You might be surprised to discover that many political scientists just don’t have the stomach for politics. Many of us are far more comfortable with theories and hypotheses than with delving into actual realities in communities, neighborhoods, cities, and politics in action.
I confess that although I absolutely love the world of politics, campaigning, and elections, I had become a bit jaded after the 2016 presidential election. And then came Stacey Abrams, the woman vying to become Georgia’s next governor, and the first black female governor in the history of the United States.
You might laugh—an African American woman governor of a red Southern state. But a look at how she’s made it this far shows that neither she nor her candidacy should be underestimated. Abrams has consistently beaten the odds and exceeded expectations in various stages throughout her life, the Georgia governor’s race is no different.
Abrams, 44, moved to Atlanta with her minister parents as a teenager and was the first African American female valedictorian of her high school. Back then, she was hired as a typist for a congressional campaign; her edits were so good they made her a speechwriter.
After becoming a Truman scholar and getting her law degree at Yale, Abrams was elected to the Georgia state House in 2006, and began serving as House Democratic Leader in 2011. She’s been a trailblazer and visionary rolled into one. When she saw that 800,000 people of color in Georgia were not registered to vote, she launched the New Georgia Project, registering over 200,000 Georgians in just two years. When she noticed there was a dearth of businesses run by women and people of color, she and a friend launched the NOW Account, a program to help small businesses grow and spur innovation in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, creating and maintaining over 2,000 jobs from over 350 small businesses in Georgia.
Most impressive has been her work pertaining to criminal justice reform. She helped pass changes to reduce sentences for non-violent offenders, shift Georgia’s policies on private probation, improve the parole system, adopt a new juvenile justice code, and obtain eligibility for vocational licenses for ex-offenders. Part of her passion for criminal justice reform stems from her brother’s struggles and interactions with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, substance abuse, and the criminal justice system. These efforts are also informed by her parents and siblings’ ongoing financial and emotional support for a family member who has been involved in the criminal justice system.
Her credentials are solid. So: Can she win? Can she win as a Democrat in a red state? Is there a path for victory for a black woman to lead a Southern state?
I argue that a path is possible. Her primary opponent is a white female largely self-funded former state legislator who also shares the same first name. Stacey Evans has the money, but does not have the grassroots foundation. Even with a large number of Georgia primary voters still undecided, most polls show Abrams with a sizeable lead over Evans in the May 22 primary.
However, many voters are mindful of the power of the Bradley effect, that is, what happened when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley ran for governor and discovered the discrepancy between opinion polls and the election outcome—that is, white voters saying they will vote for the black candidate but not doing so at the polls. The most significant case Evans has been able to make to some voters is that she is the more electable nominee against the presumed Republican candidate, the current Lt. Governor Casey Cagle.
Abrams has had to convince voters that her vision, leadership style, and past legislative successes will reach the hearts and minds of voters across Georgia, despite being a black woman. If Abrams is victorious on May 22, she will likely face an opponent with a near perfect grade from the NRA as compared to her proud F-rating. In an era of increased gun violence, social issues that once seemed clearly partisan and uncomplicated are being brought to the fore and thrusting voters to specify and even rank their policy preferences and concerns.
Most voters look at Georgia and see a bright red state. However, when we look a bit closer, Georgia emerges as a purple-ish state, and one that in this particular national political climate may be poised to turn blue. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by just five points in the state. The supply of affordable housing, along with corporate job creation and eastward migration after Hurricane Katrina, has bolstered the black middle class in Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs. In addition to this growth, the retirements and subsequent reverse migration of many black middle class Baby Boomers back to various counties in Georgia has created a new and robust voting bloc.
I care about this race because it’s an opportunity to be a part of history with an abundantly qualified candidate. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Shirley Chisholm being elected to Congress. She began as a member of the New York legislature and served two terms before running for Congress. Similar to Chisholm, Barbara Jordan was the second African American woman elected to Congress in 1972, but the first from the South.
Chisholm and Jordan’s electoral successes contribute to the legacy and necessity of black female representation not just at the polls, but in elected office as well. But notice, they were members of Congress. In the history of the United States, there have only been two elected black female senators (Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Kamala Harris of California), and zero black female elected governors.
Abrams has a unique opportunity to become the first black female governor in U.S. history. Abrams and her team have built an extensive grass roots campaign strategy that extends across the 159 counties in Georgia. The Democratic primary is May 22 and it remains to be seen whether Georgians are ready to elect a black woman to lead. I do know that if her race and gender were white and male, there would be no question that Abrams would be handpicked and anointed as the future of the Democratic Party.
The election of 2016 has shown us that race and racism are still embedded in the fabric of American political life. However, what the subsequent months have also shown is that this nation has the capacity to emerge from our sordid and divided past and bend toward the ideals of American democracy. This race may serve as the canary in the mine for the future of Democratic politics in the south and leading into 2020.