US political discourse has a habit of elevating figures without knowing anything about them. Barack Obama became president with nary a discussion of his ties to finance, thanks to his speeches and charm. Beto O’Rourke, a centrist, business-friendly Democrat, was briefly a top contender for president on the back of his youth and mastery of viral videos. And then there’s Stacey Abrams.
For the past two years, Abrams has been a leading recipient of this hopscotching swarm of liberal adoration, moving like O’Rourke, from losing a high-profile statewide race to becoming one of the leading Democratic officeholders in the country, despite no longer holding any office. Abrams has been floated as everything from a future president to a future attorney general.
She delivered the party’s official State of the Union response in 2019, and her every public utterance tends to set off a flurry of fevered speculation about the exact shape of her political future. The subject of countless glossy profiles, Abrams has been one of the more high-profile names on Joe Biden’s vice presidential short list, and was even briefly floated as a possible appointee to the late John Lewis’s House seat.
And yet despite an accomplished political career spanning four years as deputy city attorney in Atlanta, ten years in the Georgia House of Representatives, and eight of those as the House minority leader, virtually none of the discussion has invoked her actual record. Far from the unapologetic progressive she’s been depicted as in left-leaning media, Abrams’s time as a policymaker in Georgia reveals her politics to resemble nothing but the centrism of the man whose running mate she has campaigned to be.
From Poverty to Tax Attorney
Abrams grew up in Mississippi, one of six children raised by a librarian mother and dockworker father, whose undiagnosed dyslexia in the 1950s was mistaken for ignorance by his school, which forced him to memorize his way through college. Once a politician, Abrams would tell a story of making the forty-mile trip on Christmas to pick her father up from the shipyard where he worked, finding him trembling in the cold on the side of the highway. He had given his coat to a homeless man.
In her childhood, the Abrams family was part of what her mother described as “the genteel poor,” which Abrams explained meant “we had no money, but we watched PBS and read books.” “My parents did what we called visiting poverty a lot,” she later joked to attendees at an event hosted by the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce. “We didn’t live there, but we had a really nice summer home.”
Seeing their power and water cut off wasn’t unusual for the family, and on those occasions Abrams’s mother would have her kids volunteer at the local homeless shelter. Things didn’t get much better when they moved to Georgia in Abrams’s mid-teens, at which point her parents became Methodist ministers — a decision, she has said, “guaranteeing that they would be permanently poor.” The Abrams’s were civil rights activists, beaten, imprisoned, and kicked off buses for asserting their basic rights. In Mississippi, both had been active in registering voters, hardly a risk-free affair at the time.
Abrams and her siblings were “saved by public education,” she said in 2018 during a brutal Democratic primary for governor that saw her and her opponent battle over who was most progressive. Speaking to the LaGrange-Troup Chamber three years before that, however, Abrams ascribed her and her siblings’ success to something different: the values of cooperation, competitiveness, and accountability, imbued by their parents. “The first part of leadership is to co-operate,” she said.
As a student at Atlanta’s Spelman College, Abrams followed her parents into the world of activism, helping found the two-hundred-member-strong Students for African-American Empowerment. The group made headlines for running a voter registration drive, and really made headlines when they burned the Georgia flag in the middle of a protest, turning Abrams into a target for racist abuse. “I’m used to stuff like that,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time. “When I was in the tenth grade, I had a police escort because my dad spoke out against the KKK.”
“My parents never told us there was anything we couldn’t do, so between the six of us, we decided to try and do all of it,” Abrams later said. That applied not just to her prolific private-sector work later in her career, but the bewildering array of causes she got involved in through college and, later, at Yale Law School, including several different Democratic campaigns, the transition team of 1993 Atlanta mayor-elect Bill Campbell, the platter of local bodies whose boards she sat on, and the several romantic suspense novels she published under a pen name.
In November 1999, Abrams joined Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, one of Atlanta’s largest and oldest law firms, whose clients included the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, and a host of the country’s biggest companies. It was a somewhat surprising choice: at the time, Sutherland had established a national reputation as the go-to firm for state and local governments fighting progressive challenges to racial disparities in their school systems.
