For Stacey Abrams, It's About So Much More Than Voting
In March, the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan, a historic $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, was passed by Congress in response to the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among its many initiatives, it granted $1,400 to people earning under $75,000 a year and, with the Child Tax Credit, lifted approximately 5.5 million children out of poverty. It's not hyperbolic to say that without the voter protection and registration efforts of Stacey Abrams in Georgia, this would not have happened. Her organization Fair Fight helped turn Georgia blue and sent Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, after close runoffs, to Congress. This, of course, gave Democrats control of the Senate and the simple ability, after years of obstruction, to get things done.
A former tax lawyer–turned–voting rights activist, Abrams has, rightly, been heralded as both a symbol and a savior of democracy (in February, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize). And while she appreciates the plaudits ("I get a lot of credit for being smart enough to hire really smart people"), she is quick to point out that she is more than a politician. Prioritizing a full life — and trying to get more than five hours of sleep a night — is key to her well-being. This month she releases her new novel, While Justice Sleeps, a legal thriller. Under the pen name Selena Montgomery, she has also written eight romance novels since 2001. But with her own name as a byline, Abrams — who remains mum about reentering the Georgia governor's race in 2022 — is consciously signaling there is more than one string in her remarkable bow.
Laura Brown: First, I want to say this shoot is beautiful. When you're photographed, it's always very reverent — sometimes in a cape, almost like you're the head of a ship. What would Stacey Abrams's ship be called?
Stacey Abrams: Probably the S.S. Tomorrow. Typically [on shoots] they have me looking out toward the people. [laughs]
LB: Well, you've always been looking ahead. I read that when you were 18, you made a spreadsheet of your life for the next 40 years. Do you still access it?
SA: I do.
LB: I'm sorry you didn't meet all of your goals and are a resounding failure.
SA: Actually, what I do is copy the previous iteration, so I know what I thought I was going to be doing. Then I update it with where I ended up and the moments when I had to make changes. Like when I decided I didn't want to run for mayor [of Atlanta], I had to reorganize a bunch of things.
LB: When did you last edit your spreadsheet?
SA: In 2018. I did not get a big job I had on there [Abrams lost the controversial Georgia governor's race to Brian Kemp], so I had to think about what I was going to do next. It's really about not just milestones but the big things I want to get done and what has to happen in between to make them possible. When I didn't become governor in 2018, that changed what I was going to do for the next four years. I created Fair Fight, Fair Count, and the Southern Economic Advancement Project [SEAP].
LB: Have you always been so structured in the way you approach things?
SA: I have. My brothers and sisters will tell you that if we were assigned jobs in our family, my oldest sister is the captain, using the ship analogy. I've always been finance and logistics. My sister Leslie is the cruise director, and the younger three are the crew. They do what they're told. But I tend to think through what we need to do.
LB: I know you're desperate to reveal this exclusively to InStyle: Will you be entering the 2022 Georgia governor's race?
SA: I hear there will be one. I absolutely plan to vote in that election.
LB: Nice line. You will vote in that election, and you'll make sure that everybody can.
LB: Top of the news right now is the Kemp "vote squashing" legislation, what so many are calling Jim Crow 2.0. How does it feel when you've done so much to get senators Warnock and Ossoff elected? Does it feel like two steps forward, one step back?
SA: It wasn't unexpected. If you look at the interviews I was doing right after the November election and then after the January [Georgia runoff] election, it was very clear that this was their only recourse. If you heard their vitriol, it was about the changes to the laws. These changes that were forced by lawsuits by organizations, including my own, made them do better and allowed more people to vote. And so when it works, when people are permitted to vote, they make different choices. [Kemp and his allies'] default behavior is to stop people from voting rather than improving their offer.
LB: You knew it was coming, but on the day it was actioned, how did you feel?
SA: I grew up as a Black Democrat in the South, so there's not a lot of surprise or emotive waves that come from bad behavior. I will say there was relief and pride that the work we had done actually blocked some of the most egregious acts. As bad as this is, they actually intended worse. With the work of Fair Fight and the work of other organizations, we were able to contain a lot of the evil. But not all of it, and that's what made it to the page on [the bill] SB 202. And you know, I'm angry. And that anger is a constant low hum because I know that their intention is never good. It's to squash — to use your language — another citizen to enhance their power. As someone who grew up revering the right to vote, I'm befuddled by this. I think if you actually just did better work, people would probably vote for you. I'm always annoyed by those who would rather cheat than work.
