Into 2020 with Stacey Abrams
Trymaine Lee: Stacey Abrams has had a busy few weeks. She's found herself up against a familiar rival, Georgia governor Brian Kemp, around his decision to reopen the state in the face of COVID-19. In 2018, Georgia's governor's race between Kemp and Abrams propelled Abrams to the national stage and helped launch her fight against voter suppression.
Today, she's not afraid to say publicly that Kemp's decision to reopen is the wrong one. Abrams has also been speaking publicly and widely about another U.S. politician, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, and why she thinks she's the right pick to be his running mate.
I'm Trymaine Lee. This is Into America. And on this Monday, we're changing things up a bit because earlier today I had a chance to talk to Stacey Abrams. It's the second time we've spoken in recent weeks. I interviewed her back in early March. But because of the coronavirus outbreak, that interview never made it to air.
(MUSIC) A lot has changed in that time. Joe Biden has become the presumptive nominee, and COVID-19 is now presenting new threats not only to our nation's health and our economy but also to the integrity of our election this November. Abrams runs Fair Fight, an organization to promote voting rights. She agreed to sit down with me. We talked all things Georgia, voter suppression, and of course the vice presidency. So, Stacey Abrams, thank you so much for joining me.
Stacey Abrams: Thank you for having me.
Lee: The world has changed a lot since the last time we talked, when we actually were face to face having a conversation.
Abrams: It has indeed.
Lee: In the past few weeks, you've done a number of interviews where you've talked really openly about your interest in being tapped as Joe Biden's running mate. And you actually told Elle Magazine that you've been preparing for this moment for over 25 years. Why are you the woman for this job? Beyond your desire and your ambition, why are you the right woman for the job?
Abrams: I have been very direct about my willingness to serve, but I want to make certain people understand that my mission is the work itself, that the issues I have focused on not only since the 2018 election but for the last 25 years have been the conversations that I'm pursuing today.
How do we ensure that everyone has access to democracy and that democracy works for everyone? How do we then leverage that democracy to ensure that resources are fairly distributed, particularly to those who have the least amount and the greatest need? But also, how do we build economic resilience and institutional capacity so that we aren't wasting the human capital that gets squandered because of the persistence of poverty?
But I want everyone to understand this is Joe Biden's decision. He will decide what the partnership he needs will look like, and he will determine the right mix for the work that has to be done. If asked to serve, I will and would be honored to do so because I believe in what Vice President Joe Biden could bring to America. And it would be an honor to be of assistance if he and his team decide that I'm the person they want to do it.
Lee: Joe Biden will be leaning on a number of advisors and folks to help him arrive at his decision for the VP pick, and one of those people is likely South Carolina representative James Clyburn, one of the most powerful black Americans in this country, certainly one of the most powerful politicians, who was seen as a game changer for Joe Biden with his endorsement ahead of Super Tuesday, delivering South Carolina and the black primary.
But he gave an interview last month with The Financial Times where Clyburn was asked whether or not he thought Joe Biden would pick you as his running mate. And his response was, and I want to quote this, "I doubt it. There's something to be said for someone who has been out there."
And when I hear that, I hear a question about whether or not you have enough experience for the role. You've never been elected to any office beyond state legislature. How do you respond to that critique and questions about your experience as a politician?
Abrams: I think experience is a combination of issues. It's competence, it's skills, and it's proven deliverables. And I would match my experience against anyone's. It may not look like the normative experience that we are used to seeing, but that doesn't diminish its capacity or what I've actually delivered: work that has led me to national stages more than once.
Currently, I lead an organization that is in 18 states, protecting the right to vote as we watch the president of the United States attempt to undermine the safest and most accessible way to vote. I would point out that I have spent the last year and a half helping build part of the network that we need to respond to a census that for the first time is going to be conducted under the cloud of a pandemic and that the hardest-to-count communities are the ones that are most affected by this and are the ones who are the most likely to not receive the resources they need, which puts into sharp relief why the census has to be accurate this time.
And I've been working on COVID-19 responses because I know that the people who are working the hardest and have the least amount of resources are having the hardest time getting their stimulus checks, getting their unemployment processed, getting access to the public benefits that were designed for their needs.
My work is national work because I'm doing this work in multiple states. And I'm proud of that work. And I would simply ask folks to look at what I do. It may not be what they're used to seeing, but that doesn't mean that it cannot contribute to the future of our country.
Lee: One thing that Joe Biden has done is he's pledged to have a woman running mate. And there are a number of black leaders who are pushing him to select a black woman for the ticket. What's your position on that? Do you think that Joe Biden needs to have a black woman on the ticket? And if by some chance he picks someone that isn't a black woman, does that in any way damage the Democratic Party's chances come November?
Abrams: I grew up in Mississippi, and I know what it means to not see yourself reflected in leadership. But I also know that there are people of good heart and good intent who can do the work and who can lift up communities even if they don't exactly represent them. I of course would say that having a woman of color can be an incredibly useful responsibility because a woman of color can help Vice President Biden turn out voters that he needs who currently do not trust the leadership they see in Washington today.
