It’s our second live edition of WITHpod, featuring special guest Stacey Abrams! Just a heads up, this is one of those episodes that is going to make you laugh out loud in public. A lot.
If you want to get to the heart of the most fundamental question facing the Democratic Party right now — what is the future of the coalition — look no further than Stacey Abrams. Her historic 2018 campaign for Georgia governor was built on her vision of how to turn out a progressive majority at the ballot box. And though she lost that campaign, suffice it to say her theory caught the attention of the country. Now, she sits with Chris Hayes and WITHpod listeners to reflect on that hard-fought campaign against Brian Kemp, her vision for the party and how she not only gave but also embodies the Democratic response to Donald Trump. Will she run for Senate? For president? Would she go out on a date with Idris Elba? Listen to find out.
CHRIS HAYES: Beto O’Rourke is considering running for president. And I've seen people say the same about you, and I've seen people make this point and I think it's a good point. It's like, if Beto O’Rourke is a possible presidential candidate, like why isn’t Stacey Abrams? Are you a possible presidential candidate?
STACEY ABRAMS: Sure.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to "Why is This Happening," with me your host, Chris Hayes.
I'm so shameless, I'm gonna just keep pumping the applause as much as possible. So, this is our second ever live Why is This Happening? And we were thinking about who could be get for this event that folks would wanna see? That I would wanna talk to? And our guest today is someone that was at the top of the list, she was the number one choice. And the reason she was, is because I think that almost more than any politician in America, she is at the center of the most vital conversation happening in the broad Democratic Party coalition in center left about what the future of the Democratic Party looks like in this moment.
You might remember, or maybe you don't 'cause it was kinda forgettable, so I'll remind you. Back in February of 2017 after the president of the United States was inaugurated, Donald Trump, who's our current President. Real shocker in this crowd. I thought that was gonna be applause line, dammit.
After he was elected he gave a speech that is technically not a State of the Union, but a lot of presidents will give a speech in February. And so the Democratic Party had to figure out, like who is our respondent to the president? 'Cause they get some time to respond. And that year was the respondent was a guy named Steve Beshear. Steve Beshear was the governor of Kentucky. He's a white man, in his 60s or 70s I think. It was after the president spoke, it was like, shut up on. Steve Beshear sitting in a diner, do you remember that shot?
Like in a diner with like all white people behind him. He's being like, we get it. We have white people in the party too. And Steve Beshear made sense because he was a popular Democratic governor of Kentucky, he'd expanded Medicaid, he had gone very hard on putting support behind the Beshear. They had actually had a very successful launch of their ACA website there. But more than anything, Steve Beshear selection in 2017 represented a moment in the debate about how Democrats were dealing with the loss of Donald Trump.
And broadly, to over simplify the debate, the debate goes in two parts, right? There is the, oh my god we lost touch with the white working class. We lost touch with the voters of places like Kentucky. We lost touch with the Obama/Trump voters. And we have to desperately get them back. Maybe if we throw Steve Beshear at them, in the diner, we will get those folks back and they will understand that this party is for them too.
And that I think was a very ascendent view for a long time. Now, there's another view. And it's the view that I think overtook that one. Which is a view that in a changing and dynamic country, there is the space for a progressive multiracial majority that brings new voters into the fold. That if you activate ...
That if you activate new energized, new marginal voters infrequent voters, who maybe vote in presidentials but don't vote in midterms, people who are not registered, but if you register them, get them to vote, you can build a multiracial progressive majority that prioritizes the interests of those folks and is not sort of stuck catering to the kinds of voters that might be swayed by the presence of Steve Beshear in a diner.
Now that's a theory that was put forward by a young Georgia state legislature that I went down to visit for my show back in 2014, named Stacey Abrams.
This is before Trump, it's before these debates. But Stacey Abrams had something called the New Georgia Project, she's the minority leader of the state house there. And her theory of the case was, look we have the votes for a progressive majority, a center left governing coalition in Georgia. We are just not registering them and getting them out. There are hundreds of thousands of people who we have not activated, that if we activate, we can win in this state as conservative as it has been. As much as Republicans have represented it for years. There has not been a state-wide elected Democrat in Georgia since 2010.
Stacey Abrams had this theory, we went down, we shot a package with her that we called the New Georgia Math. That was about this theory. And lo and behold, she had a chance to put it into practice when she was nominated to be the gubernatorial candidate in Georgia in 2018. And here is the fascinating thing about how that worked out. She lost. You should know that. But she lost by a very narrow margin, 55,000 votes in what was a very contested election for reasons she'll explain later. She got 150,000 more votes than Hilary Clinton.
Okay? That doesn't happen. She got 540,000 more votes than the last Republican who was elected in 2014, Nathan Deal. 540,000 more votes. She got 740,000 more votes than the Democratic nominee back in 2014, a guy who's walking around Georgia with the most famous Georgian Democratic name, Jason Carter. And here is the rub, and here is where we will end our little homily. Remember that choice, right? The choice about like can you get the Steve Beshear people back? Or do you mobilize these new people?
Stacey Abrams went out and she ran this campaign and they registered a lot of voters, and they mobilized these new voters. And when all was said and done, when you look to the exit polls, Stacey Abrams, the first black woman to be nominated to run for governor by a major party in this country's history. In the state of Georgia. In the old Confederacy. Stacey Abrams won a higher percentage of the white vote than Jason Carter.
Which I think suggests that that choice was false to begin with. Right? And it's one of the reasons that if you're gonna talk to anyone right now about what this political moment means and what it looks like, and what the future is, Stacey Abrams is the person to talk to. Please put your hands together for, Stacey Abrams.
I think they're ready to elect you governor of New York.
STACEY ABRAMS: There you go.
CHRIS HAYES: Look out.
STACEY ABRAMS: Look, that's how people get in trouble.
CHRIS HAYES: I know. It's like a Cuomo staffer taking notes in the back.
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: It's great to have you, thank you for coming.
STACEY ABRAMS: Thank you for having me.
CHRIS HAYES: I wanna talk about your life, your trajectory. But I wanna start with your last gig, publicly. You gave the response to the State of the Union.
STACEY ABRAMS: I did indeed.
CHRIS HAYES: And the thing that's funny about that is that's like when you're in the locker room before the game and the coach comes in the playhouse and says, you get to guard Michael Jordan tonight.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: 'Cause it's like, well thank you for the vote of confidence, but that's a tough assignment. What was it like to get that call?
STACEY ABRAMS: So I actually saw Leader Schumer in New York, I'm sorry, in DC. And we were meeting to talk about this other thing he's got thoughts of me doing. But before we had that conversation ...
Before we had that conversation he actually told everyone else to leave the room, and I'm thinking, how am I in trouble already? And he said, speaker Pelosi and I were having this discussion, this is my year to pick the person, but she and I do this in tandem. And we unanimously wanted you to be the person to do the State of the Union response. And I looked around the room, I'm like, wait I am alone. Okay. And I was flabbergasted. I mean it was amazing that he would ask me to do it. I'm like, you guys did see the results of the election, right?
CHRIS HAYES: As the new Georgia governor, we would like you-
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly. And so I mean I was deeply flattered. I actually said, can I think about it? Because you wanna say yes immediately, and I'm no longer allowed to make independent decisions, so I had to make sure there wasn't something I was missing. And I was in the room with my former campaign manager, the current head of the work we're doing now. And we were in this meeting for about an hour. And then everyone leaves and I look at her and said, don't you wanna know what he asked me? And she's like, oh yeah. I'm like, he asked me to do the State of the Union.
