Georgia State Representative Stacey Abrams is the House Minority Leader for the Georgia General Assembly and a new model for political power, synthesizing old fashioned organizing, civic engagement, and social media to galvanize historically disenfranchised communities of color in the “Peach State.” There was little by the way of good news for Democrats after the blistering 2014 midterm losses but in Georgia, thanks to Abrams’ New Georgia Project future election on the local, state, and federal level will become more unpredictable as demographic shifts and newly registered voters align to shake things up.
“The New Georgia project was actually born out of work that we did in 2013, around the Affordable Care Act (ACA),” Abrams tells EBONY.com. “[T]he goal then was to really build the capacity of the poorest Georgians, and to build the capacity to sign up for and understand it. [A]s we did that, we realized that nearly half of the population that we were talking to would not have been eligible for the ACA, they would have fallen under the medicaid expansion program which Georgia refused.”
Partisan refusal to expand Medicaid in Georgia leaves nearly 7 percent of Georgians who need health insurance in the coverage gap; Georgians who have an income that is too high to qualify for Medicaid’s current income eligibility requirements but who fall below the lower limit for federal subsidies. This is one of those policy details that Abrams says people living and working day to day to make ends meet may not see as directly linked to voting, but they should. “The reason why this is important is that when they wanted to understand why they couldn’t have health insurance they thought that it was because President Obama had done something, and what we had to explain was that this was a local decision.” Partisans nationwide have essentially run for office platform defined by opposition to President Obama since he took office, and the ACA has consistently been a lightning rod for lawsuits, impeachment threats, futile repeal votes, and court appeals. The law which now stands at insuring 10 million people under the ACA, and millions more under the Medicaid expansion, isn’t popular unless broken down into it’s individual parts.
That lack of understanding of how policy that can improve the lives of struggling communities is part of why Abrams wanted to get into government after a career as a tax attorney. “We found so many people who really didn’t understand the role of the state legislature and the role of the governor. They hadn’t connected the dots about voting. Even if they had voted for President Obama, if you didn’t vote all the way down the ballot you may have elected someone who didn’t agree that healthcare reform was a good idea,” Abrams says.
“What I have tried to do as a legislator and as a public servant is make sure people understand what’s what. It’s not about the title, but what work do they actually get to do. When I ran for office in 2006, I ran as a technocrat which is not usually what people do when they are running for office the first time.” At the time, Abrams opponent was a state legislator who had been in office for over a decade but so many constituents were not engaged because of a lack of understanding of how the government operates. In campaigning on a platform of explanation and engagement through voter education and registration, Abrams hopes the future of Georgia is much more progressive and focused on policies that improve quality of life. “I ran on how the government works and explained to voters how the state works, how the federal government works, how the county works, how the city works, and how they work together…I understand the mechanics of government and I understand tax policy. Those are the two things that change our lives that most people have the least understanding of. I see it as my responsibility as a legislator and as a citizen to expand that understanding.”
A greater understanding of where voting falls in the citizenship paradigm is essential in changing behaviors and in turn the world. Abrams says that it’s no longer about getting your base out to vote on election day, but changing their behavior to be fully engaged before and after ballots are cast. “I believe that you can either change ideology or you can change behavior. My mission is not ideological change because that’s the goal of a different party in a different election. The New Georgia Project is about changing behavior. Getting someone who has never voted to vote and then proudly proclaim, “I am a voter!” When it is a part of who you are it doesn’t matter what year it is, if you are a voter, then you vote when there’s an election. If you are someone who just votes, then you are someone who only does it when someone reminds you to do it. We have to create voters, not get people out to vote. “GOTV” is an activity, becoming a voter is a movement and it’s a change in behavior and that has to be our mission.”
With a deliberate push to re-engage communities of color in the electoral process, Abrams sought out to register the nearly 800,000 unregistered Georgians over the next 8 years. With another round of redistricting set for 2020, Abrams says it’s critical for Democrats be in the majority to be able to draw those lines and limit partisan gerrymandering that proscribes the electoral power of communities of color. Right now, the project has registered 120,000 new voters both directly and through partnerships. Social media has been an effective tool in that effort, and as #BlackLivesMatter sweeps the nation it’s utility as agent of change is becoming more solidified through tangible policy and electoral gains.
“Social media is one of the tools in our toolbox. The challenge is a heavy reliance on one method….It’s not either/or. It’s not social media or voting or organizing. It’s and, and, and. And it’s making sure that you create this sustainable feedback loop, so that the people that you get added, also get added to your social media feeds, and that they are also spreading the message and at the same time learning fundamental organizing tools.” That sustainable feedback loop is how Abrams plans to make lasting change that reflects the constituencies wants and needs.
“I’m not there to change the fundamental ideology of a person through sheer force of will…That’s not going to be my mission if that’s not something that I’m going to be able to do. I don’t need to change your beliefs, I need to change your behavior. I need you to do what I need you to do. And that means figuring out where your beliefs and my beliefs have common cause and we can work together.”