LB: If you were to be alone with Governor Kemp, what would you say?
SA: I have very little to say to him. When he ran those commercials in his primary and signaled that he had no regard for communities of color or the needs of others, and when he brandished a weapon and dehumanized parts of the population, he told us who he was. Off-putting to me was that I knew Brian before that, and he and I had worked together successfully on something. In fact, I told him about the New Georgia Project [a nonpartisan effort to register and civically engage Georgians] as I was building it back in 2014. So the invective and accusations were a bit startling at first. Then I realized I had met the person he wanted me to meet, but I had not seen the totality of who he is. At this moment, my faith tells me that one should always pray for people to be better. Don't write off a single individual, but his redemption is going to take a really long time.
LB: Politics is a brutal game. You know people in certain ways, and then they just…curdle. When you go into this pure of heart, how do you digest seeing this happen over and over?
SA: You cannot do this work effectively if your presumption is that people are bad actors. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt, because there is no way to be truly successful in politics. And by successful, I mean not getting your way but successful in that you are serving people. What I find so disheartening about Brian Kemp is that having achieved the job through bad action, he had an opportunity to actually do better this time. But he's proved himself to be someone who is incapable of winning through his own good actions. He believes he has to game the system, and in this case that means denying the citizenship of people he has sworn an oath to protect and defend.
LB: How could you possibly deny food and water to anybody in a voting line?
SA: Well, part of it is just the callousness of his response, which is, "Order Uber Eats." But this is the same man who is refusing to accept $2 billion in federal funding for health care that would help the state of Georgia in the midst of a pandemic, where we have some of the highest uninsured rates in the nation and it's disproportionately hurting and killing people of color. He's refusing to accept our tax dollars back to provide health care, because he fundamentally does not believe that humans who are under his purview are deserving of it.
LB: Back to you: You're commonly viewed as a heroine and "savior" of democracy. But what do you do when you just don't want to get out of bed?
SA: I read, and I watch a lot of television and movies. I give myself space to decompress. This is hard work. There's nothing noble about the sort of self-immolation of always being on. I'm just as comfortable reading a novel as I am doing this work because I want a full life. And I can't do that at the expense of my own capacity to operate. So I will snuggle back under the covers and give myself another 20 minutes. Or if for some reason they've forgotten to fill up my day, I will enjoy it doing absolutely nothing.
LB: How much sleep do you get?
SA: According to my doctor, not enough. I average around five to six hours. I'm trying to learn, but I just have a hard time going to bed. My brain doesn't shut down. I look at that clock, and I'm like, "This is an absurd hour. And in five of these hours, you're gonna have to do something else. You should probably close your eyes now."
LB: In this political ecosystem, nothing is typical, but what's an average Monday like for you?
SA: Today I started off getting my hair done. I have very thick hair, and I don't like doing it myself, so it is one of my perks.
LB: It's infrastructure.
SA: Exactly. I just spoke to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And then I will spend about two hours working on a project to address the COVID recovery public policy issues we're doing through one of my organizations. I'll work on an outline for a book that I'm supposed to be writing, and then I've got to talk to some major folks about voting rights, who are thinking about whether to stay or go, so I've got to explain why they should stay. Then I've got two more small speeches. And then I'm done.
LB: You've characterized yourself as an introvert. I'm sure when you were starting out, you wouldn't have so casually said, "Yeah, two small speeches and then I'll go home."
SA: Here's the thing about being an introvert. I didn't know what it was called until I was doing a fellowship and they had us fill out the Myers-Briggs questionnaire. They called three of us up to the front of the room, and they said, "What is your ideal weekend if you could do anything you want?" The first guy was like, "I'd go to Carnival and have a raging party." The second person said, "I'd do something on the beach with my friends." And then I said, "I'd watch a Star Trek marathon by myself at home." And it was completely normal to me, but they said, "This is the difference. You're an introvert."
But I'm not shy. I think people tend to conflate the two. I'm good with silence. I'm good with being alone. I'm one of those people who are like, "Man, I'm gonna miss quarantine." But I recognize that my sense of responsibility and my competitive drive to get things done necessitates that I have to talk to people. But it took time. When I was younger, I would speak up for things that were important, but I was perfectly happy not talking. I'm not the kind of person who, when I go into a room, I have to be in charge I'm like, "Somebody else can do it." Unless you're doing it wrong. Then I'll step up.