Lauren has a very colorful language. And she expressed her enthusiasm for the idea. And thus, I did the State of the Union rebuttal.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, 'cause obviously there's these sort of low light reels of people and probably most infamously Marco Rubio, which is a clip that we literally play any chance we get. Like even B roll, it'd be like, Marco Rubio introduce a bill and it's like ... Just because, why not? Did you study the kind of meme-able iconic moments?
STACEY ABRAMS: I saw Beshear, Bob McDonnell, Kathleen Sebelius, who did actually a really solid one, but it was by her own admission a little wooden. I watched Bobby Jindal wander in from outside. Joe Kennedy sent me a warning about all the things he shouldn't a ... He's like, do not use ChapStick.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh right, I'd even forgotten that one.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: He had the weird lip thing, that's right.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes. So all the ones you can find, CSPAN has them all, so I watched as much as I could watch until I started to freak myself out. And then so as I've said, I hydrated really well. I used a moisturizing but non-glistening lipstick. I was standing in place before we started talking. And we had an array of people behind us who actually looked like Georgia, and looked human.
CHRIS HAYES: Tell me about that choice, because one of the things that I think makes that a touch gig is, you're going from the pomp and circumstance of Mr. Speaker, everyone's applauding. And then it's like cut to like, silent room. Like slight buzz of a fluorescent light. Zzzz. It's like, whoa, this is not as big a deal. It's like, immediately sort of communicated by the ...
But I thought having people behind you made it feel ... It was a good choice I thought.
STACEY ABRAMS: I mean let's be clear, I don't have a job right now, so I couldn't go to my office.
So I wandered into a union hall, and they were like, yeah you can stay. But when we discussed it I did say I wanted it to feel like one of our town hall meetings. That it needed to look like Georgia. It needed to feel comfortable and accessible. And that I wanted to know people there actually liked me when I was saying the things I was saying, because I am, I was a citizen giving this response. I wasn't an elected official. I was giving a response for the average voter, or average American who wanted the president to know what we thought about not only what he said that night, but what he's been saying for the last two years. And we wanted to speak our truth and tell him what we thought needed to happen next.
CHRIS HAYES: You told a great story in that speech about your family. And you come from a really fascinating background, you're one of five?
STACEY ABRAMS: Six.
CHRIS HAYES: One of six. Your two parents, where did you grow up?
STACEY ABRAMS: So I grew up on Gulfport, Mississippi. Who's from Gulfport?
CHRIS HAYES: Gulfport in the house.
STACEY ABRAMS: Or just knows that it's a city.
CHRIS HAYES: I've heard of it.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And it seems like your parents are really remarkable individuals.
STACEY ABRAMS: They are.
CHRIS HAYES: Tell me, what was that household like? How did you get your politics and your values? And how did they go about instilling those?
STACEY ABRAMS: So, my mom used to describe us as the genteel poor. We had no money but we watched PBS and we read books.
CHRIS HAYES: That's a real thing, where I grew up in the Bronx in the 80s that was-
STACEY ABRAMS: That was it. I mean my mom was a librarian, and my dad was a shipyard worker. But they had six children, they believed very much in the, be fruitful and multiply thing. And they wanted us to have a good life, but despite working full-time, like so many, they could not always make ends meet. But my parents were very intentional, they had three things we had to do, go to church, go to school, and take care of each other. Go to church, because my parents, they were religious. They are religious. They eventually became Methodist ministers. But they wanted us to have a faith, they wanted us to have something that grounded us because life was hard. And they wanted us to know there's something larger than ourselves out there.
They said go to school because for both of them, even though they hadn't gotten as far as they thought they would, they were further ahead than most of their siblings, especially on my mom's side of the family. My mom's the only one to finish high school in her family. And she's one of seven. And then they wanted us to take care of each other, and for them that meant you did for others. My parents, they came of age during the civil rights movement. My dad got arrested helping sign people up to vote when he was 16. My mom was smarter, so she never got arrested.
But they took activism seriously, and that activism was politics. And for us it wasn't a separate conversation, our survival meant that you had to pay attention to politics. My parents voted. They voted in every election. We watched World News Tonight, and Good Morning America because we only had one channel, it was ABC. But they wanted us to understand the world. And when we would ask questions they were very thoughtful about the answers, including the fact that they would take us out to volunteer and I just like, look, Mississippi is really poor. I do not believe that the two of you and your six children can solve that. That seems like a really inefficient approach to solving poverty in Mississippi.
Shouldn't somebody else be doing this? And my parents said, that's called government. Government's supposed to be the intercessor. It's supposed to help people who have needs. It's supposed to make things easier. You shouldn't have to fight all these battles, but it doesn't always work. And so for me, my politics really grew up around the fact that I had missed the Super Friends a lot 'cause we went out to volunteer.
And I sincerely wanted to understand how do you use government to make things better? You knew government couldn't solve every problem, but where I was growing up it seemed not to solve any of them. And the more I learned, and through high school and then through college, for me politics became the tool for the policies I wanted to see. And my parents encouraged us to do it.
CHRIS HAYES: Were you a natural good student from the jump?
STACEY ABRAMS: I was a very good academic, I was not a good student. I almost got kicked out of kindergarten. I like learning, I do not like learning the way people tell me to.
CHRIS HAYES: But you somehow figured out how to thread that needle?
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes, I did.
CHRIS HAYES: And then you guys moved to ... They go to divinity school when you're in high school.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yup.
CHRIS HAYES: You moved to Atlanta. And then you went to Spellman.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Woo!
STACEY ABRAMS: Yo, hey!
CHRIS HAYES: And in Spellman, you're part of a student group that is quite political. How did that happen?
STACEY ABRAMS: So my freshman year of college was the year of the Rodney King riots. And in Atlanta, people know what happened in LA, but in Atlanta students also were part of an activism. The Atlanta University Center sits right next to, or used to sit right next door to the oldest housing projects in Georgia. And so the abject poverty that attended that, especially in the 90s was on no firmer display than at the AUC.
There were riots, they weren't on campus, but they were around the campus. But the mayor of Atlanta who was an African-American man, Maynard Jackson, they just decided everyone was bad. And they cordoned off the university system, they shut down the interstate, and they tear gassed our campus. And because they-
CHRIS HAYES: Just proactively?
STACEY ABRAMS: Well, so there was rioting happening in the neighborhoods right behind the school, but they just assumed everyone was bad. And they tear gassed the entire area, so the housing projects, the university system, the liquor store next door, all of it. And so then we rioted. Like if we're going down.
CHRIS HAYES: Also when someone tear gasses you it pisses you off.
STACEY ABRAMS: It is a hostile act.
CHRIS HAYES: It is a hostile act.
STACEY ABRAMS: So I was part of a group of students, I wasn't actually out there rioting 'cause I am afraid of my parents a lot. But I organized students to protest and then we did a silent march down to the City Hall. And we demanded action. We were not satisfied with what we were getting back from the political leaders, and so we started a group called the Students for African American Empowerment. During the same time I'd started getting involved in student government. I wasn't in the SGA or the student government when I was in high school. Didn't really wanna do it in college, but the college president got tired of me coming to her, telling her what I thought was wrong. And she's like, fix it yourself.
