‘By God, Mississippi is a battleground state’: Stacey Abrams handicaps 2020 Senate race

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Stacey Abrams speaks before a Democratic presidential debate on Nov. 20, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

By the time Stacey Abrams endorsed Democratic Senate candidate Mike Espy on a virtual fundraising call in late May, her voting rights organization Fair Fight already had full-time staffers in the state for several months.

Abrams, the Mississippi native who became one of the most recognizable Black women in American politics after her narrow defeat in the 2018 Georgia governor’s race, explained why she thought Mississippi and Espy’s candidacy was worth her organization’s efforts.

“It was my decision, the decision of our team, that we were going to be in battleground states,” Abrams said on the May 29 call, a recording of which was obtained by Mississippi Today. “And by God, Mississippi is a battleground state. Because if we can win the Senate in Mississippi, we change the narrative of what is possible. But more importantly, we start to push back on the heart of voter suppression, a state where too much work has to be done to cast a ballot.”

Abrams, breaking down the 2020 Senate race on the call, praised Espy, who’s trying to unseat Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in November. A Democrat has not won a Senate election in modern political history, and Mississippi voters have never elected a Black man to the Senate.

“We are in this shoulder to shoulder, and we’re going to stay with this race all the way to the end because we’re going to be there on the day of victory,” Abrams said. “And that victory is going to come because we’re going to have a man like Mike Espy who sees every Mississippian, who understands the promise of our people and he will do everything in his power to bring that promise to Washington, D.C.”

Later on the call, Abrams discusses growing up in Mississippi and the values that experience instilled in her. She talks about the 2020 Senate race, and what kind of work it will take for Espy to win in November. And she talks about the necessity of statewide candidates going out of their way to reach and represent people of all races, and particularly people of color.

Mississippi Today transcribed Abrams’ comments below, and you can hear the full audio on this week’s episode of The Other Side podcast.

Listen here:

 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Stacey Abrams, on the May 29 fundraising call for Mike Espy:

“I grew up in Mississippi. I grew up in Gulfport, 2020 South Street. My parents are from Hattiesburg originally. They moved to Wisconsin, which is where I was technically born. I just remember being cold and eating cheese curds. We moved back to Mississippi by the time I was 3. When they were looking for a place for us to grow up, my parents had to pick the poorest black street on the middle class side of town so we could get zoned into the good schools.

That’s not an unusual situation in Mississippi. It’s not an unusual situation that my parents — two college educated folks, graduates of Tougaloo College. My mother had a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin. And yet they struggled to make ends meet, not because they spent their money wildly, but because in Mississippi, that education didn’t get them everything. Race and gender still played a huge role in determining their capacity. 

My mom and dad taught us that we weren’t allowed to whine about what wasn’t. We had to work for what could be. They had three rules for us: go to church, go to school, and take care of each other. They taught us to go to church because they wanted us to be grounded in a faith that was larger than ourselves. They wanted us to believe more was possible because the world taught us it could be. 

They taught us to go to school because they wanted us to understand education, even if it hadn’t gotten them everything they thought it would. It had gotten them further than anyone they knew. My mother was the first one and only one of her seven siblings to finish high school. My father was the first man in his family to go to college, and he did so despite having undiagnosed dyslexia until he was in his 30s. But they knew education could transform a life, especially a life in Mississippi.

But then they taught us to take care of each other. Part of that was that there were six of us and they needed the free babysitting. But the larger part of it was that the world we lived in, the state we lived in, the community we lived in, that was part of our family and we were responsible for its success or its failure.

We would be taken to go volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters and the juvenile justice center in Gulfport. We’d look at my parents and say, “Why are we helping poor people? We’re poor too.” Mom and dad would say, “Having nothing is not an excuse for doing nothing.” That’s the ethic on which I was raised. That’s the reason I do what I do.

And in 2018, when I stood to be governor of Georgia, when I became the first Black woman in the United States to become the first nominee of a major party to have that job, I did so not because I knew I would get it, but because I knew I had the responsibility to try.

I stand with Mike Espy because he has always understood his responsibility to try. Whether he was a 29-year-old upstart who decided to send a Republican back home, or whether he stood as the secretary of agriculture who helped to address the challenges facing farmers around this country. And when he stood against Cindy Hyde-Smith in 2018 and made her fight tooth and nail to steal an election by telling people lies about who she was and what she would do, he has always been a person who has stood in truth and who has fought for others.

This is an election that’s going to be hard. We know it because we’ve lived there. We have forgotten that there was a time when we could win. We have forgotten what it looks like to be successful. But we’ve seen glimmers in recent days. When I stood to run for governor in Georgia, it was after eight years of not just Republican dominion, but eight years of total Republican control. Democrats had lost the Governor’s Mansion back in 2002, but by 2010 when I stood to be leader of the House, we lost every statewide election, the Senate went to a supermajority, two-thirds majority, Republican, the House was only a few seats away, and the governor had won that election by 10%. And yet eight years later when I stood to run for governor, it wasn’t because I didn’t know how to do math. It was because I knew where I lived and I knew what had changed.

Because I lived in a state much like Mississippi, where poverty was on the rise, not falling. Where lack of access of healthcare was putting lives at risk as we left money on the table. Where we had an incarceration problem that meant the people who could be building our state were instead wasting their lives behind bars because we decided to incarcerate rather than re-educate and allow people to be reentered into our society. We believed in breaking people down, but not in their redemption. We were a state that could not see the future because we were so busy re-litigating the past.