LB: Now having achieved what you have, there is an expectation that you can just relentlessly do this. "Burden" seems too strong a word, but does that ever feel heavy?
SA: Well, yeah. I think one skill I acquired early on is I'm very comfortable with delegation. I'm not a micromanager. I find people who are good and smart and give them the resources they need. You have to be really clear about your expectations. You've got to be comfortable with failures, and you cultivate leaders, and then you let them do their jobs. I created Fair Fight, Fair Count, and SEAP, and there's someone important who's running each of those organizations. I get a lot of credit for being smart enough to hire really smart people. I think my success and my energy are managed because I trust people.
LB: What's an ideal day off for you?
SA: It was last Sunday. I sat outside on my patio and finished a book. Then I watched a marathon of Criminal Minds and caught up on Guy Fieri's Tournament of Champions. I channel surfed, watched some Rick and Morty, read another book, and then went to bed.
LB: What's your go-to chill drink and dinner meal?
SA: Is my doctor paying attention? Because I'm working on being healthier. But if I'm cooking, I have this angel hair pasta that I make with broccoli and carrots and a garlic sauce, so it's really tasty with chicken. And then a nice, chilled glass of Martinelli's apple juice.
LB: So you don't drink, but you drink juice?
LB: Don't give Stacey a glass of wine because democracy will be ruined. [laughs] Your new book is called While Justice Sleeps. What happens when justice sleeps?
SA: If you read the book, you'll find out. Actually, this is one of those books where I came up with the title first. I've kept that title over the decades that it's taken me to get the book to print because it was really provocative. Like, what happens when people aren't paying attention, when evil can run amok, and when good feels powerless?
LB: Your original pen name, Selena Montgomery [under which Abrams wrote romantic fiction through 2009], also sounds like a by-night superhero. Did you think of that when you named her?
SA: No, it was two in the morning, and I was watching an A&E biography of Elizabeth Montgomery, who played Samantha on Bewitched. On the show, her evil cousin, the one with the dark hair, was Serena. I don't like my r's, but I love my l's, and so I made it Selena Montgomery.
LB: Is Selena upset that Stacey has come to take her literary crown?
SA: Selena has always been very comfortable with her role as romance novelist. I started writing romance when I was also publishing tax articles. I loved it, but that's when Google was coming into being, so I didn't want people to think [former Federal Reserve chairman] Alan Greenspan was writing romance.
LB: Imagine if he did.
SA: It could possibly be amazing. But for my purposes, I kept them separate.
LB: What's the next book you're writing? Is it more of a policy memoir?
SA: The next one will be fiction, and then I'll probably write another that is nonfiction. I've never seen the point of choosing. I write what I want, and what somebody is willing to buy. And with Selena Montgomery, it was just easier to keep them divided. But my picture was always in every one of my books.
LB: With the renown that you have, other folks might just go and sit on a board somewhere and cash in. Tell me why not.
SA: The world isn't fair yet. My mom was a librarian; my dad was a shipyard worker. They were both civil rights activists as teenagers. Then they became United Methodist ministers when I was in high school. They raised us to believe that you're supposed to fix things that are broken, and that the world should be better. That people should have opportunity. Particularly for me, knowing where I started and where I am now, I'm blessed to have what I have. I'm responsible for making certain that more people have access to their full potential. If you see something and know how to make it better, then that's what you should be doing. That's what I do.
LB: Through all of this, you have become such a public figure. How is that day-to-day, like when you go to the store?
SA: I don't go very much. When I first ran for office, one of my best friends said, "You realize people are going to know who you are when you do this. You can't run for office secretly." [laughs] I do miss the anonymity that used to be, but I don't take myself that seriously. I am privileged to get to do the things I do. It can all change in a moment.
LB: What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments to date?
SA: I'm extraordinarily proud of the democracy work. Sitting parallel to it is the work we were able to do on the census, which is seen as this once-in-a-decade intrusion into your privacy but is a fundamental restructuring of how we see each other. Because we have President Biden, we're going to have a more accurate census. We're going to tell the truth, and that, to me, is what you do it for. It seems esoteric, but it was why communities didn't have COVID information. They didn't have PPE [personal protective equipment].