And so I started running for student government offices. And the more I did I was like, some people actually listen sometimes when I say stuff. And so I kept running and I eventually became the SGA president.
CHRIS HAYES: Why did you ... What was it like to start being a public persona? Because I mean there's footage of you at the March of Washington, you're still at Spellman at that point, right?
STACEY ABRAMS: I was. I was a junior.
CHRIS HAYES: You become a public figure, you get elected. How did that sync with your personality? Was that an easy thing or a hard thing for you to do?
STACEY ABRAMS: Oh my god it's hard. So my friends still are amazed that I'm in politics. Because I am an introvert. And I spend a lot of time alone watching Sci-fi. I'm a big old nerd.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay, but you're also pandering to the crowd.
STACEY ABRAMS: No.
CHRIS HAYES: So you do have some political instincts.
STACEY ABRAMS: There you go. But here's the thing, my siblings will tell you the same. I can be gregarious, but I need a lot of time by myself. I am not naturally given towards public displays of anything. But I'm also very stubborn, and I'm very goal oriented. And so when I realize that the things I wanted to have happen, required that you speak out loud to other people, that if you wanted change to happen you often had to be the one in charge. You know, I'm very good at connecting those dots and I come from a family, my mom is quieter than my dad. My dad is very very outgoing.
So I kind of mix the two of them in my spirit and my behavior. And so I realized that my responsibility was to be the spokesperson often because I would critique what other people were saying. So I'm like, fine I'll just say it myself. But what I've one over time is that I've learned how to give what I need to give to do the work I need to do. And then, I'm very jealous about guarding the time I have to myself so I can recharge.
CHRIS HAYES: Did your politics at that time, I was reading some profiles of you, and there was a student group that you were a part of that burned the Georgia flag. Which at that point had the confederate cross on it, the kind of "Dukes of Hazzard" cross on it. Very prominent.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Which in my humble opinion is a flag worthy of burning because it's a flag of treason and tyranny.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: But that said, there's a line in one of the profiles of someone who was there at the time who I think it seemed like the subtext has more radical politics than you do. And has a sort of funny line about like, she had a different political orientation than the rest of us. And it made me think that you've had similar politics for much of your adult career, going back to your 20s, is that true?
STACEY ABRAMS: That is very true. So you hear the phrase, progressive pragmatist, or a pragmatic progressive. I'm probably the closest embodiment that I know of. So yes, I burned the Georgia state flag on the steps of the capital in Georgia. But the reason there's a record is because I got a permit.
CHRIS HAYES: Ah mom, I just wanna let you know we got a permit.
STACEY ABRAMS: I did. So the SAAE, the group, they wanted to burn the flag. I was like, I was all in, 'cause it was wrong. It was morally repugnant. It was a symbol of something that we all believed needed to be dealt with. The right to burn a flag is an American right. But, if you want to burn something on public property you need a permit. I'm not going to jail for stupid.
And so I got the permit. I told them I was getting it, I think they thought I was joking because later on, the group was a little unhappy with me. They were like, how'd they know to be here? And I was like, well I filed a permit. I'm like, I told you guys I was gonna do it, and some people thought that I was snitching. And I'm like, you're burning a flag, they're gonna notice.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
STACEY ABRAMS: So since that time I've always tried to match my goals, but there are moments where civil disobedience is the right thing to do. There are moments where you have to push beyond what the rules and the law says. But if that's always your action, you diminish the moment when you don't have to. And so for me the larger instinct, what drives everything I do, I think poverty is immoral. I think it is economically inefficient. I think it is a waste of human capital.
And I think there are real consequences for action or inaction every day. It is insufficient to me for us to be righteously indignant for principle while real people get hurt. And so where there is an opportunity to act, and to make progress, than you do that. But you don't do it simply for symbolism because the symbols are real people, it's real lives. I know what happened in our family when we didn't have running water and we had to go to the gas station to fill up water jugs, or milk jugs with water from the gas station so we could flush the toilet at home.
I don't wanna be the cause of someone else to have to live that life. And therefore, if I can make action and make progress and keep the rules in tact that make things better, then I'm gonna do it.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean to me the thing about that is, and you were the minority leader of the Georgia House, right? So you had to be dealing in these very pragmatic circumstances. Even if you articulate that as an abstract principle, it never resolves itself. Right? Those choices, every new version of the choice is hard. And I find, my own life, like making choices sometimes whether it's on the show or what we're gonna do this or that, it takes an emotional toll.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Because it's not enough to say I'm a pragmatic progressive and I want these things. Like every time that you have to make a choice, are we gonna cut this deal with the House Republicans on the funding for the Georgia scholarship, Hope? Which was very popular. What's the thinking about how you weigh those two things?
STACEY ABRAMS: My first job is who's going to get hurt, and how painful would that hurt be? When it came down to the Hope scholarship the proposal on the table would've eliminated access to education for thousands of children. I could do something to mitigate that harm. My first responsibility is to take care of people. That's why you do this. The second responsibility is to advance your cause. And the best moment is when you can do both at the same time.
CHRIS HAYES: But sometimes those are in tension.
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly. And when they are in tension you have to remember that real people stand to benefit or be hurt. Education is foundational. It is the only reason I am sitting on this stage. It is the only reason my mother is not still living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on the street where she grew up. It's the reason she got to go to the University of Wisconsin to get a Master's degree. The only one in her family to have a graduate degree. The only one to have a high school diploma. It's the reason my father, who's dyslexic was able to go to college and eventually go to graduate school.
Education transforms you. And so for me, for me the argument was, if the principle is let's say no because they said yes. That's insufficient. If the principle is, let's get as many kids as possible access to an education and preserve our opportunity to get even more, than that's what you have to do. Now the tension was, half of my caucus did not agree with me. They were fine until people started paying attention. And then they got mad. And I understood that. I did not put it on them to make that choice because part of leadership is if you're going to deal with that tension, if you're going to navigate those spaces, you also have to deal with the consequences. You have to be the person willing to step up and say this is why we did this. You can't shy away from it, and you can't blame someone else for those choices.
CHRIS HAYES: Just so that people know what the details are here, the Georgia Hope Scholarship Program is very popular. Started by Zell Miller back in the day. What is the scholarship program?
STACEY ABRAMS: The Hope Scholarship is funded by the lottery, and it used to pay 100 percent of your college tuition at any public Georgia college. In 2010, or 2011 the Hope Scholarship was facing bankruptcy within two years. The incoming governor, who was a republican, said that the way to solve the program, and save the program would be to slash who received the Hope Scholarship. But, the republicans had been, over years, making it harder and harder for the average student to get it. They wanted to increase the GPA you had to have to receive the scholarship.
CHRIS HAYES: It used to be like if you got a B in any Georgia high school, anywhere, you got ... that was it.
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STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly. They had complete control. They had super majority in the Beshear. They were within shooting distance in the house. They had a brand new governor who came in with a really strong mandate. They controlled everything. When they said that they were going to impose this new requirement, I believed them. Because they had no reason to lie, and they were moving pretty fast. My responsibility as the democratic leader was to figure out one, how serious are they? And two, what's the actual harm?