And having someone who can help lift up the voices of marginalized communities, restore the hardest-hit communities, restore their trust in government, and make progress, that is something to deeply consider. And I know there are a number of communities that are pushing that conversation, and I've said it myself. But fundamentally, we have to remember that we are electing a president. And Joe Biden has never and will never take anyone for granted.
Lee: If the status quo remains and it would be an all-white ticket and black voters especially, who delivered big for Joe Biden, will they hear that? Because across the country, the concerns I've heard from black Democratic voters is that they have been taken for granted. Is there a risk here of potentially alienating those voters who just show up time and again?
Abrams: A running mate has two responsibilities: help win the election and to be a governing partner. Again, I believe a woman of color could help Vice President Biden turn out voters who want to see themselves reflected in the ticket itself. And I think that particularly given how vicious this pandemic has been to the black community, and to the Latino community, and to the Native American community, it is going to be critical that someone on the ticket can speak to their experiences and also speak to their particular needs when it comes to recovery.
Voters of color, and particularly black women, have been loyal to the Democratic Party. And I would say that if we want to win Michigan, and Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, of course it's critical that we have large turnout. But that turnout is going to specifically have to be in Detroit, and Milwaukee, and Philadelphia.
But we also have to expand the map to the Sun Belt states. We have to win Phoenix, and we have to win Atlanta. We need to win in Durham if we want to pick up the Senate. We need to also start thinking about the next wave of elections, the midterms that follow 2020 and the elections after that. And my hope is that they will take into consideration the concerns of communities of color and that whatever decision they make, the choice they make for running mate, it will reflect, and answer to, and respond to the concerns.
Lee: If you are that choice and you're chosen as his running mate as VP, who do you deliver for Joe Biden? You mentioned places like Detroit and the Sun Belt. Who do you help deliver for Joe Biden?
Abrams: I would say this. My experience as a candidate has been focused on rebuilding not just the capacity of Democrats to win in Georgia but rebuilding an infrastructure that had to transition from the old model of politics in the South. I could not simply talk to voters of color and hope that I would win.
I could not ignore voters of color and only talk to suburban white woman, which had been one of the traditional approaches and strategies. I know how to build coalitions because in the South you can't win without them. We have to persuade those who are disappointed in Trump's behavior and his leadership to vote a different way, but we also have to persuade those who share our ideology but do not see themselves reflected in our policies that this time if they vote, we will win.
And so I'm good at that. I have done that work. I've done it not only for myself, but I've traveled this country, helping other candidates build their coalitions and try to win. My contribution right now is making sure that when people come to vote, they actually get a chance to.
Lee: What surprised a lot of people is that you haven't been the least bit shy about your desire for the VP role. And when we last spoke in March, you talked about the importance of ambition and harnessing that ambition and about wanting young black girls in particular to be able to see you stepping up to that role.
But I wonder: Has there been any consideration or concern about folks who aren't used to seeing a woman, especially a black woman, owning so loudly her ambitions, the concern that it may turn some folks off because they're not used to seeing that? How do you mitigate that? And is there some potential risk in being so open about what you want out of this experience?
Abrams: The risk I worry about the most is that we squander opportunities to build the most resilient and confident members of our community because they are so used to seeing themselves diminished in our public spaces. I grew up, as I said, in Mississippi. I was a young black girl who was often overlooked for opportunity. And sometimes I was harmed by my confidence, by my willingness to participate.
I told the story once of going to pick up an award for writing an essay and they wouldn't give me the money because I didn't have ID. I was, you know, in middle school. That they couldn't believe that the person they saw before them was the one who had written this essay.
I do not see myself as loudly campaigning. I see myself as answering questions. And let's be clear. I've been getting questions about this since March of 2019. And it is an honor to be included among so many smart, capable, effective leaders. And the question I'm asked is, "Would you be willing to serve?" The answer is, "Yes, I would be willing to serve."
But my ambition is not a seat. My ambition is the work. And my deep ambition is an ambition that says, "I want to do that work for as many people as possible in the most effective way possible." When the question comes, "Would this be a platform that you would want to leverage for this work?" the answer is of course yes. But this is not about campaigning for anything other than campaigning to make sure that we have a society and a nation that responds to the needs of its people. (MUSIC)
Lee: We're gonna take a short break. We'll be right back.
Lee: Let's take it back home to Georgia. As of Friday, there were over 21,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 800 deaths. Just a couple days later, right now according to data from NBC, there are 23,000 cases and 900 deaths. And after weeks of closures, Georgia governor Brian Kemp has made a decision to allow businesses to reopen this past weekend. How do you view Governor Kemp's decision? Was it the right time to take this step?
