Stacey Abrams hopes to make history in state with oppressive legacy

African-American woman is Democrat’s key candidate in red-orientated Georgia

The rain was torrential but the atmosphere was electric. In an empty parking lot on the outskirts of Macon, a town about 130km south of Atlanta, crowds gathered on Friday to catch a glimpse of the woman who is seeking to become the next governor of Georgia.

As 44-year-old former state representative Stacey Abrams stepped off her campaign bus in the pouring rain, veteran congressman John Lewis introduced the woman who many see as one of the Democrats' big hopes in the midterm elections.

Lewis, a giant of the civil rights movement in the 1960s who has represented Georgia’s fifth congressional district for more than 30 years in Washington, hushed the crowd.

“I’ve seen unbelievable change in this state and all across the south,” he said, “but we have an opportunity to change things more than ever before. We’ve got to go to the polls and vote like you’ve never voted before.”


'He looks at my parents and he looks at me and he says, 'this is a private event. You don't belong here' '

As the cheers erupted, Abrams came to the microphone. In steady, confident, tones, the person who hopes to be the first female African-American governor in the history of the United States told her story.

She recounted the tale, one that is likely to enter political folklore if she wins the gubernatorial race next Tuesday, about her first visit to the governor’s mansion.

She had been invited to meet the governor after she was named high school valedictorian – typically the student who achieves the highest grades in class.

But when she got to the gates with her parents after arriving by public transport, the security guard refused them entry. “He doesn’t ask for our names, he looks at my parents and he looks at me and he says, ‘this is a private event. You don’t belong here’,” she recounts. After her parents intervened, he eventually reconsidered.

Roars of approval

“I’m telling you this story because I don’t remember meeting the governor of Georgia,” she says. “I went inside that building but I couldn’t tell you what I ate, who I met inside . . . You see all I remember about that day was a man standing in front of the most powerful place in Georgia looking at me and telling me I don’t belong . . . But with Macon Bib county standing behind me on November 6th, we are going to open those gates wide in the state of Georgia, we are going to open those gates wide,” she says, to roars of approval.

Although 36 governors’ races are on the ballot next Tuesday, nowhere are the stakes higher than in Georgia, where Abrams is hoping to make history. A victory would be particularly significant in Georgia – a state with a terrible legacy of slavery and segregation stretching back to the cotton plantations of the early 19th century.

Over the last two days, Oprah Winfrey has canvassed door-to-door with Abrams in greater Atlanta, while Barack Obama was due to appear with Abrams on Friday night.

Polls show that the race is neck and neck. A Fox 5 poll on Wednesday put Abrams slightly ahead at 48.1 per cent compared to 47.1 per cent. But under the Georgia electoral system, candidates must reach a 50 per cent threshold or else face a run-off, which could push a final result into December. Further, there are concerns that the Libertarian candidate on the ballot, Ted Metz, could take votes from the other two candidates, depriving both of a majority.

In a sign of Republican concern, the party has been pouring resources into the state in recent days.

As Oprah soaked up the limelight on Thursday, vice-president Mike Pence was campaigning for Abrams's opponent, Brian Kemp, in Augusta and Savannah, lambasting Abrams for tapping celebrity endorsements.

Donald Trump will also make a campaign stop here in Macon on Sunday, a last-minute announcement that forced Kemp to cancel the final televised debate between the candidates.

Abrams has presented herself as a bipartisan moderate who during her seven years as the minority leader in the state legislature worked with Republicans

Nonetheless, despite the energy around Abrams and changing demographics, Georgia remains a fairly reliable red state.

Georgia has not voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since Bill Clinton carried the state in 1992, with Trump beating Hillary Clinton by about 5 per cent. Like many urban areas across the country, the state's main cities, such as Atlanta, Savannah and Augusta, tend to vote Democrat.

Abrams’s supporters are also concerned about voter turnout.

Vote suppression

The gubernatorial race has been tense. Abrams has accused Kemp of trying to suppress the minority vote by putting thousands of voter registrations on hold in his role as secretary of state for Georgia, a position he has held since 2010.  Kemp says he is simply trying to prevent voter fraud. He is unapologetically pro-Trump, a stance that Republicans hope will motivate voters in this conservative state.

“I’m Brian Kemp. If you want a politically incorrect conservative, that’s me,” he says in one of his campaign ads.

Republicans have tried to paint Abrams as a radical, reminding voters that she once helped burn the state flag – then dominated by the Confederate symbol – on the steps of the state Capitol.

But Abrams has presented herself as a bipartisan moderate who during her seven years as the minority leader in the state legislature worked with Republicans, sometimes to the chagrin of her own Democratic colleagues.

Here in Macon, Abrams highlights healthcare and education as some of her main priorities if she wins on Tuesday. She talks about her background growing up in Mississippi and her five siblings, which include a federal judge, an anthropology professor and an evolutionary biologist.

But it is her brother Walter, who suffers from schizophrenia and drug addiction and has been in and out of prison, who truly motivates her, she says. "Walter is just one of thousands of Walters wandering the streets of Georgia, and if we don't know a Walter, we might be a Walter," she says, as she describes how the health system has failed him.

Finally, she calls on everyone in the district to get out and vote on Tuesday.  “We need every ballot in the box so that we fill them to the rafters, so there is no question that voter suppression worked . . . This is our election,” she says to applause. “Amen,” shouts one elderly man, holding his “Abrams for Governor” sign, with tears in his eyes.