Dorian Warren is the President of the Center for Community Change Action, the Vice-President of the Center for Community Change, and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.
Stacey Abrams made history this week when she won the Democratic primary for governor of Georgia. She now has the chance to become the first Black woman governor in America. Abrams secured the nomination decisively, defeating her primary opponent — “the other Stacey” — by a 3-to-1 margin and racking up more than 400,000 votes. Meanwhile, it is still unclear preciesly whom Abrams will face in the general election. The Republican candidates, Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp, are now in a runoff after a crowded primary race. But Abrams, it’s important to note, got more votes than both Cagle and Kemp combined. This was not a small win — it was huge.
While historic and decisive, it shouldn’t be surpsing that a black Democrat defeated a white Democrat, Stacey Evans, in a Southern primary. Abrams is what a Southern Democrat looks like. For years, political strategists like Steve Phillips, author of Brown is the New White, How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority, have been pleading with the Democratic National Committee to shift their focus to candidates of color, especially women of color. Abrams’ victory in Georgia may have done for the DNC what Meghan Markle’s wedding to Prince Harry did for the British royals — announced in no uncertain terms that times have changed.
In addition to considering the strategic obstacles — Georgia hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1998 — that Abrams must face as she moves into the general election, it is equally important to question the potential impact of her winning. What difference will it truly make if Abrams becomes the governor of Georgia?
In the governor’s mansion Abrams will likely have a material impact on the lives of ordinary people. She’s put child care at the center of her campaign, an issue that’s occupied a core part of her platform since the beginning. She even led with the issue in her victory speech:
With young children of our own, we both cheered these words. Affordable child care is imperative for economic security and healthy child development. Abrams connected the dots between economic, racial and gender justice seamlessly. She highlighted this when she returned to child care later in her victory speech, recalling a conversation with a grandmother whose dream it is to open up a child care center so that women like her daughter can have a place to take their kids while they earn a living and pursue their dreams.
These are exciting positions from a Southern gubernatorial candidate, but decades of political science research shows that black mayors from the 1970s through 1990s made little to no difference to poor folks and black folks in cities when it came to economic gains. These new black mayors may have wanted to do more, but they were constrained by structural realities outside of their control — deindustrialization, growing income inequality, persistent residential segregation, resegregation of public schools and limited levers of urban governance at their disposal. In effect, all they really seemed to do was spend more on police and fire departments, and sometimes increase the numbers of minority contractors. But they were never able to redistribute city resources to the residents most in need of vital services and economic inclusion. These structural constraints historically facing progressive black executives temper our enthusiasm of Abrams’ ability to implement her progressive vision. Temper, but not dampen.
The election of Governor Stacey Abrams would matter on a second level-politics. By politics, we mean empowered grassroots communities using networks and organizations to hold elected officials accountable — pushing them to hold fast to their promises. Media attention exploded with recognition of Abrams the morning after her election, but she is not a newcomer, and neither are the hundreds of thousands of Georgia citizens who cast ballots for her.
Georgia did not just “get woke” on Tuesday.
The New Georgia Project has been on the ground for years registering and educating voters — especially people of color, women of color and white women — and talking to ordinary people about values and issues that matter in their lives, such as child care. Abrams founded the New Georgia Project with a massive voter registration campaign back in 2014. It is paying dividends now.
This is a reminder that even when African Americans are structurally constrained relative to policy implementation, elected executives historically have had important impact through increased activation and empowerment of the communities that bring them into office. Those early black mayors brought in new faces and voices and helped increase voter participation, and sometimes protest action, in those cities. Just ask black women over the age of 50 in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and of course, Atlanta.
Whatever its policy shortcomings, the Obama White House was an American tapestry that made many talented young people of color consider running for office for the first time. If Abrams wins she will embolden those who have been organizing in Georgia. An Abrams win will also make national leaders like Glynda Carr of Higher Heights, an organization that encourages black women’s civic engagement and electoral participation, a household name. Carr has been pushing Democrats to understand the value of black women voters and candidates for years.
If Abrams can win the general election and become the first black woman governor in U.S. History, in a Southern state that sits in the heart of the old Confederacy, it will be a powerful symbol of the capacity of black women to be the face — and not just the backbone or helpmate — of American politics. This might prove the most crucial outcome of an Abrams’ victory. Since 2016, the Democratic Party has had an ongoing debate about whether to try to win over white working class voters or focus on the base of the New American Majority. A definitive Abrams win in the general election could settle that dispute for the 2020 cycle.
And, if Abrams becomes the governor of Georgia in the same year that Beyoncé transformed Coachella with an HBCU drum line, and Bishop Michael Curry turned out Windsor Castle with a sermon mentioning slavery and redemptive love while a black American woman married into the British royal family, 2018 will undisputedly be the year of #BlackGirlMagic.