I figured those things out. I talked to students, I talked to college professors, I talked college presidents. They were terrified. Especially if you were at an HBCU you were going to lose that scholarship. You were never going to enter college, because you wouldn't get the very resources you needed. My compromise with the governor was, "Look, yes. You can create this new tier where you get a 100 percent only if you have this GPA, and this ACT or SAT score, but let's keep the current B program for everyone, but do it at a percentage lower." You got 80 to 90 percent of the same scholarship, but you didn't have to meet the new requirements. What I was accused of was selling out students because they got 10 to 20 percent less. To me, 80 percent is a lot more than 0.
CHRIS HAYES: This fight happens right around 2011, right?
STACEY ABRAMS: Yeah, it was my very first bill as a leader.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. You and I met in 2014. We came down, and at that point I think you were minority leader. You had this thing called the New Georgia project, which was this ambitious, almost kind of moonshot idea. What was the idea behind the New Georgia project?
STACEY ABRAMS: 2013, Georgia was one of the states that refused to expand Medicaid, and the governor went a step further and refused to except federal dollars for navigators. Meaning the very people to go into communities, most of whom had never had health insurance, and explain to them what the Beshear was. He said no to those dollars. I knew that Atlanta would be fine, the metro Atlanta area, because you have all the universities, the foundations, everyone was going to focus there. But the neediest population, the most vulnerable population was in southwest Georgia. Largely African American communities that would be left out, mostly poor.
I raised about $100,000.00 into this nonprofit that I'd started back in law school called Third Sector Development, only that sounds really weird, so I called it the New Georgia Project.
CHRIS HAYES: That was a good call.
STACEY ABRAMS: Thank you.
CHRIS HAYES: It's better.
STACEY ABRAMS: I raised the money. I hired 60 folks from those communities. The SCIU flew down and trained them over two days. We trained them to go into these communities across 39 counties and talk to folks about the Beshear and why they needed to sign up. It was an amazing thing. We were able to increase sign ups, but the problem was these were communities that were largely still not going to be covered because they needed Medicaid expansion.
They thought President Obama was the reason they weren't getting Medicaid. They did not understand it was the governor, and the legislators. The guy who was their high school coach, who they voted for every time, if they voted, was voting against them. When we would try to explain this, we would get this blank stare. They're like, "There's a governor?"
You're like, "Yes." That was one of the problems. But the larger problem was how many people were not registered to vote. In Georgia, at the time, there were 800,000 people of color who were not registered to vote in the state of Georgia. 600,000 of whom were African American. In the south, race is the strongest predictor of political leanings. It was a little more than a million, 1.2 million, overall, who weren't registered. But 800,000 people of color, which meant they were completely outside of the body politic. I thought that was problematic, and so I decided to register them. I gave our organization a 10 year time period from 2014 to 2024 to register all 800,000.
2014, we launched the first iteration and we registered 86,000. But, there was this guy who was the Beshear named Brian Kemp, who refused to process 40,000 of those applications.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh, we're going to get to him. That's coming, okay?
STACEY ABRAMS: He refused to process about 40,000 of our applications. Swore they didn't exist, said that they were a figment of our imagination, and then-
CHRIS HAYES: How many did he not process?
STACEY ABRAMS: 40,000.
CHRIS HAYES: Of the 86?
STACEY ABRAMS: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-. Quietly-
CHRIS HAYES: He got to give some putative reason.
STACEY ABRAMS: You would think so. We actually brought in boxes and demonstrated ... because we kept copies. One thing that Brian Kemp likes to tout is that he established online voter registration in Georgia. That is true. But the problem with online registration is you don't have a paper trail. I'm deeply skeptical by nature, and so everyone re-registered. We kept their paper copy.
Now in Georgia, if you get an application as a third party registration organization, you have to keep that application, and you have to submit it. Because you don't want people cherry picking whose applications they submit. Someone signs up as Micky Mouse, who lives on 123 Victory Lane, you still have to turn it in even though you know it's fraudulent.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, because you cannot have the group being like, "Oh. I don't really like this one."
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly. So we flagged them. We turned them all in, and we were like, "There are going to be a lot in here that are not real." He, then, accused me of committing voter fraud.
CHRIS HAYES: I see. So he's like, "Oh, Stacey Abrams wants Mickey Mouse to vote."
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: Because you, by law, are required.
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly. We turn in these forms, he says they don't exist. He subpoenas us, we sue him. We lost our lawsuit because we had to file in state court, and in the state of Georgia, we filed a lawsuit saying he should be forced to process these applications. We lost our case not because they found that we were telling a lie about the applications. We lost because Georgia law does not require timely processing of applications to vote.
CHRIS HAYES: So it's just within the law, he can sit on it?
STACEY ABRAMS: It's within the law. He could sit around for 10 years and never process an application.
CHRIS HAYES: Really? That's legal under Georgia law?
STACEY ABRAMS: It is, still.
CHRIS HAYES: My God.
STACEY ABRAMS: It gets better. After the election ... And by the way, he knew what we were doing because I called him when I started the New Georgia Project registration effort and said, "I'm doing this massive voter registration drive among communities of color, can you help me?"
And he said, "Sure." Sent someone to train us, but he didn't think it was going to work, because it sounded like a moonshot. The following year, they quietly process, I think, 18,000 application after the election. Then we notice that there is this whole bevy of applications that are just not moving. That's how we discovered the exact match system, which was this illegal system he was using that said that any minor typographical error could be cause for not processing an application.
We took him to federal court, and in 2016 a federal judge issued a consent order where he agreed not to do it again. All those folks were supposed to be processed. He said, "Fine. I won't do it again." Then the following January during the last legislative session I was in legislature, he got the state legislature to pass a law saying it was legal for him to use that system.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow. He had lost in federal court?
STACEY ABRAMS: He did.
CHRIS HAYES: And then they came back, they changed state law to make it okay?
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: To basically cover them on exact match. He used that to ding out-
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly. By the time he got to 2018, 53,000 applications were being held. 90 percent were people of color, 70 percent were African American. Yay, Georgia.
CHRIS HAYES: I want to follow up on that, but I want to go back to something before we do, because obviously we're setting up the kind of predicate for what the actual race between you and that man, Brian Kemp, would be. One thing has always struck me, I have heard for years, particularly around left politics about you got to get the people that aren't engaged, engaged. My response to that is, "Yes, but that is a much easier sentence to write in a column, than it is to make reality." What does that look like on the ground? Because a lot of times people are not engaged for a reason. There's a sense of 800,000 votes. I'm just going to go out there and get them all lined up, and it's not that easy.
STACEY ABRAMS: First, what we did was we actually found out why. We did focus groups. We did it in urban rural areas among African Americans and Latinos. What we found was that black women and Latino women both were less likely to register to vote because they did not trust the system, or they did not understand it. For Latino men and black men, they were often embarrassed because they didn't know how voting worked, and they were just disengaged. Everyone, overall, was just skeptical. They don't trust politicians.
We tend to think about voting as a binary. Either you vote for my candidate, or the other candidate. There's a third option. You don't vote. These are communities for whom the opportunity cost of voting was too high. It was expensive, it was complicated, it was ineffective. So they decided not to vote.
