Stacey Abrams: 'The urgency I assumed existed in '18, I know exists today'
Outside a juice bar in Marietta, a few dozen women are seated on folding chairs, listening to the candidate they hope will be their next governor.
Up front, Democrat Stacey Abrams and Dr. Nadine Becker, an Atlanta OB-GYN, take questions, mostly on Georgia’s new abortion law. The law bans most abortions after roughly six weeks, with few exceptions.
“Please, god, you’re going to get elected,” Eileen Lichtenfeld, a Marietta marketing professional, says into the microphone as the crowd nods along. “But the odds of our legislature turning blue are very very bad. What can you as governor do? Because this is the law.”
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed the measure in 2019, not long after taking office. But until this summer’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the law remained tied up in the courts. Now, it’s in force.
Since Abrams’s first run for governor four years ago, a lot has happened in Georgia and in the country. Reproductive rights eroded, a deadly pandemic swept the world, people took to the streets to protest racial injustice and rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol as former President Trump and his allies attempted to hold onto the presidency.
When we grabbed a table inside, I asked Abrams how this moment and campaign feel different than 2018, as Georgia voters weigh her and Kemp’s candidacies for a second time.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Stacey Abrams: Four years ago, it was grounded in a presumption of what could be. We had not seen what the governorship would look like under the current leader. But we were also facing a president who was intent on stripping most communities of their rights. We had a governor who seemed to be aligned with that ethos. And now we know it’s true. We have a hard-right extremist governor who has in four short years, weakened gun laws and banned abortion. And so what I’ve learned is that the urgency I assumed existed in ’18, I know exists today.
Sam Gringlas: Your desire to expand Medicaid was the centerpiece of your campaign in 2018. And as you know very well, you’ll likely be inheriting a Republican House, a Republican Senate, you need those votes in order to expand Medicaid. Have you been having conversations with your former Republican colleagues in the legislature that give you confidence that this goal of being able to expand Medicaid, should you become governor, is possible?
Abrams: I’ve not had conversations, but I remember all of the conversations I had when I was there. And many of the members who were there then, were concerned then and I know they have to be anxious now. There were Republicans when I was there who wanted Medicaid expansion but were precluded from saying so publicly by the leadership of their party. Having a governor who says that Medicaid expansion is the right thing to do creates space. And what is also going to be very clear is the economic consequences of the collapse of our healthcare system. Losing the Atlanta Medical Center is not a non-issue. I have absolutely no doubt that by making it my priority, we will get Medicaid expanded as my first act as governor.
Gringlas: Some of the same realities exist in the legislature when it comes to being able to repeal or adjust the current restrictive abortion law on the books. Can you talk a little bit about the vision you have for adjusting that law? Is it a fix? And what would that look like? Do you think you have votes for a full repeal?
Abrams: My mission is repealing this law and putting in place a law that actually reflects the science and the reality of reproductive care. I believe that we can indeed achieve that. Because should I become governor, it will be a very clear signal by the citizens of Georgia that they want better. I believe we can come to an agreement on a law that actually reflects the needs and the values of Georgians.
Gringlas: You’ve mentioned your opponent, Governor Brian Kemp, a few times. In the wake of the January 6 hearings, in the wake of his primary challenge from David Perdue, some voters in Georgia may see Kemp as a defender of democracy. And I wonder, do you worry that Democrats characterizing Kemp, as you know, extreme, might just not connect with some of those swing voters?
Abrams: Unlike some of the allegations that are tossed at me, we actually have proof of his extremism. It is in the criminal carry law that he signed. It is in the abortion ban that he signed. But even more importantly, what more Georgians are recognizing, is that he’s not a defender of democracy. He refused to commit treason once, as did every other governor in the country. Our bar should never be so low that not committing treason is a reason to celebrate.
Gringlas: As we’re talking right now, President Biden is in Philadelphia giving a televised address on threats to democracy in this country. Earlier this year, he came to Atlanta and made the pitch for passing voting rights reform. But since then, those efforts have kind of fizzled in Washington. Do you think that President Biden has been doing enough to continue leading that charge on voting rights legislation in Congress?
Abrams: I do believe that there will consistently be an effort, and I am proud of his continued engagement on this issue. Voting rights did not suddenly come into jeopardy under President Biden and will not always be solved by one person, but it will be solved by consistent and persistent action. It is clear that we are continuing to face challenges to democracy. And they are so insidious and so divisive that as we get closer and closer to this election, I believe more Georgians will understand that we need a Governor Abrams to protect democracy in the state of Georgia.
Gringlas: Governor Kemp has been making an argument that Democratic policies are to blame for high prices, and for difficulty finding workers. At the same time, he is giving his administration credit for economic development, and record tax revenues. Do you worry voters might look at that and say, “Yeah, that makes sense to me?”
Abrams: In the last four months, we have closed the polls, we were down 43 to 51. We have now pulled within two points during the height of those arguments. What Georgians understand is that while there may be a macro success, they are feeling micro pain. They are feeling pain in their wallets. They are feeling pain in their planning. They know their children cannot afford to go to school. They know that Brian Kemp has offered a single solution.
But what is even more important is to recognize that we have the opportunities that we have in Georgia because of the success of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff and the Democratic members of our Congressional delegation. They delivered the resources that have created the $5 billion surplus. And now Georgians face a very clear choice. Do we invest that surplus in the people of Georgia? Or do we give it to the wealthy of Georgia in the form of a tax scheme that currently is giving half a billion dollars to 50,000 Georgians while middle-class Georgians will only see $193 back?
Gringlas: A lot of Democrats are really invested in your campaign; they see the chance to elect the country’s first Black woman governor, the chance to solidify Georgia’s status as a purple state. That’s a lot of pressure. Do you feel the weight of that in this election, and also what it will mean if you don’t win for a second time?
Abrams: I feel the urgency of the challenges we face. On Sunday, I had a conversation with a survivor of rape, who was a disabled woman, who said that she was both trapped in her body and trapped in her space and could not access support. I’ve been down in rural Georgia where students worried about their ability to go to college because they can’t get access to the internet. These are real issues that are facing Georgians, and so the only pressure I feel is to do the best I can to become the person who can lead the state forward.
Gringlas: Thank you.
Abrams: Thank you so much, Sam.
To hear more from WABE’s politics team, listen to the Georgia Votes 2022 podcast. WABE also plans to have Governor Kemp sit down with WABE soon.