What It Means to Be a Black Female Candidate

Stacey Abrams is rising fast in Georgia. Some things she learned along the way.

National Journal

Stacey Abrams is a self-identifying introvert, a former bureaucrat, a businesswoman, and the author of eight romantic-suspense novels. She's also the first African-American to lead the Georgia state House's Democratic Party, and may have her sights on the governor's chair.

It used to be the accepted wisdom that wearing multiple hats holds women back (albeit usually with regard to child-rearing), but Abrams sees having many facets to her identity as a strength. "I'm a tax attorney romance novelist politician ... and a serial reluctant entrepreneur," she said. "That is a reality show waiting to happen." (Once, when an ex-boyfriend told her he found the premise of her spy novel to be implausible, she punished him by creating a plot twist that put him in prison. "He languishes there to this day," she quipped.)

Abrams has been a named a rising star by EMILY's List,which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women. This spring, she was one of three Democratic women honored by the group for her achievements in leadership, alongside Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California.

For now, however, she's focused on winning the House majority for the Democrats — and, given Georgia's history as a red state, it's going to be an uphill climb. Georgia Democrats are outnumbered 119 to 60, in congressional districts gerrymandered to keep Republicans in power, even as the state has become increasingly demographically diverse and is moving toward an ever-bluer shade of purple.

I interviewed Abrams this spring as part of another story on a new EMILY's List training program taking place in Atlanta. (When she first ran for office, a friend of hers handed her a big EMILY's List binder of tips; it became her bible for her first campaign.) We discussed women and race and power, as well as how obstacles, some external, some internal, can be overcome. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

What do you think stops women from running?

We fear losing, and that that somehow signals that we weren't capable to begin with. It is easier to lose in private than it is to lose in public, and so there's this fear that if you're not going to win, then why try? There's also a tendency for women to think that they need to be an expert to win, that you have to know everything about everything — that if I don't have a Ph.D. in every topic, then I'm certainly not qualified to speak for people. I will tell you that my male colleagues do not suffer from the same delusion. You don't need to know everything. You need to know you don't know everything, and be willing to learn about it.

Is running harder for women of color?

Women in general need to be asked to run, and women of color absolutely have to be asked, because too often what you see around you in terms of leadership looks nothing like you. It's hard to imagine yourself in a place where you don't have a lodestar.

If you could give advice to a woman who's running for office for the first time, what would it be?

First and foremost, know what you believe and know why you believe it. Part of it is just sitting down with yourself and understanding how deep your convictions run. Then, if you have the fortune (or misfortune) of getting elected, and compromise is required, if you have to confront the realities of the bill sitting next to you, you'll have a metric against which to measure your movement. The second thing is to know what others believe. Too often we enter the political space thinking it's about us, and it's not. It's about the people who elected you and the people you're working with or against. If you don't understand what they've got and what they're doing, they will beat you. But if you can understand what motivates them, that gives you a tool to use to get what you want done.

How did EMILY's List help you in your campaign, and how do you think the group can help women more generally?

It's about having someone else validate your capacity to lead, and that's what EMILY's List did for me. They helped me at the very beginning without knowing it; they came in when I'd started running and helped me. But, more recently, when I became leader [of the Georgia House Democrats], EMILY's List was there to help me think about my leadership. What do I need to be doing as leader to solidify that role, but also, how do I build my capacity to do even more? Having women who look like you and sound like you, who think something of you and will tell you — that has a validating effect that cannot be underestimated.

What did you learn from other positions you've held, particularly from your time running your own small business, specifically at NOW Corp., the financial services firm you cofounded?

People like to talk about running government like a business, but there are very few people who've actually had to make payroll and manage staff. They don't really get how that fits together and how that fits together in the context of government. Government is a business, but in a traditional business, your objective is to please a certain customer base that you choose. Government is the only business that has to please every single person, and none of those people have the exact same needs — it's the most perverse business that you could possibly have! So if you're going to run it like a business, you have to be willing to really fracture how you think about your customer base. If you couple that with needing to understand how bureaucracy works, and how laws get made, I figured I had a fairly interesting background, and I should try it. And I did. And they let me come. And I've been there ever since.

What have you learned from writing fiction, and how does it inform your work as a politician?

I think that creative fracturing of conversation is necessary. You can't get to new ideas if you only think about things the same way, and I try my best, whether it's in business or in politics or in fiction or in law, to think about things using both sides of the brain and being as internally disruptive about my own ideas as I can be. When you do that, I think you find where your flaws are, where your mistakes are made, but it also lets you get past the heaviness of the conversation. These are big things we're dealing with — abortion and poverty and criminal justice. If you let yourself get buried beneath the heft of what you're trying to pursue, you'll never get it done.

Why are these different identities important to you? Why don't you devote yourself to one thing?

If I lose my leadership, if I lose an election, if I get fired from a job, I've got multiple backup plans. But more than that, who I am is not tied to any of those things, so I'm not going to make — or do my best not to make — dumb choices trying to hold onto one of those things. I'm not going to sacrifice my ethics to stay the leader, because if I lose this for some reason, there's something else I can do. And if our business fails, I'm not going to make dumb choices about cooking the books, because I know I can start another business. All of these things work together to give me options, and when you have options, you can make smarter choices.