And what I did in 2018 was not run for myself, but run with Georgia. And that’s what Mike Espy intends to do. It’s what we saw him do in 2018. Running with Mississippi, running with Mississippians of every race and every community, talking to them about what’s possible. Not about whose fault it is, and not about who did wrong, but about what can be made right.

Mike Espy stands for the values that we are taught in Mississippi to hold in our heart. That we believe in a faith that stands for everyone and is a shield for everyone, not a sword to strike them down. That we believe in education that should be available for every child, and it should not have to be a fight to ensure that our children can read and write before they’re 18 years old. We believe in a state that should not have people dying in our prisons because of our refusal to simply pay for the upkeep.

And in the midst of COVID-19, in a state that is only 40% African American, we should not have a disproportionate number of people perishing, not because they’re more susceptible to a disease, but because the systemic inequalities mean they’re going to be more vulnerable and less resilient.

We need good leaders to change that. We’re going to face a recovery in 2021, the likes of which we’ve never seen, and we must have people in the Senate who believe in our possibility and believe that recovery should reach every single person. As we watch what happened in Minneapolis and Louisville and Brunswick, we need to know that it’s not that far from what could be happening in DeSoto, Gulfport, Moss Point and Hattiesburg and Petal. We have to be willing to do the work to build the Mississippi we believed can be, and that starts today. 

I told you that in 2010, Nathan Deal, one of the original “birthers” — he was not someone we necessarily thought was heralding a new day in Georgia. But Nathan Deal became governor and won by 10 points. But eight years later, I came within 1.5 points of winning an election, not because we changed narratives and not because I was who I was. But because I said who I was and what I believed, and Georgia agreed. We tripled Latino turnout in the state of Georgia. We increased youth participation rates by 139%. We tripled Asian/Pacific Islander turnout in the state of Georgia. And as I mentioned a little earlier, we increased Black participation by 40%. 

But I want to put that into context. In 2014, Jason Carter, the grandson of Jimmy Carter, ran for governor of Georgia. He came within five points, and he turned out 1.1 million Democrats. In 2018, I turned out 1.2 million Black people because we demonstrated that if we went to their doors, if we called their phones, if we reached out to them by mail, that communities who had been told they would never be heard from would speak up and speak out and would show up if we showed up for them.

But I didn’t just campaign in all the Black communities and brown communities. I campaigned where they filmed “Deliverance.” I went to every part of Georgia, all 159 counties because I understood what Mike Espy understands — that it’s not about what race we are in Mississippi and in the South. It’s about who we want to be and what we think our families deserve. And he understands that saying that you can reach across the aisle isn’t about proving that you can speak Republican. 

It’s about proving that you can speak Mississippi. And being able to go into communities where people don’t expect to see you because they don’t look like you, when we do that work as Democrats, we win. And in fact, in the state of Georgia, I outperformed every single candidate in Georgia since Bill Clinton in increasing the white vote in the state of Georgia. I got 31% of white college educated women to vote for me. That outperformed Michelle Nunn, the daughter of Sam Nunn. I outperformed her, she got 24%, Secretary Hillary Clinton got 25%, I got 31%. We can do this work, and we can do it by showing up, by speaking authentically, but also by investing early. And that’s why I’m on this call. 

We’re now sitting in the end of May heading into June. You’ve had your primaries, and November looks both far away and way too soon. But we know that if we do the work now, that if we invest now in Mike Espy and his vision for Mississippi, that we don’t just change Mississippi, we change the South. And when we change the South, we change America. 

I began my campaign in 2018 intending to become governor. That did not happen. I ran against an architect of voter suppression, someone who put people in jail for using absentee ballots legally. Someone who purged 1.4 million voters, shut down 214 polling places, purged the single largest number of Americans on a single day in U.S. history. And yet, despite being the umpire, the contestant and the scorekeeper, barely eked out his victory. 

And instead closing my eyes and whining about what happened, I got to work. I started Fair Fight, and Fair Fight is operating in Mississippi. When I became the head of Fair Fight, when we founded that organization, I didn’t simply think about what happened to me in Georgia. I thought about what I watched my parents fight for in Mississippi. And so it was my decision, the decision of our team, that we were going to be in battleground states. And by God, Mississippi is a battleground state.

Because if we can win the Senate in Mississippi, we change the narrative of what is possible. But more importantly, we start to push back on the heart of voter suppression, a state where too much work has to be done to cast a ballot. And that’s why I’m so proud of the work of Latoya Thompson, Jarrius Adams, and of Merritt Baria. Three people who are working hard across the state of Mississippi today because we started our work there in 2019 knowing that we had to fight for every vote.

So this is not just about Mike Espy. It’s not just about winning up and down the ballot in the state of Mississippi by turning out voters who no longer believe anyone cares to see them or hear from them. It’s about fighting for what we say we believe as Americans. I believe in our process. I believe in democracy. I refuse to concede my race not because I thought that I won, and could prove it. I didn’t, I admitted he won, according to the laws. But I challenged the laws as they are because they do not serve our people, if any American is denied the right to vote. And what happens in Mississippi, when people try to speak up, is not American.

And so we’re going to fight to make certain that every vote gets cast, and every vote gets counted. We are in this shoulder to shoulder, and we’re going to stay with this race all the way to the end, because we’re going to be there on the day of victory. And that victory is going to come because we’re going to have a man like Mike Espy who sees every Mississippian, who understands the promise of our people and he will do everything in his power to bring that promise to Washington, D.C. 

So join me in making sure that we fill his coffers, we fill his heart, we fill those ballot boxes and we claim victory in November. Thank you so much.”