LB: Right, because they didn't know who was there.
SA: Exactly. You didn't have PPE because there wasn't good information. As someone who cares about data, it matters. It matters that policy-makers do the right thing. But it also matters that they have the information they need to be held accountable.
LB: Stacey, forgive the bad word, but when was the first time you owned your shit?
SA: When I was 12, I was supposed to go on this national trip to Arizona with the Girl Scouts, and I was the only Black Girl Scout chosen from Mississippi. My mom and dad drove me to the airport—and they had left without me. They had given us the wrong information. My parents were indignant, like, "Well, we'll just go home." I said, "No, I'm going to Arizona." And my mom and dad said, "You've never been on a plane, Stacey. And you're 12." And I said, "I earned this. I want to go."
So they let me get on the plane. I clearly didn't think this all the way through because I was on the plane like, "How are we in the air and not dead?" But we had a layover, and my mom kept calling the desk agent over and over. I was paged every 15 minutes because my parents wanted to make sure I hadn't been kidnapped. Then there were some mechanical issues, so I had to spend the night at a hotel near the airport, and every flight attendant was knocking on my door. And I was like, "I'm trying to sleep." But by then, they all knew my mom, so they were personally responsible for my well-being. When I finally got to Arizona, it was amazing. But I got on that plane because somebody decided I was too dark to be relevant. And that wasn't going to work for me.
LB: What's something you've stumbled on, then learned from?
SA: I wanted to be governor. I didn't get it. This is the way I think about it: I have evidence to prove that there were tens of thousands of people denied their right to vote. We thought we'd anticipated most of the perfidy that was coming from Kemp during his time as Georgia secretary of state. But there was so much we didn't know, about his Exact Match system, about his purging. I was surprised just how effective his bad behavior was. How effective voter suppression was. Even though I'd known about it and I'd fought against it—it worked. That was an important lesson. I hadn't done enough to push back. So, I'm doing that work now across the country. Because that sucked, not winning.
LB: What you're actively fighting against defeats you.
SA: I've watched too many superhero movies. It's not supposed to end that way. This was like the end of Avengers: Infinity War, when people just start disappearing, and you're thinking, "Wait, what?"
LB: You're like, "Excuse me, I've been photographed in one or two capes."
SA: See, the capes came later. But it was a campaign. There were certainly things I could have done better, although I think I ran an amazing race and I did the things I said I would do. I was on country music radio. I went to a gun show. I went to a music fest. I went to Dragon Con. I went to the place where they filmed Deliverance. I was everywhere. It was this moment of reality of something we all know — good doesn't always win. Then there's this moment of deep humility that says, "I can never do enough." I think that's what causes people to step out, when they realize they can never do enough. For me, I can never do enough, but I can do more than I did before the next day and the next day.
LB: I look at you with your five hours of sleep a night and at newly elected President Biden, who is 78 years old. I wish somebody could do blood work because there is a particular DNA in the political field. Where does this consistent fire come from?
SA: There's a way that you enter politics: Either you use politics for getting good done or you see policies as a way to amplify your politics and your power. The question is: Which side are you on? My responsibility is to always see politics as a tool and not the end goal, and that's why I do so many other things. I don't ever want politics to be the way I define who I am. I've got 10 different identities. I'm a walking reality show waiting to happen.
LB: There's an idea!
SA: That's too intrusive. [laughs] But I've got a backup plan to my backup plan. My definition of me is never that I'm a politician, and it's not that whole "Oh, I'm a public servant, not a politician" thing. The work I do cannot be the only way I define myself because then what I'm willing to do to keep my sense of self is the very source of the compromise. And that's devastating.
LB: The way you approach things, therein lies your power. Because you exist in all of these different realms. What would be the theme song for your next big political stage?
SA: I'm not allowed to play that song, so I would play "Tightrope," by Janelle Monáe.
LB: Is the other song rude?
SA: I love Ludacris a lot.
LB: Has it got bad words?
SA: It does indeed.
LB: Would it alienate the electorate?
SA: [laughs] It would alienate some, and it would endear me to others.
Photography by Shaniqwa Jarvis. Styling by Eric McNeal. Makeup by Paulette Morgan.
For more stories like this, pick up the June 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download May 21st.