There are vice presidential hopefuls who smile and say it’s an honor just to be considered. Who insist that they really aren’t focused on the ticket at all. Who shrug off chances to brag about their credentials.
Then there’s Stacey Abrams.
She told Elle Magazine that she would be an “excellent running mate” with an ability to motivate oft-ignored voters. Abrams has confidently promoted her résumé, declaring on “The View” that “sometimes the work needs a hype man.” And she has cast her near miss campaign for governor of Georgia as a blueprint for future Democratic success.
“Tradition does not serve those who have been marginalized or disadvantaged. And therefore my response has to meet the moment,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Abrams, 46, who has never held an elected position higher than state legislator, is widely seen even by some of her own supporters as an improbable selection, with some Biden allies pushing more experienced contenders such as Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). But her unusually high-profile efforts to get the nod — bolstered by rock-star Democratic credentials earned as a voting-rights activist and an almost-successful bid to become the country’s first black female governor — make it likely there will be some disappointment no matter what direction Biden goes, according to his allies and other Democrats.
Abrams has propelled herself into the running mate conversation through sheer force of will and her backers’ enthusiasm. Her omnipresence has increased pressure on Biden to select a black woman, even if it isn’t her — a demand some Biden allies don’t feel is helpful. And if Biden does not select Abrams, he will disappoint some activists excited about the possibility of a young, energetic African American woman joining the ticket.
“It has created a no-win situation for this choice,” said Avis Jones-DeWeever, a political scientist and advocate for black women in politics, who hopes Harris gets the nod.
In some ways, Abrams’s unorthodox approach is in sync with Biden, who has taken unusual steps himself, such as promising to pick a woman and talking openly about his running mate deliberations. But some Abrams fans are already frustrated about what they see as the likelihood that Biden, in many ways a traditional politician, will go another direction.
“I think as we get closer to the election, people retreat to what they know best. In establishment Democratic politics, at the national level at least, that means going after swing white voters,” said Quentin James, co-founder of Collective PAC, who said he would be happy with any of the black women contending for the job. “They’re going to make every excuse in the book to justify picking Gretchen Whitmer, Amy Klobuchar or — even though I agree with her politics — Elizabeth Warren.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who recently spoke to Biden about the decision, said in an interview he’s excited about Abrams’s forthright pitch and that times have changed. “I think that we’re in an era where people are more assured when you’re self-assured,” the civil rights leader said.
What’s clear already is that, due partly to Abrams and partly to Biden’s hint-dropping, this veep search has a far more wide-open feel than previous versions.
Susan E. Rice, who served as national security adviser under former president Barack Obama, told PBS on Thursday that “I certainly would say yes” if Biden offered her the job. Harris has said she would be “honored” to be chosen. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has also said unequivocally she would accept an offer. It’s a notable contrast from the coyness that has historically greeted such questions.
Abrams’s biggest audition yet came Thursday night when she appeared with Biden in a joint television interview and town hall. The discussion turned the figurative split-screen Abrams has often sought into a literal one, with Biden appearing on the right from his home in Wilmington, Del., and Abrams beaming in on the left from Atlanta.
MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell told viewers that Biden had invited Abrams to join him. “Do you have an announcement to make? Is this an audition?” O’Donnell asked, prompting smiles from his two guests. Biden replied with praise for Abrams’s efforts to champion voting rights, but neither referred to the running mate slot.
Abrams showcased her abilities as a surrogate when the discussion turned to Ahmaud Arbery, a young black jogger who was killed in Georgia by two white men who have been charged with murder. “Only in America in 2020 is jogging while black and sleeping while black a cause for killing,” Abrams said. “What we know is that we have to not only rebuild America, but — as Joe Biden has said so eloquently — we have to restore the soul of America.”
While Biden said Abrams played off each other with ease, many of his top allies do not see her as his best choice, especially at a time when the pandemic has put a premium on governing experience. “Stacey Abrams — is she ready on Day 1? I don’t know. I don’t think so,” said John Morgan, a Florida trial lawyer and top Biden donor.