CHRIS HAYES: It's an amazing thing about human behavior in all domains about how dis-incentivizing any hassle can be.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: There are things that have been ... I'm a pretty high functioning person, there are things that have been on my to do list for 12 years. Seriously. Not big things, but things that I should do. If you give someone 4, 5, or 6 steps, you don't give them any guidance. It works.
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly. Look, the lowest propensity group to sign up to vote are low income people, and communities of color. If you're in a low income community of color, you are the least likely. We know the one determinate that will make you more likely to register to vote is a third party registrant going to you to sign you up. That's why in 2015, 2016 you saw North Carolina put constraints on third party registration. You saw Texas say, "No. You can't." Because they know-
CHRIS HAYES: Texas gotten rid of it all together.
STACEY ABRAMS: All together.
CHRIS HAYES: You can't do that now in Texas. Because it was effective AF.
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly. What he said. Exactly. Because part of what happens with third party registrations is you have conversations. When you're standing at the doors, we hired 800 people in the span of 4 months to knock on doors in all 159 counties in Georgia. We didn't just hand them a piece of paper and say, "Sign up." We had conversations. We talked about why they were afraid to vote. We didn't call it fear, we said, "Why don't you do it? Why don't you like it?"
We rejected the idea that people were apathetic. It's not apathy, it's despair. Despair often reconstitutes itself as machismo or as disinterest. It's really, "I just don't trust this will work." And so we had those conversations, and then we followed up when we registered them. We then followed up and said, "Okay. And heres an election. And here's what this election means. And here's who these people are and what they do." Because often people don't vote because they don't understand what the jobs are. We know about the presidency because we spend billions of dollars talking about what the president is, or because he's a ... We talk a lot about the president.
But for a lot of communities, they don't understand ... They have no reason to be engaged. Therefore, our responsibility was not just to register you. We talk about voter registration and voter engagement together. Because it's like handing someone the keys to a car, but never teaching them how to drive.
CHRIS HAYES: That's the key. What you're doing at the door is organizing, and politicization in some elemental sense. It's not a bureaucratic function of I need to get your name on a thing.
STACEY ABRAMS: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: Because then you can track ... one of the things we know about this, if you sign people up and then you get them to vote in the first election you can convert a person into a habituated voter.
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly. We've registered more than 300,000 people now.
CHRIS HAYES: Honestly, the numbers that I gave in the opening riff, the proof’s in the pudding, because ... and the reason that I was using absolute numbers is because that's there. Those people showed up. You have this fight the guy who's the Beshear, Brian Kemp?
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean a substantive conflict, not like a brawl. How do you make the decision that you're going to run for governor? Do you realize that he's going to be running for governor? How did that come about?
STACEY ABRAMS: I've been thinking about running for governor since 2010 when I watched, not just watched us lose every single statewide elected office, but I sat in the legislature on the last day of the legislative session in 2010. I watched people who I would've said are people of goodwill vote to do this massive cut for the wealthy in Georgia. Then a few hours later, they eliminated a tax break that was giving poor people $25 to $50 back. The argument was if they really needed it, they would get a better job. One person went to the well and said, "Oh, that amount of money is not going to make a difference."
I remember living in Georgia, where our family got excited when we found $5.00 extra, and we could use that to get to the next thing we need to go to. That was a tank of gas during the days we had a car. $5.00 is a lot of money when you have no money. The disdain that I saw. But what was more depressing to me was the lack of fight on my side of the aisle against it. We were angry, but we didn't do anything about it. Like some superhero movie I was like, "I'm going to do this myself."
It was this moment. It was a crystallizing moment, but-
CHRIS HAYES: That's back in 2010, though. That's eight years before you run.
STACEY ABRAMS: It is. But also I like winning. My responsibility was to then figure out what would it take to become a governor in Georgia. How do you win a statewide office? In 2014, I was not the person to do that job, but I could help the person doing that job by getting people registered. I could do the work necessary to expand the electorate. I encouraged candidates to do more work on the ground. But there is a tradition in southern politics that you go after the group that's already voting. It makes sense. You try to convince those who've already demonstrated an aptitude to just switch their ideas.
CHRIS HAYES: Plus, there's also the math of it. Which is that a switched vote is two votes. Because it's minus one, plus one. A new vote is only one. This is true if you're whipping votes in the state legislature, it's true for Nancy Pelosi in congress. You turn someone over, you've gotten two votes, essentially. You've netted. That logic is a powerful logic for how people think about this.
STACEY ABRAMS: It's proven. Politicians are inherently risk averse.
CHRIS HAYES: Completely, yes.
STACEY ABRAMS: What I was suggesting ... I don't think you said that it as a compliment.
CHRIS HAYES: No. It wasn't, but it's also just true. I think it explains a lot about political behavior.
STACEY ABRAMS: I am risk tolerant. For me, the long term gain is worth the short term risk. But you have to make that decision as a candidate. As a candidate, I was willing to think through the steps necessary to get there. As leader, my job was to make sure the Republicans never got a super majority in the house, but that was also an opportunity to test out my theories. We were able to block republicans from ever getting a super majority by going to communities that had bursting pockets of people of color who were largely expected not to vote. We got them to vote.
When I met you in '14, we had stopped them in 2014 by flipping four Republican seats. 2014, we did not lose a seat. We were one of a handful of chambers in the south that did not lose any ground. By 2016, we were starting to pick up seats. 2018, in addition to my election, which we'll get into, we actually flipped 16 seats in the house in the Beshear in Georgia.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow. You declare you're running for governor. Let's start with this question about race, and race particularly in American politics, and race in the south. American politics, I think are extremely racially polarized. That's even more super charged in the south. One of the things we've seen is republicans have through gerrymandering, the way they've redistricted. They've gotten rid of the white Democrat. That you have a situation in which essentially race becomes almost a total prison proxy that there are African-American, people of color who are representing the democrats. Huge white, in these states, generally majorities.
It then becomes a question of how do you build a cross racial collision that could build a majority. How did you think about that as a project when you were undertaking the race?
STACEY ABRAMS: If you look at the demography of Georgia, and this is not true for North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana. Georgia is going to be a 50/50 state. 50 percent people of color, 50 percent white by 2026, 2027. Back in 2010 when I'm looking at those numbers, the reality is your composition of the electorate changes. Yes, 75 percent of whites vote republican, but that means 25 percent vote democratic, or at the time it was 77, 23, we got it up to 25.
Then you're just trying to make up the difference. But half of your population eligibility is people of color who are likely to vote for you. The challenge was they simply did not vote. They never got baked into the electorate in terms of real political math. Then the responsibility is how do you get those communities to actually vote their strength. The reality is for candidates who try to argot towards any certain group, everybody hears you. Even the groups you're not talking to.
If you're in a community that is never spoken of, or is spoken of disparagingly, or in an offhanded fashion, they know you don't like them, and they're not going to come and help you. What we had seen from the republicans, republicans largely do not engage communities of color in their elections in Georgia. Our candidates gave lip service to it, but rarely put resources behind it. My intention was to run a campaign that not only put resources behind it, but centered communities of color in my narrative, because people needed to know. I saw them, believed in them and if they would act on that belief they could have power.
CHRIS HAYES: This is really interesting, because ... what I'm hearing from you is there's these two components. There's the organizing component that you start doing, but you cannot just say, "We're going to do the organizing, but we're never going to talk about it. Guys, come out and vote for me." The candidates message has to go up and forthrightly say to the people who you are signing up, "There is a reason to go out and vote for me for the first time that you may be casting a vote in your adult life." But then the consultants come in and say, "If you do that, you are going to freak the white people out."