The firm had produced legal advice for Palm Beach County justifying the end of busing, was hired by Missouri and Phoenix to fight legal challenges to unequal school funding, and one of its senior partners was a high-profile figure inveighing against traditional solutions to desegregation, later claiming in one mock trial that inner city school systems had all the funding they needed, but were simply not spending it properly. In one particularly notorious case, New York state hired the firm to resist a lawsuit brought by an advocacy group seeking to correct funding disparities between New York City and its suburbs. Sutherland lost the case, only adding to the outrage when it left the state a bill worth millions of dollars in fees and expenses — something of a habit for the firm.
Abrams’s work for the firm focused on a different area. As she would later disclose, her three years at the firm were spent securing tax exemptions for clients, including universities, hospitals, and foundations, and providing them with legal advice and strategies on tax. Sutherland’s recent activities suggest what kind of work that meant: just a year before Abrams joined, it had led a lobbying battle on behalf of businesses against the Clinton Treasury’s attempts to clamp down on corporate tax evasion.
This corporate work seemingly began to infuse Abrams’s politics. In a Christian Science Monitor op-ed from the time, Abrams proposed one idea to “bridge the divide” in education access and quality that exemplified the style of entrepreneurial social justice that would characterize her later political career: IPO-Funded Educational Trusts (IFETs).
IFETs would be a series of privately and competitively managed investment funds overseen by a board of public and private advisers that would take a small percentage of the proceeds from companies’ initial public offerings (IPOs), invest them in the stock market, and have the Department of Education pour the proceeds into subsidies for charter schools or local equivalents. In this way, IPOs, which “fuel the entrepreneurial engines of American prosperity,” would guarantee a “social inheritance” for impoverished kids, she wrote.
Sometimes, however, the interests of business and social justice didn’t mix as well. In 2005, as deputy city attorney of Atlanta, Abrams drafted and became a leading proponent of an anti-panhandling ordinance at the behest of the mayor and city businesses, who worried begging would drive away tourism and conferences. The measure banned all panhandling after dark and levied punishment of up to thirty days in jail and even a $1,000 fine for a third “strike.” Abrams had explicitly modelled it on ordinances passed in cities like Fort Lauderdale, limiting the ban to a specific section of the city so it could survive the same kinds of court challenges those measures had withstood.
Abrams almost sold the ban as a progressive measure. It was a “kinder, gentler” version of the city’s existing Draconian law, she said, true only because of its cruelty at the time, allowing police to arrest people on a first offense. It would direct the truly needy, she said, into the center of the city where a new round-the-clock shelter had just opened; then all that would be left would be the con artists, she explained, ready to be swept up by police.
Religious officials and advocates for the homeless weren’t convinced. Joe Beasley, the Rainbow/PUSH coalition’s Southern regional director, called it “a mean, cold, calculated move.” One homeless shelter operator termed it a “Negro removal” policy, given that many of the city’s panhandlers were black.
It was a “travesty” said one former council person. He was one of several arrested the day the council approved the law 12-3, part of the more than two-hundred-strong crowd that had packed into city hall to fight and, eventually, protest its enactment. Many wore red T-shirts with the name of Martin Luther King Jr — fitting, since the southern boundary of the ban zone was the city’s Martin Luther King Jr Drive, and the council had extended it to the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site in the eleventh hour.
The Progressive Case
When Abrams ran for governor in 2018, she had cause to brand herself an unflinching progressive. Abrams resisted and spoke out against the US Right’s socially regressive policies. She denounced the GOP’s Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act in 2010, which sought to criminalize “sex-selective abortions,” and pushed an “anti-vasectomy bill” to highlight the hypocrisy of the state’s largely male, Republican legislature trying to restrict abortion rights. She also voted against a Republican bill to expand the right to carry guns in bars, churches, college campuses, and government buildings.
As anti-immigrant sentiment became increasingly central to the GOP, Abrams stood against it. She fought bills to force employers to verify new hires’ immigration status and to make all official state businesses and related forms be conducted in English, and condemned Gov. Nathan Deal’s decision to appoint the spokesman for the far-right Americans for Immigration Control to an immigration panel.
