TIME: ‘The Unlikely Rise of Stacey Abrams’

TIME: the South Issue
TIME: the South Issue

People tend to remember the first time they heard Stacey Abrams speak, and it’s easy to see why. On a Friday afternoon in May, the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia is at a union hall in Augusta, telling a story about her father, a college-educated black man who was relegated by his race to working at a shipyard in southern Mississippi in the 1970s. The family had one car, so Robert Abrams would sometimes hitchhike home in the middle of the night. When he didn’t come home one time, the rest of the family set out to pick him up and found him half-frozen by the side of the road, having given his coat to a homeless man. They asked why he, a poor man on a lonely road at night, would do such a thing. And Robert said, “Because I knew you were coming for me.”

You can hear scattered sniffles in the union hall as his daughter pauses. Then she roars: “I am coming for you, Georgia! Help me get there!”

This kind of moment is one reason why Abrams, 44, has a chance to become America’s first black female governor. Describe someone as “commanding the room” and you generally conjure an image of gravitas–a man, likely white, in a suit, emitting soaring oratory. Abrams is a big-boned, natural-haired, youthful-looking woman with a quizzical smile and a gap between her front teeth. She’s as likely to geek out about tax policy or Star Trek as she is to summon the spirit of justice. Yet when she speaks, all kinds of people–from black folks in rural communities to yuppie “resistance” moms around Atlanta to this crowd of rough-handed electrical workers–go quiet and listen. In a Democratic Party divided and desperate for fresh faces, Abrams is already becoming a national star.

“I know talent when I see it,” says Valerie Jarrett, a former top adviser to Barack Obama, who tells me she sees the same kind of “unusual” skills in Abrams: “I see somebody who campaigns authentically, has character and integrity, is resilient and graceful, and who is able to take the long view and ignore a lot of noise.”

Whether she can win is another matter. Georgia has grown purpler as its demographics shift, and November could bring a national Democratic wave driven by women and people of color. Abrams will benefit from a well-funded campaign and a divisive opponent, Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp, who emerged battered from a primary runoff on July 24. But in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in two decades, Abrams remains an underdog. “There’s no question the state is becoming more diverse, but that doesn’t mean a conservative state has all of a sudden become liberal,” says Whit Ayres, a Washington-based Republican pollster who has worked extensively in Georgia. All of Abrams’ charisma, money and momentum won’t matter if the political math doesn’t add up.

On the other hand, if she can pull it off, the implications would be profound, not just for Georgia but for the whole region and potentially the nation. Ever since Bill Clinton won re-election in 1996 with a strategy of triangulation, Democrats have tried to win in Republican territory by appealing to white centrist voters. The idea was to combine them with the Democrats’ base, but it frequently left white voters cold and the base unenthused. Abrams’ campaign is built on the proposition that a compelling candidate can get elected in the South with a progressive message that attracts liberal whites and minorities to the polls in greater numbers.

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