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes, and indeed they say that.
CHRIS HAYES: Again, it's not crazy advice.
STACEY ABRAMS: Here's what we did. From the very beginning, I actually started building a multi-racial collision of staff. Because one of the reasons consultants have so much power is that you often have staff that can't counter weight it because they don't have the experience to feel that they can say this. When I became leader, I hired the most racially diverse staff in Georgia history. One of my colleagues in the house, it's like, "I know when I see one of your folks. It looks like the UN here." He did not mean it as a compliment.
CHRIS HAYES: It's like the way I say ... Yeah, exactly.
STACEY ABRAMS: He was very disturbed by all this. Not only did I hire them, but they did politics and policies. They worked during the legislative session, and then they worked post session in any political work. If it was an off year when we didn't have an election, we set up reasons for them to go into all parts of the state because the other issue is that when you're a person of color, you're often sent to only talk to other people of color. You can't do that. I sent them everywhere. A lot of times they were like, "Why am I going to this place?"
Because they're Georgians too. I intentionally, I would go to places where they were not happy to see me and were very celebratory when I left, but I went there. In fact, I went and signed up folks for the Beshear in parts of North Georgia, where one guys said, he was like ... he was never going to vote for me. I can't talk to his personal experience with African Americans, but he was surprised to see me. And I think even more surprised that he enjoyed talking to me when I helped him get health insurance, because none of his republicans would tell him how to do it. I was in this tiny church in North Georgia signing up hardcore republicans for the ACA secretly. That's the only secret politics I do.
When we finished, he looked at me and he was like, "I'll tell you this. I ain't never going to vote for you. But I won't vote against you." I do not know what that means. But in his mind, it was an acknowledgment that I was there. I would send our staff to places like that, but I also got them training. And we did an internship program that graduated more than 400 interns. Over eight years, I built a team that was capable of having these conversations. When consultants were concerned, we could point out places and moments. But more importantly, we could withstand the skepticism because you want that skepticism.
The other thing was, I started working with our consultants early. It took some time. We had to really help reshape their understand of how politics could work, because Georgia is generous in a lot of ways when it comes to politics, because of it's location in the Deep South but also because it was a racial composition. Then we spent a whole lot of money and people thought that we were stupid. We started our race for the general election during the primary.
We spent upwards at sometimes 80 percent of our money on outreach, and we had every pundit, every consultant who didn't work for me directly, just bemoaning this display of stupidity. They're like, "Oh, my God. She's spending all this money." I met with a set of political reporters and one of them said, "How are you going to know that this is working? You should be saving your money for TV."
I'm like, "What do you mean how am I going to know this is working? I'll win." This is in the primary.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
STACEY ABRAMS: But he did not believe that there was a legitimate reason to spend that much money on voters, not on television. I was going into community, I was going to Latino communities, and spending money Koreans, and there aren't enough of them. But it's math. If you add these different communities together, then you've got the numbers you need, but you won't ever get there if you don't invest in them. Because they see the same reports. They know that you spent $28 million on X, and $14.00 on Y. And anyone who gets a present that's a little cheaper than the other guy's present, they're going to be mad.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. What were you not prepared for? The story that you've told today, which I kind of knew is even more psychotically strategic that I had realized. This is a really multiple chess move, years ahead. What weren't you expecting? What threw you for a loop? What turned you around in that race, in that gubernatorial race?
STACEY ABRAMS: The primary. I knew that people would be concerned about me running. But I was the minority leader. I had successfully managed campaigns. We had flipped seats. We had done all of the metrics that you're supposed to do, and I would call friends who'd known me for years, who have been supporters for years, and they would whisper to me like they were giving me a diagnosis of some terrible disease, “but you're a black women”. And then would not support me and would support my opponent who did not have a resume that was equal to mine. And over time demonstrated we just had different theories of the case.
But it was very disappointing to me to have people who I saw as allies really become very ... They demonstrated a race consciousness that I was not expecting, and it was not a good one. And they tried to justify it by complimenting me before. So, "You're the smartest. You're the best. But you're a black woman, so we're gonna go with the other Stacey Evans." And I don't disparage Stacey for that, but it was very surprising to me the actual proof of concept, better fundraising, better numbers, better policies, all of the things that we did were not sufficient because all they could see was I was black.
In the general, I didn't know Brian Kemp was going to be there. He was running against the lieutenant governor who had been running for governor for eight years.
CHRIS HAYES: And they had almost a SNL, Onion level caricature-able-
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Primary in which they were competing at one point in who would actually physically round up undocumented workers. The guy that the lieutenant governor was driving under the bus?
STACEY ABRAMS: No. So that's Michael Williams. He's now in jail.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh, sorry.
STACEY ABRAMS: He was indicted, but he is ... Yeah, he was a state senator.
CHRIS HAYES: Sorry. There was that guy too. Kemp said that he would use his pickup truck for the-
STACEY ABRAMS: Yeah. Kemp was using his pickup truck. Michael was going to drive a bus.
CHRIS HAYES: That's right. Yes. That's right.
STACEY ABRAMS: Casey unfortunately got taped saying that he diverted money from the fourth opponent, and he was taped by a fifth opponent who released the tape, and then in the runoff. So it really was ... So you have Casey, Michael, Brian, Hunter, and Clay.
CHRIS HAYES: Like I said, you could not script it better.
STACEY ABRAMS: And I write novels.
CHRIS HAYES: Which we're going to get to also.
STACEY ABRAMS: I do not write farce, though. So after the primary, Casey Cagle, who is the lieutenant governor, ends up in a runoff with Bryan Kemp who's the Beshear. Hunter Hill, who was the state senator under Casey, and Michael Williams, who's a state senator, they both lost. But Hunter was upset about his loss because he found out that there were resources that would have been allocated to him, but for Casey thwarting one of his bills. He finds this out because Clay Tippins goes to visit Casey because Casey thinks he's gonna get Clay's endorsement. Only, Clay is secretly taping him.
He then release snippets of the tapes, so it's like Georgia's own Wikileaks. He releases snippets of the tape over the course of the primary, further eroding Casey's reputation, and at the same time Brian is sitting on his front porch pointing a shotgun down the front porch. I think they're in the house. He points the shotgun-
CHRIS HAYES: Which is weirder.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes. So he points the shotgun showing that he knows how to use a gun. He drives his pickup truck threatening to roundup those who are undocumented. And he says all manner of deeply problematic things. He also says he supports RFRA which is homophobic. So he doesn't like immigrants. He doesn't like people of different sexual orientation. He doesn't let black people vote. I knew that one. And he makes it out of the primary. He wins. And then Donald Trump comes in, endorses him and he wins the primary run off.
CHRIS HAYES: So Kemp wins. You didn't necessarily think he would be the person that you were going to be against.
STACEY ABRAMS: When I thought about this back in 2010, no. But watching the primary runoff, I actually figured he would be likely.
CHRIS HAYES: So that race is happening on two tracks, right? So there's the substantive track where it's two candidates with messages, and then there's the fact that the man that you're running ... Stacey Abrams, who is a major name now over the course of eight years with this project to enfranchise Georgia's voters is on the ballot, versus the guy that is administering the state electoral system. And the two have been locked in legal dispute over whether people can vote and are now running against each other where the stakes of resolving that question is, who will win?