Yet she also opposed them on conservative, pro-business grounds: she worried what impact the verification bill would have “on the bottom line of the state at a time of economic downturn,” while the English language bill would “put Georgia at an economic disadvantage,” and warned it “drains our tax base” because “people that work and pay taxes into the state coffers” wouldn’t be able to contribute anymore. “If we’re seen not as anti-illegal, but anti-legal, businesses that are looking to relocate will look past Georgia,” she warned.
Though Abrams has stopped just short of running on single payer, she was firmly in the Obama consensus on the issue of health care. Despite firm resistance from Georgia’s GOP-dominated government, Abrams was a major proponent of expanding Medicaid, making it a top priority for House Democrats and introducing and reintroducing a bill to do so in 2016 and 2017, arguing that it would aid the hundreds of thousands of Georgians in public health care no-man’s-land — too poor to afford private care, but earning too much to qualify for the program — create jobs, and provide much-needed federal funding for the state’s ailing hospitals.
Despite taking a trip to Israel with other Georgia lawmakers early in her career, Abrams voted against a 2017 bill forcing companies competing for state contracts to pledge they weren’t taking part in a boycott against Israel, earning her the ire of a prominent local developer. Abrams carefully triangulated on the issue: she penned an op-ed reiterating her support for Israel, rejecting “the demonization and delegitimization of Israel represented by the BDS narrative and campaign,” noting her repeated attendance at American Israel Public Affairs Committee conferences, and rooting her opposition in concerns around potentially hurting future boycotts similar to those of the Civil Rights and Anti-Apartheid Movements.
She was a critic of austerity, lamenting the sorry level of Georgia’s government worker salaries, criticizing the changes wrought by Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform bill, and assailing the state’s punitive treatment of the poor, including drug tests for welfare. To that end, Abrams was instrumental in derailing Republicans’ 2011 tax reform plans, pitched to voters as a tax cut. Abrams helped embarrass GOP leadership into abandoning the plans by reading out data provided by the Georgia State University Fiscal Research Center, which showed they were poised to increase taxes on middle-income Georgians while slashing them for the rich.
The effort capped years of Abrams speaking out against Republican efforts to cut property taxes, as well as a regressive plan to reinstate a grocery tax. She stressed that the resulting budget hole from tax cuts would mean the elimination of vital programs like Meals on Wheels. (Though conservative rhetoric kept creeping into her comments, as when she chided the GOP for its lack of transparency: “That is not only no way to run a democracy, that is no way to run a business,” she said.)
Collaborating With the Opposition
But Abrams’s time in the House was perhaps most notable, and certainly most controversial, for the times she chose to work with Republicans. Abrams became House minority leader at a difficult time. The Democrats were already at a historic nadir of political influence in the state, with fewer Georgians than ever identifying with the party, largely thanks to an exodus of rural, white voters into the arms of the GOP. After dominating the state as late as the beginning of the new millennium, by 2010 the party had lost the last statewide office it had clung to, and fundraising had all but dried up, overwhelmingly flowing into the GOP’s coffers.
By the time Abrams had ascended to leadership in 2010, the Democrats had lost the governor’s office for the third time and held just eighty-five of the state House and Senate’s 236 seats, with nine of the party’s legislators defecting to the GOP after the 2010 election, including the newly elected chairman of the House Democrats. Republicans were ultimately just one seat shy of a 120-vote House supermajority.
In such a weak position, Abrams made repeatedly clear she saw her role primarily as one of working with Republicans. “We should, first and foremost, compromise where we can,” she later said, stressing it would be the only way the Democrats could have an impact.
Or as she told Governing magazine upon being named their 2014 Public Official of the Year: “My fundamental philosophy is that my first job is to cooperate and collaborate with the other side whenever I can.”
That approach first ignited controversy when newly elected governor Nathan Deal announced plans to cut the state’s lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship in 2011. The pride of Georgia politics since it was championed and enacted by former governor Zell Miller in 1993, HOPE had helped 1.3 million students attend college for free or with a substantially reduced debt over eighteen years.
Deal wanted to raise the grade point average (GPA) for students to qualify, take HOPE out of the business of paying for books and remedial classes, and be less forgiving to students whose grades fell and wanted a second shot at the scholarship. He also wanted to steeply cut pre-K programs, in one of four states with a universal pre-K program.
