“I’m going to make an admission here — I don’t vote.”
The confession from KSAT-TV news anchor Ursula Pari at the start of her conversation with Georgia politician and voting rights organizer Stacey Abrams landed poorly. Some among the crowd that nearly filled the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts started yelling and booing as Pari explained why she, as a journalist, prefers to stay out of the political arena, including the ballot box.
Abrams quieted the audience with an upheld hand.
“Organizing 101,” Abrams said. “If somebody tells you where they stand and your immediate response is to reject what they believe, you’re rejecting who they are.”
During the event, her first of about a dozen stops on a nationwide tour, Abrams talked at length about the philosophy behind her organizing. Her efforts to boost voter turnout in Georgia, where Republicans generally control the state’s government, have been widely cited as crucial to putting two Democratic candidates in the U.S. Senate, handing that party control of Congress in 2020.
Many in the crowd wanted to shift the balance of Republican-controlled politics in Texas and attended hoping to draw inspiration from Abrams. San Antonio native Valerie Reiffert, leader of local voter registration group Radical Registrars, said she’s listened to two of Abrams books on audio.
“She clearly made a blueprint for us to follow when it comes to Georgia and flipping a state that’s been historically one-sided for so long,” Reifferts said.
Abrams, who narrowly lost a 2018 bid for Georgia governor, has not yet said whether she plans to run again in 2022.
Abrams mentioned Texas politics only once during the talk, responding to a question about new voting restrictions passed recently. Abrams called the laws, which are similar to legislation passed in Georgia this year, “unpatriotic.”
“It makes voting harder and it solves not a single problem,” she said. “It criminalizes election workers who try to help. It criminalizes individuals who try to provide assistance. It criminalizes good citizenship.”
Abrams spent more time on her backstory and how she learned to be effective, politically. “You can’t fix people,” is a phrase she used repeatedly. When dealing with hostility, “you kind of step outside of yourself” and ask about the person’s “intention,” rather than their “energy.”
“What are they trying to get me to be?” Abrams said “And I decide if I’m going to give [them] that result or not.”
Abrams, 47, grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi. Her father, a dockworker, and her mother, a librarian, “had no money, but we watched PBS and we read books,” she said. Her parents took Abrams and her siblings volunteering at soup kitchens on weekends because “if you see a problem, your job is to fix it.”
She cultivated a broad set of talents. In her side career as a romance novelist, she’s published eight books under the pen name Selena Montgomery. She chose the name because she was honing her tax policy expertise at the time and “it was much easier to do romance under a pseudonym because no one was going to buy a romance novel by Alan Greenspan.”
Then there was Nourish, the bottled water company for babies and toddlers she co-founded. The company ended up folding, but Abrams told a story about how gathering all of her supply chain companies in one room helped her learn to study “what’s the supply chain when you’re making policy.”
“It’s not enough to think about the end goal, you have to think about every individual part of it,” she said.
While she described herself as an introvert, Abrams extolled the virtues of exposing oneself to contradictory viewpoints. Preparing for her run for governor, she wrote essays to herself about her beliefs and why she holds them.
That’s how she came to change her political stance on abortion rights, which she used to oppose.
“When I had to think about it in terms of passing laws that affected other people, it turns out that my belief wasn’t a belief, it was an opinion,” Abrams said. “When I confronted the facts, I changed where I stood.”
What Abrams offered listeners wasn’t a panacea or even a playbook to replicating her organizing efforts in Georgia. Instead, she offered a mindset that can let a person negotiate from a position of strength, even when dealing with an opponent who doesn’t understand them.
“It doesn’t matter how they see us,” Abrams said. “What matters is the way we see us. You can dismiss my passion as anger, but if it works and gets me what I need, I’m good.”