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes. Only he gets to control the machines, who has the right to vote. Before he launched his campaign in 2017, he purged more than 600,000 voters, and he did not resign. Kris Kobach, the Beshear of Kansas thought that it was untoward for him to stay as Beshear. Brian Kemp did not see a problem. And this is someone who raided the offices of Asians Americans Advancing Justice and their predecessor organization, held-
CHRIS HAYES: Wait. Raided the offices?
STACEY ABRAMS: Raided their offices because they registered too many Koreans and too many Asians to vote. And so, during his tenure, he had the GBI raid their offices because he was accusing them of fraud. His reaction to any communities of color increasing their registration numbers in a concentrated fashion was to raid their offices or accuse them of voter fraud. Under his leadership, the local county elected officials had sheriffs follow Black people home because too many of them had voted in an election in 2014, and the sheriffs would follow them to their houses and make them prove they live there.
In Brooks County, there's a group called the Quitman 10. They wanted to have more Black people on the school board because the majority of the school district was African American. They did such a great job that he had 10 of them arrested. It took more than two years. Woman nearly committed suicide. And not a single person was found guilty, but almost every one of them lost their jobs. That's Brian Kemp.
CHRIS HAYES: What is your model of why he does that? What is your mental model for why Brian Kemp views his life's work in that way?
STACEY ABRAMS: I don't know if it's racial animus. I think he's ambitious. I think he recognizes, as do I, that race is the strongest predictor of political leanings, and I believe he is craven enough to want to manipulate systems to gain authority, and the reality is the law lets him do it. The law allowed him to remain a Secretary of State. We believe some of the laws are actually unconstitutional, the way he's manipulated them. And there were no governors on him, and I use that term very intentionally. There was nothing in our state law and there was no hue and cry from his party that said that this is wrong, that what you are doing is wrong, and you should not be the referee, the scorekeeper, and the contestant in an election.
CHRIS HAYES: If the Supreme Court had not gutted section five of the Voting Rights Act section two, but section five functionally. If they had not gutted that part of the Voting Rights Act, which is a federal pre clearance provision, which essentially keeps a civil rights cop on the beat for certain areas. Georgia, of course, was under pre clearance beforehand. Rerun that election with pre clearance, with the old voting rights regime, before Chief Justice Roberts wrote an opinion basically saying racism was gone. Would it look different?
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes. Without question. He closed 200 precincts.
CHRIS HAYES: Can't do that.
STACEY ABRAMS: Can't do that.
CHRIS HAYES: If you're in pre clearance, DOJ does not let you do that. You have to go through them.
STACEY ABRAMS: We would have been able to show disproportionate effect of exact match. It would not have been permitted to be applied the way he applied it. I do not believe that we would have seen 1.5 million people purged, some of whom should have been purged. But the purging system used ... There's a woman named Stacey Hopkins who testified in front of the Congressional hearing last week in Georgia. She was never notified. She had voted in the previous election. She clearly fell outside of the standard for purging, and yet she had to fight to get her name back on the rolls. A 92-year-old woman who never missed a vote, post the Civil Rights Act of 1965, got to the precinct to vote and was told she wasn't allowed to vote. Those things would not happen if we'd had pre clearance.
CHRIS HAYES: And the point you made there, which I think I want to just hammer for a second, which is that the Voting Rights Act ... When you say disparate impact in terms of being able to show. So anything that it ... Particularly if you're in these areas that are under pre clearance, right? The trick of this whole thing is intent versus impact, right?
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes. Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: I don't think this is understood well enough. From the beginning of the end of Reconstruction and the redemption governments in the South and the White Knights of the KKK riding through using terrorism, people have used ... White politicians of the South have used facially race neutral means of stopping black people from voting. The poll tax, the literacy test. They didn't say, "We're going to stop black people," because even back then they understood the game. What the Voting Rights Act does for those pre clearance phases is, if you could show disparate impact, we don't have to get into what was in the minds of the people. And what you're saying is the impact of the things that Kemp was doing in a number of concrete cases would have ... You would have been able to show.
STACEY ABRAMS: Absolutely. Part of the challenge with the absence of section five is that under section two you have to prove ... You can prove that bad was done. The problem is, once the harm is done you don't get to redo the election. You don't get to undo the disenfranchisement of voters. And we have to remember that voter disenfranchisement is both physical and psychic. You can block someone from casting a vote, but going back to the very beginning of this conversation, once someone has been stopped from voting, once they've been harassed, once it's hard, they typically don't try again because they didn't trust the system to begin with and now you've proven their point. And so, it's not just that election. It is an entire class of behavior that is chilled. And so, what I believe is that yes, had we had the efficacy of the Voting Rights Act in place, I can't prove I would have won, but it's pretty solid thing that I would have been the governor of Georgia.
CHRIS HAYES: It was a 50,000 vote margin.
STACEY ABRAMS: 50,000. It was the closest election since 1966.
Speaker 1: I voted for you, Stacey!
STACEY ABRAMS: Thank you.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, it wasn't enough!
STACEY ABRAMS: Actually, the goal is to make sure that next time it counts.
CHRIS HAYES: So you had this remarkable ... There were some legal ... You had this speech that I thought was remarkable. What did you say in that speech? What was that?
STACEY ABRAMS: I said, "I will not concede." So it was my non-concession speech. I acknowledged that the law ... Thank you. I acknowledged that the law as it stands made him the legal governor of Georgia. But concession, which is a very specific term that you're supposed to use when the election is over. Concession has a meaning. It says that you believe something to be fair and right and proper. And no, this was not fair. It was not right. And it is deeply improper that someone could ascend to that role having performed so basely and so crassly against the very people he is now supposed to represent. And I could not in good conscience say that this is the right thing to do.
CHRIS HAYES: Did you get pushback from that decision?
STACEY ABRAMS: Oh, god, yeah. I mean, look, number one. There were those who said I would never work in this town again. Not this town, between Georgia.
CHRIS HAYES: You can come to New York anytime, let's be clear.
STACEY ABRAMS: There are those who are very unhappy because there's the sore loser, but here's the thing. If we get what we seek in our work through fair fight, I will not be governor in 2018, so I don't benefit directly. And yes, it is a truism that in politics ... I was talking to a reporter who pointed out that Richard Nixon thought that Kennedy had stolen the election, but he, for the good of the order ... No. This is very, very specific. When you allow race to be a determinant about the value of your vote, that is a problem. But the other reality is that he's also incompetent. So it's not just malfeasance.
I have a friend Dan Gasaway. Dan and I agree that we live in Georgia. That's about it. But he is now going to have a third election for a primary that was supposed to occur in May 2018 because of the incompetence of the electoral system administered by Brian Kemp. Three times they messed it up, and that's a problem. Or twice they messed it up, so he's seeing a third election. So to your point about facially neutral. Incompetence is also facially neutral, but it has a disparate impact, especially in communities that do not know what their rights are and don't have the resources to fight for those rights.