Abrams lined up behind the plan. Deal announced the cuts with Abrams and the Republican House speaker by his side, allowing him to claim he was working “in a bipartisan fashion” to save the program. “We as Democrats … as the party that created HOPE, support any process that preserves HOPE,” she said.
Deal had included two of the provisions she’d requested, including a low-interest student loan program for kids who couldn’t meet the 3.0 GPA and extra money for technical college students taking remedial classes. “By supporting the legislation, we were able to insert several key changes that will protect working families and at-risk students,” Abrams explained. With her backing, the bill easily cleared the House 152-22.
Senate Democrats, for their part, said they were blindsided. As high school and college students chanted “Shame on you!” and “Kill the bill!” outside the state Capitol, a dozen Democrats in the upper chamber unveiled a counter-proposal, this one upping the amount the scholarship received from the lottery. But with Republican dominance, the bill was dead on arrival.
It was an ideal study of Abrams’s political approach in action. By backing Deal’s plan, Abrams got a seat at the table, allowing her to soften the cuts. This was also why Deal scaled back his plans to cut the state’s pre-K program, she claimed — though an outcry from parents over the unpopular idea played some role, too.
Instead of slashing teachers’ salaries by 30 percent, Deal’s new plan would cut them by 10 percent; and pre-K classes would see their funding reduced to 94 percent of what they were getting. “For the minority party to be able to come to the table and get real tangible results, that’s what we were looking for and that’s what we want”, she said, after standing by Deal at a news conference in which he announced the cuts. Fortunately for Abrams, education cuts wouldn’t be the last issue she and the state’s GOP could collaborate on. Both also happened to be equally enthusiastic proponents of charter schools.
From 2012 on, a statewide to-and-fro ensued over the state’s authority over education funding. When Deal proposed a constitutional amendment giving the state the power to create charters, even to the point of overruling local bodies, Democrats, following Abrams’s lead, bitterly opposed it, defeating it in the House.
But Abrams didn’t oppose it because of the many well-known problems with charter schools. Her only objections were the “unprecedented, unchecked power” it delivered to the state government, and the lack of money to pay for it. She instead backed an alternative proposal that allowed the state government the same power, while checking its influence over local school decisions.
After Republicans agreed to make sure local school systems wouldn’t be on the hook financially for the cost of any newly approved charter, Abrams let her caucus vote freely for the measure. Despite Senate Democrats’ opposition, it passed, and voters later approved it with 58 percent of the vote.
Abrams continued flirting with similarly far-reaching measures. In 2013, when the Republican majority whip proposed a controversial bill allowing parents to vote on converting their local schools to charters and even firing their principals, she didn’t dismiss it, saying the “ethos is good, which is to increase engagement.” Two years later, when Deal proposed a constitutional amendment creating a statewide “Opportunity School District” that could take over, close, or turn failing schools into charters, Abrams called it an “interesting” idea that “has shown some promise in some areas.”
While Senate Democrats put forward a counter-proposal to add health clinics and counselors to failing schools, Abrams went with Deal on a fact-finding mission to Louisiana, where a similar idea had been trialed after Hurricane Katrina, with disastrous results — a trip paid for by a pro-charter group.
Though Abrams and her caucus ultimately came out in opposition, eleven of sixty Democrats defected, crucial votes that made up for nine Republicans who had gotten cold feet, giving the measure the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. The measure ultimately had to be stopped by Georgians themselves, who voted it down in November 2016.
In the face of opposition from voters, Deal and the GOP simply decided to circumvent them, this time with Abrams’s full support. The start of the following year, Republicans pushed a bill allowing schools deemed “unacceptable” by the state to come under the authority of a “chief turnaround officer” (CTO), who could fire staff, remove schools from local board authority, let parents enroll their kids somewhere else, or, naturally, convert them to charters.
