With the Democrats’ newfound control of the Senate, many have been praising former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams for her critical work on voter mobilization, including those in the Asian American community, a group that’s historically been neglected by political campaigns.
The state’s Asian American and Pacific Islander population experienced unprecedented levels of outreach during the most recent election cycle, leading to turnout that broke records and an electorate that had gained enough power to help swing a historically GOP district blue in the general election. But many organizers and politicians across Georgia say that Abrams has long been quietly engaging with the group, targeting them when many continued to treat them as virtually invisible.
Sam Park, a Georgia state representative who once interned for Abrams, told NBC Asian America that as the state's House minority leader from 2011 to 2017, she regularly appeared on Radio Korea to inform the state’s Korean population of what was going on under the Gold Dome.
"Without a doubt in my mind, Stacey Abrams helped transform the electorate in Georgia by organizing and empowering the Asian American community,” Park said.
Georgia’s eligible voter population has surged in size, with Asian Americans being one of its fastest growing demographics, increasing by 47 percent from 2012 to 2018. Abrams, advocates say, has a lot to do with it. With the former state House minority leader at the helm, her two voting rights organizations Fair Fight and The New Georgia Project registered more than 800,000 new voters, with a focus on people of color, in the lead-up to the election.
She also partnered with community-based organizations to increase civic participation among Asian American, immigrant and other communities. And after it was revealed that Georgia had voted for president-elect Joe Biden, making it the first time the state swung blue since 1992, Abrams thanked a variety of organizations for their outreach efforts, including the legal advocacy nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.
Abrams’ work around voter mobilization was thrust into national spotlight during her gubernatorial run in 2018, when she ran against then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who refused to recuse himself from overseeing the election. Abrams, who launched the New Georgia Project in 2013, founded Fair Fight after losing by a slim margin. But her engagement with the Asian American community stretches back several years prior, according to both Park and Lillie Madali, who served as the eastern region co-chair for Filipino Americans for Biden.
“When Stacey Abrams was the State Representative for House District 89 and State House Minority Leader, she was definitely among the few representatives that consistently showed up at AAPI events in the community,” Madli said.
Madali said she recalls one event in 2013, hosted by the Georgia AAPI Task Force, during which Abrams gave a particularly memorable speech, telling the crowd about the unity she observed in the Asian American community.
“When Stacey Abrams was the state representative for House District 89 and state House minority leader, she was definitely among the few representatives that consistently showed up at AAPI events in the community,” Madali said. “From galas to cultural celebration days, no event was too small for her.”
Abrams also proved instrumental in the careers of many young AAPI including Park, who said that she actively supported and encouraged him during her tenure as leader of the state’s Democratic Caucus.
“She opened the door and invited me to serve as an intern in her office. Not only was that my first foray into the political arena, that was the first time I had ever stepped foot in the Georgia state Capitol,” he said. “Four years later, in 2016, she was one of the few who thought I could unseat a three-term Republican chairwoman.”
Abrams went on to launch the first statewide campaign in Georgia to have a comprehensive Asian American program with an Asian American staff leading a multilingual outreach effort, Park said.
Park won the race, becoming the first Asian American Democrat elected to the Georgia Legislature, as well as the first openly gay legislator to hold that seat. Now, there are a total of five Asian American Democrats serving in the Georgia General Assembly.
Abrams went on to launch the first statewide campaign in Georgia to have a comprehensive Asian American program with an Asian American staff leading a multilingual outreach effort, Park said. On top of it, Abrams never forgot to give credit to Asian American organizations that had been putting in work for years, and driving supporters to local grassroots groups, Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund, said.
And the community needs to look no further than the election results to find proof of Abrams’ impact, the advocates said. Asian Americans’ turnout was particularly critical in the congressional 7th district, which had voted red for decades past. Data revealed that Asian Americans strongly favored Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, making up 150 percent of her winning margin. And outreach played a big role. The study showed that 68 percent of Asian Americans were contacted by a campaign, a political party or a community organization, compared to just over 50 percent of Asian Americans nationwide.
Mahmood calls the turnout from the general election and the January runoff to be a “down-payment” for the coming decade, where communities of color, including Asian Americans, will transition from “being heard to flexing real power.”
“Our communities have always been more tuned in to the campaigns and civic activities that are speaking our languages and values,” she said. “We demonstrated that if you break down engagement barriers and bring an authentic ear to our doorsteps, we’ll turn out.”