Not surprisingly, Wednesday’s riot on Capitol Hill overshadowed the week’s other political news, a dramatic victory for Democrats in the Georgia Senate election runoffs.
But, in the long-term, the significance of the runoff results in Georgia could be far greater, which handed Democrats control of both house of Congress for the first time since 2010.
Hidden in that election story is the emergence of one of the country’s rising political stars. While she was not one of the victorious candidates, the name of Stacey Abrams may just as well have been on the ballot for the outsized role she played in securing the victory. And experts say she will most likely be on another ballot soon, as the widely tipped Democratic party candidate for Governor in 2022.
If that happens, Abrams would be the first female black governor in U.S. history, and only the third African-American ever to be elected to head a state.
On social media she enjoys almost cult status. Described by one fan as "the ninja" of American politics, Oscar-winning black actor, Morgan Freeman wrote on the morning after the election that he was “struck speechless … by my gratitude” for Abrams.
Donald Trump’s niece and outspoken critic, Mary Trump, also called Abrams an “American hero.” Former President Barack Obama paid tribute to her “resilient, visionary leadership.”
Ally of Latinos
A lawyer and Democrat organizer in Georgia, Abrams has spent the last 10 years building the party’s political infrastructure and voter registration and turnout strategies in the state. Dubbed ‘The Abrams Playbook,’ it focuses on a community-oriented, person-to-person approach that many now see as a model for other states with large minority populations.
She is especially credited with helping build a broad multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of grass-roots organizations that was key to Democrats winning the state for Joe Biden in November and the Senate runoffs on Tuesday.
“She’s been a great mentor, ally and friend, throughout the very many years that we’ve done some very heavy lifting here in Georgia in the Latino community,” said Jerry Gonzalez, founder and CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO).
Despite all the accolades, her friends say the 46-year-old Abrams has remained throughout a grounded, self-effacing political leader who is universally respected and admired.
“She’s an amazing individual, the way she carries herself. She’s never been flashy,” said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez recalled a decade ago when Abrams was looking hire her legislative staff in the Georgia House of Representatives he received a phone call. “She made it a point of seeking out young Latino talent,” he said.
Gonzalez recommend a young Latina, Genny Castillo, who became her senior political advisor and now works on another Abrams policy venture, the Southern Economic Advancement Project.
Gonzalez said the high level of coordination between black, Latino, Asian and LGBTQ groups was vital in the recent elections. “That coordination by the community leaders is really essential to be able to create an environment where marginalized communities feel empowered and they exercise their right to vote in large numbers,” he said.
"Her approach is very inclusive, geared towards people of color in forgotten and suppressed communities," said Leah Bailey, a spokeswoman for UNITE HERE, a union of hospitality workers with large minority membership. "We brought 1,000 canvassers to Georgia. The first thing we did was go to Stacey Abrams and ger her blessing," she said.
A multi-faceted woman, Abrams is a Yale Law School graduate who spent 11 years as state representative in Georgia, rising to become the opposition leader in the House in 2011. She is also the author of romance novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery, with enticing titles like ‘Hidden Sins’ and ‘The Art of Desire.’ She also had international experience and is a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.
A single woman, she is dedicated to the issue of voting rights. "Some people are destined to be that way. It works for her," said Helen Butler, a veteran Georgia black civic activist and director of The Peoples’ Agenda.
Abrams rose to national fame when she was narrowly defeated in the 2018 election for governor of Georgia, amidst cries of foul play and voter suppression by Republicans. Abrams lost by 50,000 votes to Republican Brian Kemp, who was then serving as Georgia’s secretary of state in charge of the elections.
In response, Abrams, launched an unprecedented voter registration effort, Fair Fight, backed by a $5 million donation from the billionaire former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
While that was peanuts compared to the donations raised by political candidates, “it may be some of the best $5 million spent in this election,” said Miles Coleman with the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Her political memoirs, ‘Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America,’ published last year, is a manifesto for voting rights. In it she details the “toolbox for effective disenfranchisement” that Republicans have allegedly used to disqualify minority voters, such as the ‘use it or lose it’ policy of striking names from the voter rolls for inactivity, or the ‘exact match,’ rule which eliminates voters because of small spelling inconsistencies between their registration card and state ID, as well as limits on early voting and reducing the number of polling places.
In the November elections, and again on Jan 5, grass roots groups had large teams of volunteers helping to “cure” thousands of ballots, that might otherwise have been cast aside.
Rather than run herself for the Senate, Abrams instead herself recruited a black pastor and political newcomer, Rev Raphael Warnock. Warnock ended up being the top vote getter in Tuesday’s runoff, beating incumbent Kelly Loeffler by more than 80,000 votes.
“Stacey Abrams is a brilliant strategist. She knows numbers, she’s a great motivator, a great legal mind, and a great person,” said Butler.
Butler and others say the victory on Nov 3 and last Tuesday were not all Abrams doing and rather were built on the back of a decade-long effort by numerous organizations such as the New Georgia project and ProGeorgia, Migente, who came together with a common purpose. “She (Abrams) sped up the process, made it come quicker than it normally would have,” said Butler.
Those groups tapped into Georgia’s changing demographics which has seen more young people moving to the cities and suburbs from other states, and a big influx of Latinos and Asians. Between 2000 and 2019, 48% of the growth in Georgia’s eligible voter population is attributed to the state’s black voting population, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data.
The number of Latino voters in Georgia has also tripled with the number of registered voters leaping from 10,000 to 250,000 in the last decade, said Gonzalez.
In the two years before the 2020 presidential elections, Abrams along with grass-roots groups were able to register thousands of new voters in Georgia – mainly from Black, Hispanic and Asian communities.
The effect was dramatic. Georgia has registered 520,000 new voters since 2016, with 130,000 – the largest share – being black, according to a Pew Research Center of official state data.
Furthermore, the number of Latino and White registered voters increased by about 95,000 each, despite there being far fewer Latino than white existing registered voters. The number of Asian registered voters also increased by 63,000, a substantial amount relative to the group’s total population.
These voters played a critical role in delivering the state to Biden, who carried it by a razor-thin margin of less than 12,000 votes over the incumbent Trump, becoming the first Democrat to win the state in over two decades.
In the few weeks between Nov 3 and Jan 5, grass roots groups were able to register another 76,000 new voters, helping boost the Democrats chances. Warnock and the other Democrat in the Senate runoff ended up winning by 80,000 and 45,000 votes, respectively.
“What really put the Democrats over the line was the black turnout,” said Coleman. While turnout in the runoff was predictably down overall by 12%, there were notably shifts to Democrats in some counties.
In Clayton County, for example, which is 67% black, Democrats picked up six percent, compared to November. Exit polls showed Ossoff growing his lead among black and latino voters by 10-20% in November.
There is a clear lesson to be learned from the runoffs, according to CNN political commentator, Van Jones. “Trump lost his election - and he spent two months lying and whining. Stacey Abrams lost her election - and she spent two years building a stronger movement. Now, we know whose strategy was better,” he wrote.
“This is not just a story about the final failure of Trump. It is a story of the success of Stacey Abrams -- and many of the unsung, bottom-up, inspirational leaders with whom she has worked for years,” he added.