With a few morsels thrown to Democrats — deleting language for vouchers to send kids to private schools, and inserting language that promised some unspecified action on child poverty, though without actually committing any money — Abrams endorsed it, calling it “a step in the right direction” and urging her party to back it. Columbus’s Ledger-Enquirer called her “its most influential backer” on the Democratic side. It sailed through the House 138-37, over the objections of half the Democratic caucus and even some conservative Republicans, and despite the opposition of the Georgia Federation of Teachers and the state NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
Critics called it a “backdoor” to Deal’s original amendment. Abrams, in an op-ed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called it “a testing ground for what works and the empirical results necessary for smart policy changes.” It was, again, only in the Senate that Democrats resisted, with all of the party leadership voting against and more than two-thirds of the party overall voting it down. “Teachers will be fired,” warned Sen. Vincent Fort, the Democratic whip, who called the $2.2 million Deal belatedly inserted to turn around failing schools “a pittance.”
“It’s insufficient to simply be the party of opposition,” Abrams had said two years earlier, outlining an alternative to the typical, adversarial approach taken by minority parties. “My first job is to work together with the majority party.”
The CTO legislation was the fruit of this approach, and the worst fears of its critics were only averted because of a series of unrelated events: opposition from the state school superintendent, a whistleblower investigation over allegations of discrimination and conflict of interest surrounding the man appointed to the office, and repeated slashing of its budget thanks to a lack of enthusiasm from Deal’s Republican successor — who, incidentally, had beaten Abrams for the position. The marginally less Republican state legislature finally eliminated the position at the end of June this year.
For the political press, Abrams’s willingness to work with the state GOP is a marker of her political skills and seriousness. But it rubbed some fellow Democrats the wrong way, such as Fort, who in 2014 complained she “probably meets with Republican leadership more than Senate Democratic leadership.”
Abrams’s collaborative philosophy continued right up to the gubernatorial run that made her a household name. In 2017, Republicans, backed by a coalition of business groups like the Georgia Bankers Association and the state Chamber of Commerce, pushed a bill that sought to undo a 2014 Georgia Supreme Court ruling allowing a failed bank’s board of directors and officers to be held liable for its recklessness and negligence, itself a response to the rash of racist, predatory lending that has plagued the state and its capital for decades.
The bill became a flashpoint in the following year’s primary contest, when Abrams was running as an unabashed progressive seeking to win the governor’s office by inspiring a massive turnout of nonwhite voters. Her rival, fellow State Rep. Stacey Evans, had delivered the Democratic speech against the measure on the House floor; Abrams, on whom that task would typically have fallen thanks to her leadership status, instead had walked over to Evans and briefly spoke with her when she was done talking. Evans later claimed Abrams had asked her “if the bill was really that bad,” and that she replied that it was; Abrams denied that’s how the conversation had gone.
Whatever the case, Abrams went back and voted with Republicans to pass the bill. “Bottom line, the bill would allow for the same kind of abuses in subprime banking that we saw in the ’90s and 2000s, and would have given even less accountability for bank officers and directors,” Fort, who had spent decades fighting predatory lending in Georgia and backed Evans in the race, told the Intercept in 2018. He and State Rep. Spencer Frye recalled for the outlet how the bill had been pushed by a swarm of bank lobbying groups — groups that, incidentally, had given generously to Abrams, along with employees of the state’s finance industry.
When to Oppose
Yet Abrams didn’t always take this approach, even on some losing issues. One need only look at her and her caucus’s doomed but ardent resistance to GOP redistricting, an issue that happened to directly threaten their political power.
When Republicans rolled out a redistricting plan in 2011 creating seven more mostly minority districts, and potentially purging white Democrats by pitting them either against black Democrats in those districts or Republicans in GOP-voting districts, Abrams went on the offensive. Calling it “a craven and cynical misappropriation of the Voting Rights Act,” she accused Republicans of trying to “re-segregate Georgia.” With the GOP’s maps, she warned, the number of white Democrats in the House would fall from twenty-two to only ten.
In stark contrast to her passive opposition to — and even support of —some of Deal’s education bills, Abrams emailed her caucus urging them to stay united against these plans. “There certainly are some folks I’m going to have to coax a little bit, but any individual member’s success at the expense of the Democratic caucus and millions of Georgians is not worth the sacrifice,” she wrote. “It is in the Democratic nature to say we stick together, lest we all fall.”
So intent was Abrams on stopping it, that she had threatened to primary any Democrats who voted for the new maps, the Journal-Constitution later reported. “The role of a caucus leader is to protect the ideals and policies of our constituents,” she told the paper. “I can see no justification for any member to put his or her personal interests above our constituents and vote for a map that decimates the Democratic caucus and creates a Republican super-majority.” There were some things, Abrams suggested, that it was more important to go down fighting on principle, than to be complicit in.