CHRIS HAYES: So I want to talk about your future. First, just explain to me what, what Fair Fight is and what its agenda is, and then I want to-
STACEY ABRAMS: So Fair Fight Action is an organization we started on November 17th. So the day after non-concession speech. And I'm the founder and chair. The CEO is Lauren Grow Argo who was my campaign manager. We are fighting for fair elections in Georgia. We filed a lawsuit that essentially is a Brown versus the Board of Education theory of the case. That if you look at the legal allowances when it comes to the administration of elections, while each of these things may be permissible, that yoked together as a system, they disenfranchise voters in violation of the Constitution, the Voting Rights Act, HAVA, and the Georgia Constitution. So we're fighting that in the federal court.
We are pushing legislation to fix as much as we can through the legislative process, including blocking Brian Kemp from paying for $150 million voting machine system that will benefit the former employer of his current advisor. Yeah. And is hackable, vulnerable, and every elections expert, cyber security expert said, "Don't buy this thing."
CHRIS HAYES: I had a cybersecurity expert email me out of the blue about the purchase.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: About those machines.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yeah. It's a terrible thing. There are all kinds ... If you read, you know that this is not the machine to buy. And he's about to spend $150 million of Georgia taxpayer money on these machines. And his advisor who says, well, he's put in blocks to make sure there's nothing untoward about the relationship. You worked for them. They paid you. The fact that you now have an even better paying job does not diminish the corruption and the cronyism of this purchase.
And then third, we're doing advocacy. We want everyone in America to be talking about voter suppression, because it's an actual emergency, as opposed to the myth of voter fraud.
CHRIS HAYES: So I want to ask you about ... Chuck Schumer clearly wants you to run for Beshear, as do the WITHpod fans, although there's another race. Are you considering running for Beshear?
STACEY ABRAMS: I am considering it.
CHRIS HAYES: Do you want to make some news on my podcast?
STACEY ABRAMS: I do not. But I will offer just a little insight. So I've been thinking about running for governor for a long time, and part of the reason is not the title. It's the job that you get to do. It's the work that can be accomplished, especially in the south because governors have a great deal of power. And often you see those who are the most successful actually leaving their states to go to federal office, and often for good reason. But particularly in the south, that means you are left too often without the work you need done at the state level. On the Beshear side though, the Beshear has national reach, national platform. I would have the ability to talk about issues and push agenda items that are near and dear to my heart.
And I don't like David Perdue as the senator. I don't think that he is effective. I think that his allegiance to Trump is deeply destructive to our state, and Chuck Schumer's really persuasive. And so, for me, the real issue is I don't think you take jobs just because they're available. I think you take a job because you're the right person, it's the right time, and it's the right job. And I need to be willing to take a job because it's the job I want to do, not as a stepping stone to anything else. And I hadn't thought about the Beshear before now, so I’ve got to think about it.
CHRIS HAYES: Another job. I was just down in Texas. I interviewed Beto O'Rourke, who was another I think star of the cycle. I think along with you and Andrew Gillum they're three races that really rally people nationally, and also in difficult terrain historically, in all three of those states. Florida statewide for governor that hasn't had a democratic governor in ages, Georgia, and Texas. All three of you over performed the fundamentals by quite a bit, raised a lot of money, got a lot of people excited. Beto O'Rourke is considering running for president, and I've seen people say the same about you. And I've seen people make this point and I think it's a good point. If Beto O'Rourke is a possible presidential candidate, why isn’t Stacey Abrams? Are you a possible presidential candidate?
STACEY ABRAMS: Sure.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, let me hone in. Is that something you're actively thinking about?
STACEY ABRAMS: I will say this. I've been approached by groups and by individuals who've asked me to think about it, and I am ... I don't think you say no to anything. I think the best decision ... No, no, no.
CHRIS HAYES: Like president. For instance.
STACEY ABRAMS: Look, if Idris Elba was like, "Would you like to go out with me?" I'm not going to just say no because I do.
CHRIS HAYES: You'd be like, "I'm considering it, Idris."
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly. I am.
CHRIS HAYES: Hold your horses.
STACEY ABRAMS: I am giving it careful thought. Where are we going? So here's what I'm saying. I think it's important for the American imagination for us to expand what we believe is possible. I think it's important for me as a black woman who has been responsible for expanding where we get to stand. I think Kamala Harris is doing an amazing job. I think Cory Booker is doing an amazing job. But I also think it's important for there to consistently be a broader conversation about who can do things to move our country forward.
And I'm southern and I want people to think about folks from the south, especially black women in the south, being a part of this national narrative. I don't know what I'm going to do because all of these are hard things and it takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of attention. And as you may have noticed, I'm a bit of a planner. So all of these-
CHRIS HAYES: I circled the 2040 election in my calendar.
STACEY ABRAMS: If you'd read my book, you'd know it's 2028. See, I'm about to get in trouble for that. Anyway, but my point is this. I think that I am gratified, and I really am privileged to be included in conversations, and I think it is not appropriate to dismiss other people and what they want for you and for themselves without really thinking about it. But running for president's really hard, and approximately 1.4 million people are doing it.
CHRIS HAYES: All right. I'm gonna have to get you on a plane. So my final question. You write romance novels.
STACEY ABRAMS: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: You've written eight of them?
STACEY ABRAMS: I have.
CHRIS HAYES: What got you started, and what do you get out of that?
STACEY ABRAMS: So I love romance novels, but actually was writing a spy novel based on my ex-boyfriend's dissertation on micro zeolites and chemical physics. As I said at the beginning, I am a big old nerd. And I couldn't publish it as a spy novel because publishers in the 90's did not think black women wrote spy novels. And so I made my spies fall in love. They bought the book.
CHRIS HAYES: Let me just shake a little romance in here.
STACEY ABRAMS: Exactly. I still killed all the people I planned to kill and the ones who survived fell in love. My ex-boyfriend languishes in prison in the novel because we had a really bad breakup. And then they kept buying the books, so I kept writing them.
CHRIS HAYES: Stacey Abrams is the founder of Fair Fight Georgia. She is the first democratic black woman to be nominated by a major party to run for governor in the United States of America. It's a great pleasure. Thank you very much.
STACEY ABRAMS: Chris, thank you so much. Thank you.
CHRIS HAYES: All right. Once again, my huge thanks to Stacey Abrams who made time in her schedule to come out to New York City to be at the Gramercy Theater and talk with us. I learned so much from that conversation. We've gotten great feedback from the people that were in the room. We'd love to hear your feedback as well. Stacey has an organization called Fair Fight Action, which you can find out about online. She actually has a book coming out in paperback in March called Lead From The Outside: How to build your future and make real change, which is out on March 26th. So if you want to read more about her theory of change, which she spoke about in the conversation, you should pick that up. We'd love to hear what you think of this.
The great thing about doing these live events is that we can share them, right? So it's fun to have all the people in the audience and to be around the energy of a crowd, but then it isn't just some ephemeral thing that goes away and is only known to the people in the room. You get to hear it too. And I'm really curious about what it's like to listen to a live episode. What you like, what you don't like. We're playing with things as we build this. I did the introduction live this time, which I think worked well, but maybe you didn't. Maybe you liked it last time when I did it in the studio with Ta-Nehisi Coates. So we'd love to hear your feedback on it.
You can always tweet at us using the hashtag #WithPod. And if you go to the hashtag you can also see a bunch of pictures and reactions to the event from people that were there. Or email us, WithPod@gmail.com.
"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team, and features music by Eddie Cooper. See more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to NBCNews.com/WhyIsThisHappening.