Former Georgia House Minority Leader and State Representative
Photo: Courtesy of Stacey Abrams
Former Georgia House Minority Leader and State Representative, Stacey Abrams, sat down with Be on the Ballot to share her story and advice about running for office. Keep reading to see how she forged her path by engaging her community, following her own playbook, and learning from other successful Black women along the way. Abrams is currently running for Governor of Georgia and could be the first Black female Governor in the country.
What inspired you to run for office?
I ran for office because I believe that poverty is immoral and economically inefficient and we need people in public office for whom this is the motivating force. I grew moving between working class and working poor depending on the day and I saw how government could be both helpful in mitigating harm, but could also create it. So for me, when I decided to run for office, the underlying principle was pursuing this mission to tackle poverty and explore how government should situate itself to help lift up families and help make their lives better.
What, if any, were your greatest obstacles during your campaign for State Representative?
I ran in a primary with two opponents, both of whom were men. And in Georgia, you have to win 50 percent plus one, so my greatest obstacle was that I wasn’t from a traditional political base. I had been involved in politics and I had worked on campaigns, but I wasn’t very involved in local politics in a granular way. With regards to both of my opponents, one had been in elected office and the other was very strongly supported by political veterans. I didn’t have that to start. I had to identify what my strength was. I also wasn’t from the community; I hadn’t lived there my whole life, only a few years. But what I told people when I ran was that I understand government. I have an expertise in how to navigate systems and I wanted to help my community learn to navigate those systems.
Was there anything that came as a surprise to you during your campaign?
1. I was surprised at how few people actually ever heard from their elected official. We knocked on more than 15,000 doors and a number of times, people said they had never heard from their politician.
2. The corollary to that was how excited they were to have someone who cared about them ask them for their help. I think for new candidates, you cannot underestimate how important it is for a citizen to know that you value their vote.
Is there anything you wish you would have known before or during your run for office?
The answer is no because I learned by doing and often candidates are over-trained. We run the same exact campaign because that’s what it says to do in the template and therefore we miss opportunities to personalize our candidacy. I worked on enough campaigns and I knew what I wanted and didn’t want to do. I was willing to try things that other candidates had not tried. My campaign manager was actually a marketing manager and had never done politics before. Because she thought differently, we approached my campaign differently. I don’t wish I had known more. I’m just happy that I was flexible enough to learn how to be a better candidate.
What fundraising strategies did you use and do you have recommendations for others?
1. You have to be unafraid and unapologetic about asking for money. You don’t get to spend it on you so why are you feeling bad about it? We have to be willing to ask everyone, and some people will tell you no.
2. Don’t talk yourself out of asking. It can be a bit soul-crushing to be told no, but the reality is that you end up better off once you ask. Beforehand, you didn’t have their money, but you didn’t know why. Once you ask, you know why and you now know if this is someone you should be relying on for other things. There may be other things they can do for you just not financially.
3. Don’t raise money just to raise money. Know why you need it and know how you plan to spend it. There is a “curse of plenty” where if you don’t have a strategy that the money is funding, you find yourself spending money in inefficient ways that don’t actually help you win.
Navigating the endorsement process can be a bit daunting for new candidates. How did you handle that process?
1. Do not ask for endorsements from people you don’t agree with. That is just opposition research. You’re just telling your opponents everything about you that you don’t need them to know. Only ask for endorsements from those who share your values.
2. Know that, except for really high profile individuals, institutional endorsements actually matter a lot more than individuals. Now, there are some key individuals - if Barack Obama endorses you, say thank God. But the idea that you have to have this litany of people as individuals standing with you is seductive, but especially to new candidates, it’s almost impossible to secure, so you set up this false paradigm for yourself. When I ran, I had support, but I didn’t do a long list of endorsers because I wasn’t from the community from whom I could secure a lot of endorsements. I had a couple big ones, and they were helpful, but I was more concerned about getting the organizational endorsements because those organizations have members. The reason their endorsements matter is that they can tell people who already agree with them that you agree with them too; then there is this commutative property of support.
How would you describe the office environment during your tenure?
I started out as a State Legislator and just resigned a few weeks ago from my position as the House Minority Leader. There are similarities between the roles. You’re always responsible for answering to others. In the beginning, I was answering to my constituents and as Minority Leader I was answering to constituents in my district, my members and their constituents, and to the Democrats who were represented by Republicans. It was a very large and extraordinarily fulfilling job. The distinction between the two is that as a member in the rank and file I could make mistakes and apologize to my constituents, but as Leader my mistakes were much more public and I had to make different choices.
What was your go-to resource that others thinking about running should know about?
I did the Women’s Campaign School at Yale and Emily’s List training. For people who aren’t women, I would also look at Collective Pac and Wellstone. Training is important because it’s not just about people telling you what to do; it’s practicing it before you get out in the field. Running for office is like getting in a big game; you do not want the first time you run a play to be the day of the Super Bowl. These trainings help you practice early and learn where your strengths and weaknesses are and they put all of this information into a very specific frame and form that makes it much more useful.
Did you find that in doing the trainings you had to supplement what you learned in order to deal with additional factors that came with being a woman of color running for office?
Absolutely - There are nuances to every job that are informed by your otherness whether that otherness is you being a woman of color or being a person with a disability. There are things that the traditional candidate does not have to think about. Even among women - I’m running for Governor and there are no Black women Governors for me to use as templates for what I’m doing. In fact, there is not really research on it because it’s never happened. So where other women who are running for Governor can look at polling data, and historical data, and anecdotes, there is literally nothing that is specific to my endeavor. The women of color who have won were both Republican, one was Indian American, and the other was Latina. The reality is that being a Black woman in America is a very different experience.
Where there isn’t information, find similar situations to get the information. I look at Black businesswomen of color and what they have achieved. I look at Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm, Kamala Harris, and Shirley Franklin when she became the Mayor of Atlanta. Sometimes you have to build your own book and teach yourself. If you can’t find someone who has done exactly what you want to do, find someone who has done something like what you want to do and see what you can learn from them as well.