Written November 2018
Democratic candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams is a polished and pragmatic woman with understated charm. She has an impressive academic record with degrees from Spelman, The University of Texas, and Yale Law School. She has a childhood story that champions the unsung songs of the black working class. And she has succeeded as a minority leader and nominee of a major party in a state that once left the union to continue the practice of owning human beings who look like her.
If she is elected it will be historic and energizing for long-time Democrats and newly involved Georgia progressives. However, one hurdle, in addition to voter suppression, is her debt. Her opponent, Brian Kemp, between the time that he’s suppressing black voters, has been quick to point out on the campaign trail that Abrams owes the IRS and a number of other creditors $200,000. Obviously financial reports give a glimpse into a person’s values and have to be taken seriously. And it’s fair for an opponent to bring up the issue. But to get the full picture, we must go beyond the spreadsheet.
Let’s walk through some specifics, shall we?
- Student Loans
Stacey Abrams owes $50,000 in student loans. Should she have paid it off sooner? I don’t know. What I do know is that it should be a national disgrace that we saddle people with debt just for getting an education. Other industrialized nations do not do this to their young people. Germany, France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and others generously fund post-secondary education with taxes. It’s called public investment. However, our homeland, the richest nation on earth, has chosen policies that force everyone beneath the upper middle class to take on enormous debt for a college education because college costs have far exceeded any gains in income and outpaced inflation. And to make matters worse, minimum wage jobs for students no longer cover expenses the way a similar job would have in the 1970s.
Stacey Abrams isn’t the only politician who has struggled with student loans. Republican Senator Marco Rubio had over $150,000 of student loans from law school and $30,000 of credit card debt. He was still carrying that debt right before he ran for President in 2015. A book deal in 2012 was what got him to the light at the end of the tunnel. I doubt the book was all that good and I’m pretty certain it didn’t mention climate change. But still, good for him and his family that he was able to get out of debt and continue being the disappointing senator that he was destined to be.
- Bankruptcy Laws are unfair
Medical debt, credit cards, and a business falling apart can be factored in with bankruptcy. We all know that President Trump, for example, was able to file bankruptcy 4 times. His actions meant that his creditors, small businesses, and hired workers paid heavily for his bad decisions. I’m not suggesting Abrams considered bankruptcy. I’m simply saying it wasn’t an option for her or Marco Rubio, or millions of other Americans with student loans. The laws are not fair especially since student loan debt doesn’t harm anyone personally. (I actually think if you’ve paid taxes, held a job, taken care of children or the elderly or served the public in other ways, all student debt should be forgiven.) I also know that if Stacey Abrams had ever started a business and miserably failed 4 times, there is no way in hell she could brand herself as a “Successful Business Woman.” With that on her record, she wouldn’t get elected to the Fulton Country Board of Education, much less become the Democratic nominee for governor.
- Working Class People Lack Financial Literacy
Stacey Abrams describes her family as working poor, or to use her term, the genteel poor. While they had a commitment to education, living in Mississippi limited their options. Do I need to explain all the reasons why a very poor post Jim-Crow southern state might be difficult for black families in the 1970s? Abrams also said she never saw her parents balance a checkbook, which indicates an issue of financial literacy. Lacking sophistication with money is common in all low-income households. And our education system doesn’t help. Not many high schools offer classes on personal finance. And while her parents supported their children’s ambitions, they could not help much with money once Abrams became an adult. Life for many of her peers, in college, especially later at Yale, was very different. Their parents could cover ongoing expenses; help with purchasing a home; and pay for financial screw-ups. Stacey Abrams had to take care of herself and clean up her own messes.
- Unexpected birth of a child
Stacey Abrams has a younger brother who is bipolar and has problems with addiction. He fathered a child in 2006 with a woman who also had a history of drug abuse. Five days after the birth, Abrams’ parents took custody of the baby girl even though they were struggling with financial and health-related problems.
I’m thinking of two paths Stacey Abrams could have taken in response to the news of the unexpected child. She could have sent a text that sounds like love but it’s really empty words. Something along the lines of, “Hey, I want to send my thoughts and prayers for little baby girl.” Or, Abrams could have taken on the role of Party Aunt. We all know Party Aunt (or Uncle). We love these gainfully employed childless high-energy relatives who work out, drink expensive liquor, and vacation in Greece. They send surprise birthday cards with cash. They take nieces to see Taylor Swift. They hire the DJ or the magician for the birthday bash. But what Party Aunts and Uncles don’t do is pay for childcare, transmission repairs, braces, medicine, food, or housing.
Stacey Abrams could have chosen either path, and it would have been socially acceptable because the baby wasn’t her responsibility. She had every right to “live her best life.” Instead, she chose to be an ongoing source of financial support for her aging parents as they raised their grandchild.
Abrams made the hard choice, which meant sacrifice, year after year. For me, this one issue speaks volumes about her character because I’m a divorced parent. While my situation is better than most, I’m the parent who is always on duty. The pressure is real. I know that if she had taken the easy route and sent her family the message, “Hey Ya’ll! #preciousgirl #blessed I’ll see you at Thanksgiving,” and walked away, Stacey Abrams wouldn’t have any debt and would probably be a lot closer to having $5 million, the amount of Brian Kemp’s net worth.