Abrams: His decision was not only dangerously incompetent; it was callous. When you reopen small businesses that typically employ low-wage workers, you are compelling those workers to choose between their health and their safety and their job. Georgia is a right-to-work state, which means that anyone who refuses to come back to work if summoned by their employer has the very real risk of being fired from that job and not having a cause of action.
In Georgia, you can be terminated simply at the whim of your employer. We are not ready to reopen because we have not done the work of reopening. We have not done the work of testing. Georgia is the seventh-lowest-testing state in the nation. And let's keep in mind we're a state of more than 10.5 million people.
We have the 14th-highest infection rate. But we also have a broken health care infrastructure in part because Brian Kemp refused to expand Medicaid, which means we don't have adequate access to hospital beds, but also people don't have access to the insurance they need to feel comfortable going to seek treatment if they need it.
We are not ready, and the reality is you cannot open an economy if you don't have the consumers to take advantage of it. And until we take care of the people of Georgia, these consumers of this economic need, if we don't take care of them, we have not done our jobs. And I would say that Governor Kemp has failed in his job so far. We are not ready to reopen because he has not done the work of testing, tracing, or treating.
And this isn't academic. I have cousins who have COVID-19. They're in another state, but I hear daily about the struggles that they face. I grew up in a state that did not have access to resources. I will continue to do the work. And part of how I approach my work is that I don't believe there's just one path.
When I did not become governor, I launched three national organizations to continue to push the issues that I care about. And if there's an opportunity to once again stand for office and have the effect that I need, I will take it. But my responsibility is not to focus on the title but to focus on the work. And that's what I've done, and that's what I'll continue to do.
Lee: So Georgia was originally supposed to hold its primaries back on March 24th. And it's been postponed twice already and now is scheduled for June 9th. Do you think it will be safe for folks to go to the polls on June 9th?
Abrams: I think we can have safe and accessible elections if people take advantage of the fullness of the toolbox. Georgia actually has some of the best laws for access. And that is we have absentee balloting, we have in-person early voting, and we have in-person voting.
Voters need to understand that the safest, most accessible elections are the ones that minimize the harm to the voter and to others. That's why we are encouraging the 6.9 million active voters in Georgia to use the absentee ballot applications they received and to return them and to return their ballot.
The more people we can get to vote by mail, the lower the number of people who will need to try to vote in person either early or on election day. We saw what happened in Wisconsin, and Fair Fight was at the table fighting in Wisconsin, and we will be fighting across the country.
And one of those fights is gonna be ensuring that in the next COVID relief package there is the $4 billion necessary to secure our elections not simply in Georgia but across the country to allow every American who is eligible to vote to vote by mail if they can, and if they cannot to be able to vote in person early or to vote on election day.
That also means that we invest in the Post Office, ensuring that everyone who needs to vote by mail has access to the services necessary and that the laws in each of these states recognize that things have changed and we have to have laws that allow people to have their votes counted even if the mail arrives a little slow.
Our responsibility is to not think of this as an event. Voting isn't an event. It is an action we take to set the course of our future. And my work and my commitment is to ensuring that as many people, especially those who are the hardest hit and the most likely to be left out, that we are doing the work we need to serve those communities because when you solve their problems, you actually lift the rest of society up.
Lee: Are you concerned about what happens come November in terms of how we either prepare for it now or the fact that it may look very different than elections past?
Abrams: There is no question that the 2020 election is going to be unlike anything we've seen in modern history. We started this work in 2019 because while I didn't know that it was going to be a pandemic we would face, we did know that there would be a great deal of pressure to increase and amp up voter suppression.
And we have seen the president threaten people about voting by mail because he knows that if vote by mail is available, if people take advantage of the tools that are available to them by law, he is afraid that he can't win. And so, yes, we know this is going to be the most intense election in the 21st century and I would say probably in my lifetime. But I also know that it's one we can win because we've thought about it ahead of time.
Lee: We've all been going through it during this pandemic. What is keeping you inspired, and what words do you have for Georgians and Americans as we still push through this crisis?
Abrams: I grew up the daughter of two ministers. My parents taught us that we have three pillars: faith, family, and service. My faith reminds me daily that we will come out of this. My family reminds me daily that we are in this together. And the service that I can do, the work that I've done with Fair Fight, that service to me is always, always the driver. It wakes me up, it gets me through my day, and it reminds me that my faith is not wasted and that my family is with me in the work we do. And that's enough. (MUSIC)
Lee: Ms. Abrams, thank you again so very much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
Abrams: Thank you so much, Trymaine. I appreciate it.
Lee: That was Stacey Abrams, founder of Fair Fight, joining me from her home in Atlanta, Georgia for this bonus episode of Into America. If you've got feedback, questions, or there is a story you think we should know about, you can email us at IntoAmerica@NBCUNI.com. That's IntoAmerica@NBCUNI (short for "Universal") dot-com.
We'd love to hear about what's happening in your communities. You can also find me on Twitter. My handle is @TrymaineLee. That's "TrymaineLee," all one word. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Thursday.