Biden, 77, would be the oldest president in history. Many Democrats are openly questioning whether he would seek a second term, and they say his running mate should be someone who can ease concerns about his longevity and reassure voters she could instantly step into the presidency.
Earlier this week, Biden said he is looking at about a dozen choices. Speaking in a virtual fundraiser, he said the process was just getting started, and when it comes to the list of possibilities, “I can’t tell you that it’s been narrowed down at all.”
Some of the women believed to be under consideration have spent decades forging ties to the political establishment, giving them advocates with the clout to champion their cause publicly and privately. Abrams, who rose to prominence in the 2018 midterm elections, is a relative outsider with a growing network but fewer allies in the Biden orbit.
Adding to weight of Biden’s dilemma, Abrams in many ways represents the future of a party that has become more diverse and has its hopes set on recapturing the South. She comes from a purple state that Democrats urgently want to turn blue, and at 46, she is younger than other running mate prospects.
Abrams has a history of following her own political playbook, becoming the first black woman to serve as state House Democratic leader in Georgia. She ran for governor when few thought she had a chance, losing the governor’s race to Republican Brian Kemp by 1.4 percentage points and capturing more votes than any Democrat who has run statewide.
She cites that performance as evidence that she could help Biden, rattling off statistics from the 2018 race like a star athlete recounting a banner season and expressing confidence about turning out different kinds of Democratic voters.
Amid current trends, however, some Abrams advocates fear that won’t be enough. At the start of the presidential primary, Democrats boasted of the historic diversity in their field, which featured women and men of color and an openly gay man. But in the end, the contest came down to two white septuagenarian men: Biden and 78-year-old Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Biden became the presumptive nominee thanks largely to strong support from the African American community, especially in the South. Many believe that he should build on that success by picking a black woman to join him on the ticket.
Sharpton said that in his recent phone conversation with Biden, he urged him to choose a black woman, naming Abrams, Harris and Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) as possibilities. He said that some on Biden’s team are open to the idea, while others are “respectful but not all the way convinced.”
Sharpton had reportedly been preparing to publicly urge Biden to choose Abrams. But he said he had changed his mind on a public endorsement, opting instead to convey any preference privately to Biden’s team.
Abrams has made her ties to the black community and disadvantaged voters central to her pitch. In the interview, she recalled that as a young lawyer at a prestigious law firm, she started a nonprofit to help community organizations that did not have access to tax attorneys.
“My approach has always been you can’t just fix the problem, you have to fix the systems — and that no one is going to fix the systems better than those who understand them,” she said. “As a woman of color as a black person, I understand how the systems are not designed for us, even if they are supposed to serve us.”
Valerie Jarrett, a onetime senior Obama adviser, said Abrams’s style is a welcome change. “I think she’s been refreshingly direct,” Jarrett said. “It’s unusual — she’s not demurring or being coy.”
But she also said Biden should cast a wide net for whoever would best help him defeat Trump and govern the country. “I wouldn’t encourage him to limit his scope to only African American women,” Jarrett said.
Although some see Abrams’s comments about the vice presidency as brazen, she has navigated the post-2018 political landscape with some caution. After her defeat in the Georgia governor’s race, she passed on a Senate race and opted against running for president, as some expected her to do. During the presidential primary, she stayed publicly neutral before endorsing Biden earlier this week.
Abrams also formed an organization called Fair Fight to advocate for voting rights. She has never conceded the 2018 race to Kemp, and a political action committee she formed has sued state elections officials, alleging they “grossly mismanaged” the governor’s race.
If Abrams does not become vice president, many supporters hope she will seek a rematch against Kemp in 2022. Abrams has made no specific commitments, saying only that she plans to run for office in the future.
In the meantime, her current work doubles as her pitch to Biden.
“I’ve stood up a multistate organization and raised millions of dollars that will serve 100 million people who have the right to vote in those states,” Abrams said in the interview. “My belief in their right to vote is what I do every single day, and my energy to turn them out and to make sure we protect the right to vote is not going to diminish.”
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