- She’s not lazy
If you look through Stacey Abrams’ bionic woman resume, you’ll start wondering what you’re doing with your life. Tax attorney, romance novelist, entrepreneur, and politician. And she’s at EVERY event. I saw her at the Women’s March and Power to the Polls. She’s at Gay Pride. She’s on a bus to Savannah. She’s talking to healthcare professionals in South Georgia and white hipsters at Trader Joes. I’ve followed her on Facebook for over 2 years and the essential questions I ponder are: Is her car clean? How does she have time for the dentist? In other words, for her and a lot of Americans in debt, a lack of gumption isn’t the problem.
- She’s not married
Without marriage, Stacey Abrams doesn’t have a partner to shoulder financial burdens and build wealth through additional employment income and social connections. And if you don’t think that matters, thumb through the pages of history and look at the life of our first President, George Washington. While Washington was in good standing in his community, his official entrance into the wealthy planter class was because of the marriage to Martha.
Before George came along, Martha was a young widow and her first husband didn’t leave a will, which meant she became the executor of the estate. She owned 300 slaves, a healthy stack of cash, and 17,000 acres of land. Had Washington not married well, we wouldn’t see his face on Mount Rushmore.
Along with being single, Abrams has the added burden of paying S &R taxes (Sexism & Racism). Wherever she goes and no matter what degree she has earned, she is going to confront this harsh reality. Had she been born a white man and then gone to Yale, who knows? It’s hard to quantify really. But we do know about one white man in particular, who went to Yale and had $200,000 worth of credit card debt mysteriously paid off. And he was just recently elevated to the Supreme Court despite the fact that it became very clear on national television, that he didn’t deserve it.
- Stacey Abrams chose public service over wealth
With her intelligence and determination, Stacey Abrams would be very wealthy if depositing checks motivated her to get up in the morning. But lucky for us, she is wired for public service. Her parents are ministers. Her sister is a judge. It’s in her bones. But public service takes a lot of time and pays a lot less than if she devoted that time to practicing law and writing novels. President Harry Truman said it best. “No man can get rich in politics unless he’s a crook!”
- She is paying her debts, oh and there’s Brian Kemp
Abrams is in good standing with the IRS and her other creditors. And she’s not trying to hide. It’s also worth noting that her opponent, Brian Kemp, also owes money to the tune of $500,000 because one of his companies, AgStrong, didn’t pay back a loan. The case has gone to court and has yet to be decided. The lender, Toccoa businessman Rick Phillips, claims Kemp is the only person he ever dealt with on the loan, and that Kemp signed documents saying he personally guaranteed repayment. Kemp claims he is only one of the investors and it doesn’t fall on his shoulder. And the Kemp campaign has said, “This isn’t a story – this is a failed publicity stunt to help a failing candidate for governor retain power.” It’s a strange statement because apparently it really is a story because it really has gone to court, because this guy that Kemp knows from sharing a suite at UGA football games, really was stiffed $500,000.
It’s also important to think about what’s NOT in Stacey Abrams’ past. Unlike President Trump, her financial history book doesn’t include chapters filled with malicious acts of financial abuse and sociopathic dishonesty. President Trump paid $25 million in a fraud case related to Trump University, just before he took office. He has a documented history of stiffing people. And there is a recent article in the New York Times about his entire family engaging in schemes of epic proportion to avoid paying taxes. And there’s one story that sticks with me in particular because he stiffed a piano salesman. A billionaire ordering pianos and then not paying for them, the dickishness astounds me.
If we want people in government who truly represent the population in terms of race, gender, and economic status, then voters have to open their minds to supporting talented candidates that perhaps didn’t go to private high schools like Brian Kemp and his wife Marty who attended Athens Academy (currently costs around $20,000 a year) and instead come from families that have struggled their entire lives, and in some cases for generations.
What matters most in this election cycle is that Stacey Abrams doesn’t run away from responsibilities. She understands that trickle down economics has miserably failed. She has articulated a pragmatic vision for Georgia and wants to expand Medicaid as was intended when the Affordable Care Act was passed. Most importantly, we need her leadership. Stacey Abrams will do well for herself going forward no matter what. But our state will suffer under Brian Kemp. He’s interested in protecting the wealthy, ignoring the uninsured, and following the GOP playbook of performative cruelty and voter suppression, and that will harm our citizens and economy. In fact, we need Stacey Abrams more than she needs us.
Addendum: Feb. 3, 2019
While Stacey Abrams was defeated in her bid to become governor of Georgia, she is continuing to fight for Georgia and for a progressive agenda within the Democratic Party.
Her organization is addressing voter suppression, incompetence & neglect in the Secretary of State’s office, and voting irregularities. For a better voting system and a fair process, keep up with Fair Fight Action. We can’t change things in Georgia without well supported and fair electoral system. Take a look and support her efforts. You can also keep up with the organization by following Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ former campaign manager, on twitter @gwlauren. https://twitter.com/gwlauren
Stacey Abrams has also written an excellent essay about Identity Politics. It is worth your time to read!
Stacey Abrams will also present the Democratic response to the State-of-The-Union speech state, Feb. 5, 2019. Here’s an article about it in the Washington Post.