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Politics & Government

Georgia Governor Candidate Wants To Acknowlege Race, But 'Move Past That Conversation'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the wake of the huge defeat suffered by the Democrats last election, there's been a push by the party to get more women and minorities into politics. The state of Georgia is no exception. It could elect its first African-American governor next year. Stacey Abrams officially entered the race yesterday. She is currently the House minority leader in the Georgia state assembly, the first black woman to have that job. And she joins me now from her home in Atlanta via Skype.

Good morning.

STACEY ABRAMS: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: First of all, congratulations.

ABRAMS: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What made you decide to run for governor of Georgia?

ABRAMS: I'm running for governor because I believe that every Georgian deserves the freedom and the opportunity to thrive. For too many folks in Georgia and around the country, we talk survival; we plan for survival. But I believe Georgia's a state where we can plan to thrive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think race becomes an issue? I mean, do you try and make race not an issue, or do you reach out to people who may feel, frankly, uncomfortable with having an African-American in that position?

ABRAMS: You cannot look at me and not know my race or my gender.

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAMS: And I think it's important that we acknowledge race, that we acknowledge gender. You can't tackle problems if you refuse to admit they exist. And there is a problem with how we think about the role of leadership for women of color. I see race and gender and class as markers. They let us tell ourselves stories about who we think people are, but then my job and the job of everyone in leadership is to move us past that conversation. I'm doing my job not when I ignore race but when I use race to help me understand the broader complications that people are facing and the barriers that may be in their way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm curious to get your take. You know, black voter turnout was down for the first time in 20 years last election, from 66 percent in 2012 to 59 percent in 2016. You've been working on an effort to get more voters registered. Is registration the problem, or is finding a candidate to get excited about the problem?

ABRAMS: I think this is a - it's a jigsaw puzzle. And you've got to put together multiple pieces. In Georgia, a glaring piece is that we are a racially diverse state that had 800,000 unregistered people of color. And if we want people to own their civic power, to own their government, they have to be at the table, and so registration is important. By the same token, if you want people to turn out and to vote, that's not a function of registration. That's a function of having a message and a vision and values that people believe in and having messengers that are willing to speak to everyone. For too long, we've had candidates on both sides of the aisle that simply go back to the folks they know. This campaign is going to focus on building coalitions of voters that no one talks to, the people who are left out and left behind, who don't believe that voting or even that government is for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that the message that the Democratic Party needs to have writ large? I mean, again, huge defeat - November 2016 - a president who actually used those very words talking about the people that were left behind, talking about the people that were being ignored.

ABRAMS: Democrats have had this message for eons. It was the basis of our party. And what Democrats in the South have to reject is this notion that our geography requires politicians to soften our commitment to equality and to opportunity. We have to, as a party, reject the idea that we cannot speak about the specific ills that face communities. We can talk about criminal justice reform. We can talk about ending generational poverty. We can also talk about climate change and expanding opportunity in tech. And I think that's been a challenge from the Democratic Party. We've tried to have a single policy for an entire nation, but what we need are values that lead to policies that reflect the needs of communities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I have to say that you are a Yale-educated lawyer. But - but (laughter) you also write...

ABRAMS: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Romance novels under a pen name. Can you tell me some of those titles, please?

ABRAMS: Sure. I write as Selena Montgomery. My very first book was "Rules Of Engagement." It was a spy novel based on my ex-boyfriend's dissertation. We did not have the best break-up, so he languishes in prison in the book.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Will you keep writing if you get elected?

ABRAMS: I will. I've - I don't remember not writing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Stacey Abrams - she just announced her candidacy for governor of Georgia yesterday. Thank you so much.

ABRAMS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.