ALBANY, Ga. – Stacey Abrams walked into the room of cheering supporters with the posture of a winner – head high, bright smile, hearty hugs and handshakes.
“Sta-cey! Sta-cey! Sta-cey!” sang the crowd of more than 200 people who showed up at a restaurant last month for an event to thank volunteers and voters who supported her 2018 bid for Georgia governor.
In that moment, it felt as if Abrams’ campaign was successful, even though she lost her race against Republican Brian Kemp. Unlike many politicians who have lost big races, Abrams has made clear she isn’t going away.
The former state legislator has stayed on the public stage and stoked interest by declaring she will run for elected office again, perhaps as soon as next year for the U.S. Senate or maybe for president, joining the already crowded field.
In the latest indicator that Abrams’ star continues to rise, she will deliver the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday.
Abrams “is a present and future leader in this country,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in announcing her selection. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Abrams’ “electrifying message of courage, perseverance and hope reinvigorated our nation and our politics.”
Aides said Abrams, who proved herself to be an inspiring orator on the campaign trail, is writing her own speech. She will weave together stories of her life and anecdotes of people she met on the campaign trail to help explain her policy positions and to connect with audiences.
Traveling around Georgia, she focused on expanding eligibility for Medicaid, providing more money for public schools, creating jobs and helping small business owners. Those themes are likely to be included in her 10-minute response Tuesday.
Abrams has said she will use the platform to “deliver a vision for prosperity and equality, where everyone in our nation has a voice and where each of those voices is heard.” She also reportedly joked that she would “hydrate” before her speech, an apparent reference to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is remembered for pausing during the 2013 response to take a sip of water.
Abrams, 45, is a former Democratic leader of the state house, the first woman and first African-American to hold that position in Georgia. But at the start of her campaign for governor, few believed she could win, and many questioned whether Georgia was ready for a black woman in the governor’s mansion.
So when Abrams won her Democratic primary by 56 points, excitement spilled beyond the border of Georgia. Progressives around the country dispatched money and foot soldiers to Georgia to help Abrams. Before her race was over, big names had flown in to help her campaign – including Oprah Winfrey.
But her near-victory was not just the result of excitement over the chance to elect the nation’s first African-American female governor. Her campaign identified potential voters and worked tirelessly to contact and persuade them to vote in the election.
Voters responded. Abrams received more votes than any Democrat that has run statewide in Georgia. Four years ago, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee lost by 200,000 votes; Abrams closed that gap but still lost by 54,000 votes.
“There’s a whole universe of people out there who’ve never even been asked to participate and that’s why we’re so proud we turned out a comprehensive and competitive number of people,” Abrams said.
After a 10-day standoff over the fate of outstanding absentee and provisional ballots in the November election, Abrams decided to end her campaign. But she did not concede.
In a defiant speech on the day that Kemp was declared the winner, she said: “Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede.”
Instead, she has formed a group focused on pushing for changes in Georgia’s elections system. The political action committee, Fair Fight Action, filed a lawsuit against state elections officials alleging that they “grossly mismanaged” the 2018 election and violated the constitutional and civil rights of Georgians.
Lauren Groh-Wargo, who has been friends with Abrams for the past seven years and managed her gubernatorial campaign, said the election was “incredibly challenging – intellectually, emotionally, financially, every single dimension of life and that 10-day period that I call the overtime period was excruciating.”
She said Abrams did take some time off – “the second vacation I’ve actually known her to take since I’ve known her” – but it’s not surprising that she’s back in the thick of politics.
Growing up, Abrams’ family struggled financially. But her parents also were strivers, moving their six children from Mississippi to Atlanta, where her mother and father studied for the seminary. In campaign speeches and interviews, Abrams said her parents sought out addresses that, although in low-income neighborhoods, put them within the boundaries of better schools.
“We grew up reading books and watching PBS,” she often says.
A graduate of Spelman College, Abrams has a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from Yale. She also is a published author, having written romance novels in the early 2000s under the pen name Selena Montgomery, and has owned several small businesses.
Her mother and father, both Methodist ministers, have been struggling with medical bills because of her father’s cancer treatments. Abrams said she has had to chip in to help them out.
The family obligations, along with lingering debt racked up in college, caused her to fall behind on her taxes, which she revealed in a book, “Minority Leader,” released last year during the campaign.
Abrams describes herself as an introvert.
“I prefer to be alone and tend not to be as gregarious and outspoken,” she said.
That doesn’t mean she did not enjoy campaigning: “There is something wonderful about being able to talk to voters and hear people’s stories,” she said, “and luckily, because I’m an introvert, I spend most of the time listening.”