Fighting a losing battle, Abrams and House Democrats nonetheless put forward their own alternative map and unsuccessfully voted against the GOP’s proposal. Accusing Republicans of acting as bullies, Abrams vowed to challenge it in court if they won approval from Obama’s justice department, which they did.
It was from around this time that Abrams recast herself as a voting rights advocate, something that would remain at the core of her political identity to the present day. The turnaround was unexpected for political observers in the state. In 2011, Abrams had voted with Republicans to roll back the state’s 2008-era expansion of early voting, reducing it from forty-five to twenty-one days, something groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for American Progress had cited as examples of voter suppression at the time, and which the NAACP had warned would “disproportionately affect voters of color,” given that 60 percent of black voters in 2008 had cast their ballots in the early period.
Now, Abrams became a member of American Values First, a Democrat-led organization connected to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee that looked to combat countrywide GOP voter suppression, including the kind of early voting restrictions she had helped impose on her state. She traveled to Washington to hold a closed-door forum with legislators about boosting voter turnout, and sponsored bills creating one-time and online voter registration.
Yet even after her apparent conversion, Abrams’s penchant for collaborating with the opposition could send these goals crashing into a wall. In 2015, Republicans passed a redistricting plan that gerrymandered two GOP-held districts on the road to turning blue, funneling more white voters into them. Its passage followed a familiar pattern: while Senate Democrats opposed the plan, it sailed through the House with unanimous approval.
When the NAACP and Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Foundation challenged the new maps in court in 2017, three Republican legislators behind it testified under oath that Abrams had given her nod to the changes. Several Democrats told the Intercept and the Journal-Constitution that Abrams had backed the bill and ordered Democrats to vote for it. Abrams, for her part, claimed she had been misled by its author.
Whatever had happened, Abrams’s support helped undermine the ultimately doomed legal challenge. And neither version was particularly flattering: Abrams had either consciously helped Republicans disenfranchise voters of color, or she had been tricked into it, the GOP successfully using her yearning for compromise against her.
This wouldn’t be the last time Abrams’s voting-rights advocacy would embroil her in controversy. The other involved a theme that runs though her entire career: the mixing of her public service and private enterprise. Abrams’s extensive business career shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, Abrams has long considered Ayn Rand’s libertarian Bible Atlas Shrugged one of her favorite books. She does so not because of its “selfishness theory,” which she rejects, she once said, but because “when we stop celebrating innovation and genius and thought and creativity … then we run very real risks as humans.”
“I’m a tax attorney romance novelist politician … and a serial reluctant entrepreneur,” Abrams once said. “That is a reality show waiting to happen.” It was also a potential scandal waiting to happen. Even after leaving Sutherland in 2003 to become an Atlanta deputy city attorney and, eventually, a state representative, Abrams never left the private sector behind.
She started a company that produced bottled water for infants, served on the Women’s Advisory Board for the Moore Financial Group, was chief operating officer (COO) for a tech firm she founded, cofounded and served as senior VP of a financial services firm, and was the CEO and COO of two separate consulting companies that specialized in public infrastructure projects — potentially conflict-laden business for someone serving as the minority leader in the state house.
This is exactly what happened with NOWaccount Network Corporation, the financial services firm Abrams cofounded in 2010, just prior to becoming minority leader. For years, and unbeknownst to her fellow Democrats, as Abrams worked with the Deal government on a host of controversial issues, the firm — from which she drew a yearly executive’s salary of $60,000 and held a minority stake in — was benefiting from contracts with the state government, and depended in large part on millions of dollars in federal business loans passed by Congress that year, ones that Abrams admitted she had seen as a business opportunity for the firm. Emails later showed state officials were frustrated with NOWaccount’s work, and that in the midst of this clash, Abrams’s cofounder at one point threatened to “engage the legislature.”
“You should be aware that Stacey Abrams is a co-founder and SVP in the company,” read one intra-government email about the conflict. “(I expect she is smart enough not to weigh in, but [her co-founder] is otherwise well-connected).”
