I was standing in a Chicago hotel lobby on a May afternoon in 2018 when a political consultant friend called and asked: “Would you mind going down to Georgia for six months to be Stacey Abrams’s communications director in the governor’s race?”
I told him that I didn’t think it was the right timing for a bunch of reasons. Ten minutes later, I got a call from Abrams’s chief media adviser — also a friend — who persuaded me to think about it before I said “no.”
I knew the basis of the case that my friend was going to make before she even started: History. Stacey Abrams had a legitimate shot to become the first African-American woman to govern a southern state.
I didn’t end up going down to the Peach State, and Stacey Abrams didn’t end up in the governor’s mansion. But like everyone else, I’ve watched her transcend Georgia politics over the last two years. And the grand irony here is that Abrams has arguably made far bigger history than if she had become governor. In other words, not in spite of her loss — but in large part because of it.
Before we go any further, there’s a deeper theme to this story — and it’s no coincidence that all of it occurred to me on MLK Day. It has to do with how you “fight” within the American system.
There are two main ways that a person or a movement can try to obtain power in America: 1) To work, organize, vote, peacefully protest and use the legal and legislative system, or; 2) To try to seize power through lies and force.
I will never get used to the fact that we’re even talking about the difference between these two paths in this country. But we are. Still. And if you take a good look, side by side, at the efforts of Stacey Abrams versus the efforts of Donald Trump — over the last two years and especially over the last two months — what you’ll find are two perfect examples of the right way versus the wrong way to “fight.”
Democracy v. Insurgency. Dignity v. Malignancy. Nobility v. Infamy.
Let’s go back to 2018. Stacey Abrams officially lost that election by 55,278 votes out of 3.9 million cast. Abrams contended in the days after the election — and this is the one thing that she and Trump have in common — that the race was conducted unfairly. Abrams stated: “To watch an elected official who claims to represent the people in this state baldly pin his hopes for election on suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote has been truly appalling.”
But unlike Trump, Abrams announced 10 days after the election: “I acknowledge that former Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor in the 2018 gubernatorial election.”
Unlike Trump, Abrams brought real facts to the public discussion, the courts, and ultimately, the legislature.
Between 2010 and 2018, 1.4 million voter registrations were canceled in Georgia for “inactivity.” In 2018 alone, an “exact-match” law put more than 50,000 applications on hold because of disparities in government records. There were outrageously long voting lines, absentee ballot rejections and unauthorized poll closures. And possibly worst of all, Georgia had no paper ballots, so the state could not do an audit to verify the accuracy of the vote.
Unlike Trump, who created a phony commission to disprove his 2.8 million popular vote loss — and disbanded it before it could announce its “findings” — Abrams took her case and used it to change the laws.
First, she filed suit in federal court against the state of Georgia three weeks after the election. That suit is still pending today, which raises the usual questions about our legal system. But the pressure of that case, combined with Abrams pushing the Georgia legislature, resulted in the GOP agreeing to pass HB 316. The new law fixed or improved the problems of 2018 — including requiring paper ballots.
If fact, in another hilarious irony, the new paper ballots in 2020 left Donald Trump with zero leg to stand on when he protested his historic loss in Georgia. Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger announced in late November: “Georgia’s historic first statewide audit reaffirmed that the state’s new secure paper ballot voting system accurately counted and reported results.”
Also, unlike Trump, rather than stoke fear and repeat provably false lies in order to whip up a dangerous and ultimately deadly mob, Abrams put the pedal down on her voter registration/turnout apparatus that she’d been building for years. She created FairFight and FairFight Action to sign up voters and get them to the polls.
The day after the race was called for Biden, I made the argument in the Chicago Tribune that Abrams was one of the biggest reasons for his win — and that she held in her hands the two January runoff elections for senate — which would decide the Senate Majority. In other words, for a couple of months, Stacey Abrams was arguably the most powerful person in America.
And she delivered. Again. Abrams and Black voters in Georgia tipped the balance and gave the Democrats control of the White House and both chambers on Capitol Hill for the first time in 12 years (and only the second in the last four decades).
Meanwhile, over those same two months and leading up to the violently deadly insurrection of the US Capitol only hours after the Georgia elections were called, the president of the United States lost dozens of court cases, refused to engage in a proper transition, and cried countless lies in front of cameras and crowds about the legitimacy of the election.
So, to review the scoreboard:
Abrams acknowledged that Kemp won, used the courts to move the legislature and ameliorate election problems that were provable, while accelerating her own grassroots movement that powered presidential wins in her home state and others…
Trump disbanded a phony voting commission, got crushed in his election, lost the GOP Majority in the senate, worked to suppress votes, openly lied about his losses and incited Americans to protest a “rigged election” that was not rigged. At least, not against him.
Last night, on the eve of MLK Day, I read a New York Times essay by the brilliant writer Timothy Snyder, who publicly predicted in October that this coup attempt would take place. It was a wide-ranging piece, but there was one paragraph in particular that hit my heart and my head at the very same time:
“It’s not just that electoral fraud by African-Americans against Donald Trump never happened. It is that it is the very opposite of what happened, in 2020 and in every American election. As always, Black people waited longer than others to vote and were more likely to have their votes challenged. They were more likely to be suffering or dying from Covid-19, and less likely to be able to take time away from work. The historical protection of their right to vote has been removed by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, and states have rushed to pass measures of a kind that historically reduce voting by the poor and communities of color.”
Boom. The story of America. African-Americans never get a breath from their efforts to correct our country’s original sin and give them the rights that the opening paragraphs of our Declaration and Constitution guarantee.
Tumultuous times produce villains and heroes. Or maybe they just reveal them. There is a sadness to this fact, but there is also hope. For when you put the two side-by-side, especially through the lens of history, you can see them for who they are.
When we look back 50 years ago, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., not Bull Connor. We honor John R. Lewis, not George Wallace.
And looking back 50 years from now, there will be great clarity around who represented democracy versus insurgency. Nobility versus infamy. Dignity versus malignancy.
The epic mismatch between Stacey Abrams and Donald Trump is the stuff of immortality.