they advocate against you. To disqualify you, to make it seem like you can't get the job. How do you fight that? How do you deal with that?

Abrams: I believe that the only way you can be successful is by understanding who you are and being honest about it. Now, I'm not saying walk outside until everyone, all your business all the time, but there are some key issues that we have to be truthful about. I'm in debt because my parents took in my niece, my brother's child when she was five days old, and this was a year after they got hit by Hurricane Katrina. My parents have not had a full salary since 2005 and it's diminished dramatically since then and now they're 69 years old raising an 11-year-old. My grandmother moved in with them six years ago after she broke her back. My parents deserve to have a solid life. My niece deserves to not have to struggle, and so I made it my responsibility to support them, but that means I've had to defer tax payments.

The law says I can defer tax payment. There's no law that lets me defer the cancer treatment payments my dad needs. There's no law that says I can defer paying health premiums. There is no law that can defer paying rent, and so people are going to try to use it against me. I subscribed to the "Eight Mile" rule of politics, which I've made up, but you remember at the end of "Eight Mile," where he says exactly but what he says in that last rap battle, he's like, "look, I know everything you've got to say about me." Part of the reason we get in trouble in politics and in life is that we think that our secrets will remain that way, they won't.

Watkins: It’s now the age of smartphones.

Abrams: Exactly, and so why not? Why not talk about it? Why not create an opportunity for dialogue? I mean, I wrote this commentary for Fortune about my debt because I wanted people to know I'm not ashamed of it. I'm troubled that I'm still in the space and I've made mistakes.

Watkins: It connects you more.

Abrams: That's exactly it.

Watkins: It connects you more. A lot of millennials are going to be out there, voting for you and wanting to know why they should vote for you when they already feel like, they're not into college, they’re not into voting. They just like, look at the president and just look at what our parents went through. What do you want to say to them? How do you get them? First you want to tell them, start by reading this, but what do you want to say to the ones who won’t make it to the book? Who won’t to get a chance to pick the book up?

Abrams: My campaign has an extraordinary number of millennials on staff, and throughout my political career, I've always been very intentional about hiring training on people because you have to, you can't just talk about what people should do. You have to create pathways for them. I want them to know this is their country, this is their state, and somebody's going to be making a decision. Do you want it to be you or do you want it to be someone who doesn't believe in you, doesn't invest in you, doesn't trust you? This is about power, that the book is about power. Running for office is about how we own and leverage that power. I want young people especially, I want millennials to understand that they possess an extraordinary amount of power about the direction of this country. If 77,000 people had voted differently two years ago, we would not be in the morass that we're in with the man who occupies the White House being where he is. That power was seated, a group of people gave it away. They could take it back and they can change.

Watkins: The man who sworn, it’s just like that cheese she was talking about.

Abrams: I would not, yes, he does again have a patina.

Watkins:   It's just like the cheese, no, I think that you're just a person to motivate those young people, I want you to just look clearly into that camera and tell everyone where you going to be at tonight reading and where they can actually get the book.

Abrams: I'm going to be at the Strand reading my book, having amazing conversation with Ashley Ford. You can get the book at your local independent bookseller if you don't know where that is. Go online and find one, but while you're online, if you want to go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble, please do so, but buy my book.

Watkins: Thank you and good luck in your race.

Abrams: Thank you.

Watkins: Have a great day.

Abrams: This has been delightful.

Stacey Abrams: Georgia's next governor?

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new book, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," is out now.

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