Abrams also remained CEO of Third Sector Development, a nonprofit consultancy she founded back in 1998. It was Third Sector, or more specifically, its subsidiary the New Georgia Project (NGP), that was at the center of one of the more high-profile scandals in Abrams’s career, when Georgia’s then-secretary of state (and now governor) Brian Kemp targeted it with a trumped up investigation into voter fraud.
Kemp was your typical hard-right Republican using the playbook the GOP had developed against the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) under Obama: jumping on a handful of cases of voter registration fraud to allege vast voter fraud, which could in turn be used to justify voter suppression efforts.
Kemp’s chief investigator soon made publicly clear that nothing actually suggested the NGP had deliberately aimed to commit registration fraud, and, contrary to Kemp’s initial alarmist announcement, announced they had only found twenty-five forgeries in the 85,000 applications the organization collected, around 0.03 percent.
The brouhaha, which lasted into 2017, distracted from the actual legitimate concerns with the project, which by 2014 had catapulted Abrams into national attention and given her adoring coverage. Pledging to submit 120,000 voter applications for the 2014 election, the NGP raised $3.6 million from major donors like George Soros, with Abrams pocketing $177,500 as CEO. But its results fell short of the monumental outcomes these figures heralded.
According to Abrams herself, the NGP managed to add only 46,000 new voters to the rolls. In fact, the Constitution-Journal reported, around 53,000 fewer voters were registered in 2014 than four years prior, and voter turnout fell six points between those years, to a dire 34 percent.
Despite an endorsement from former governor Zell Miller and name recognition — she was the daughter of a former senator — Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn went down in flames that year by eight points, as did gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, grandson of former president Jimmy Carter.
As early as June 2014, one Savannah State University student paid by the nonprofit to register voters had raised the alarm to a local TV station, questioning if it was a “legitimate business” after he was told to direct people to a polling station that didn’t exist, among other irregularities. A host of Democratic officials, and staffers and activists who had worked with the NGP aired their concerns over the organization with Atlanta alt-weekly Creative Loafing, which included a lack of transparency.
Two NGP staffers accidentally tried recruiting county election office staffers, the outlet reported, unwittingly confessing to them that the nonprofit required them to meet a quota to stay employed — creating an incentive for exactly the kind of application forgeries that Kemp later exploited for his own ends. “[The NGP] underperformed what was done in 2010,” one former Abrams staffer complained to the magazine. “Absolutely nothing was done in 2010. It’s hard to grasp how unsuccessful her effort was, given the amount of money raised.”
Around half of the gargantuan amount of money raised went to Field Strategies, a Washington DC-based consultancy favored by the Democratic Party and Obama’s campaigns. Nunn’s family, which had used its influence in the state to secure donations for the organization, reportedly wanted answers. The following year, after the controversy had peaked, Abrams scaled her compensation back to $85,000.
This wasn’t the last time Abrams’s extracurricular activities would get her in trouble. In 2016, it would come out that all the while, Abrams had been collecting $5,000 a month from the Nunn campaign for six months’ work, a fact obscured by Abrams’s decision to have the money paid to a company registered under her sister’s name, which, she later said, she simply forgot to disclose on her annual financial paperwork.
Had it been known at the time, the revelation would have been a legal headache for a nonprofit whose work was meant to be nonpartisan, already made complicated by the fact that Abrams was personal friends with Nunn and sat on the board of a volunteer organization she ran.
The Missing Piece
There are many ways to evaluate a politician: their rhetoric, their ideas and policy plans, and where they get their money from, to name a few. But whether it’s Pete Buttigieg, Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders, one of the surest ways to do so is to look at what they’ve actually done with the responsibilities of elected office.
Unfortunately for the public, coverage of Abrams has been all but devoid of discussion about the most crucial of factors. Ironically, liberal-leaning media has tended to mirror the terms of right-wing attacks on Abrams — which both portray her as a far-left firebrand, based almost entirely on her rhetoric.
At only forty-six years old, and with a powerful national profile, Stacey Abrams will be around for a long time. She’s said her “plan” is to become president by 2040, and there’s more than a good chance she’ll mount another run for governor. If she’s going to wield power someday, voters may as well know something about how she’s used it.