A Democratic race for governor that could feel like Beyonce vs. Taylor Swift

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House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (right), D - Atlanta, outlines the caucus legislative agenda in 2016. State Rep. Stacey Evans is at her immediate left. Both are running for governor. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

If certain parties have their way, next year’s Democratic race for governor in Georgia could have the feel of a feud between Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.

Or so I have been informed. I have let my attention to music industry politics slide since Simon & Garfunkel broke up.

What I do know is that state Rep. Stacey Abrams is attempting a profound shift in how Democratic primaries are won in Georgia, which in turn could have broad implications for biracial dynamics within the party.

Abrams, an Atlanta lawmaker and former House minority leader, is one of two major candidates on the Democratic side of the 2018 contest. The other is state Rep. Stacey Evans of Smyrna. Both are lawyers. Both have admirable, by-the-bootstraps biographies.

Abrams is black. Evans is white.

In politics, you often lead with candidates who look like the voters you need – but don’t have. This is one reason why Republicans give prominent roles to African-Americans within their camp.

Likewise, Evans fits the pattern of recent Democratic attempts to return to power by appealing to white, independent voters – even though a strong majority of the party’s voters and activists are black. It is a general election strategy.

A video that accompanied the launch of Evans’ campaign, entitled “16 Homes,” told of Evans’ mobile-home upbringing in far north Georgia. It set many Democratic mouths to watering.

“She has a powerful message,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said of Evans early this month, via Twitter.

This is the thinking that Abrams wants to subvert, with a nationalized campaign that unites white Democratic progressives with African-American women. The latter are the most reliable demographic within the Democratic party, nationally and in Georgia.

“I’m not going to shy away from the fact that people of color have to be centered in my campaign, because I know I can talk to people of color and white people at the same time, and they’re not going to recoil from one another,” Abrams said Thursday on Hellbent, a feminist podcast.

“We have to stop recruiting the candidates that look like what we wish we had, and we have to recruit candidates that look like where we are,” she said.

Enter Beyoncé. Or at least a slice of her lyrics.

“Get in Formation” is the effort by three national, black-oriented political organizations that debuted earlier this month – with the goal of rallying black women behind Abrams. The Beyoncé reference was no accident. “Formation” was a hit from last year’s “Lemonade” album.

“It honors the power and solidarity of black women. It definitely resonated with black women, but also with all types of women,” explained Sharline Chiang, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Democracy in Color, one of the three groups behind the project.

Then there’s the convenient book contract that Abrams nailed down last week. Publication of “Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change” is conveniently set for next April.

“It is aimed at emerging female leaders and leaders of color who must grapple with the implications of race, class, gender and otherness,” according to the press release.

Finally, we have last week’s endorsement of Abrams by U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta. Who is central to Abrams’ argument.

Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 runs for president attracted little support from African-American political leaders who saw his campaigns as merely symbolic. When Barack Obama, an Illinois senator, launched his presidential run in 2007, many African-American leaders similarly stuck with a proven friend, Hillary Clinton.

John Lewis was among them. That is, until Obama’s candidacy was recognized as not just symbolic, but entirely viable. Racial unity was demanded by Obama supporters, and Lewis switched.

One suspects that Abrams would like the 2018 primary for governor to follow a similar path. And Lewis is a good start.

But this is not a fait accompli. Power within the Democratic Party of Georgia is widely diffused. Former Gov. Roy Barnes, who is backing Evans, remains very popular among black voters.

And while she has gathered up an impressive national following who would like to see her as the first black woman governor in the nation, Abrams is not uniformly popular at home.

Her relationship with Mayor Reed is chilly at best, for instance. And Abram’s tenure as leader of the House Democratic caucus was rife with complaints about a management style that was aloof and often uncommunicative.

Last Monday, the House Democratic caucus — a body that is overwhelmingly African-American — chose Abram’s successor. Members rejected state Rep. Carolyn Hugley of Columbus, a 24-year veteran and, as minority whip, a member of Abrams’ leadership team.

Instead, the caucus settled on state Rep. Bob Trammell of Luthersville, who joined the Legislature in 2015. Trammell told me that his victory was in no way a backlash against Abrams.

“There’s no one in the General Assembly who has been more effective at making the argument for Democratic policies,” he said.

Yet in private, several Democrats tell me that an Abrams backlash is precisely what doomed Hugley — who is African-American. Trammell is white.

Sherry Boston is the DeKalb County district attorney, an Evans supporter, and African-American. Last week, Boston was Evans’ host at a gathering of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys.

“She got a great response,” Boston said. “A lot of people walked up to introduce themselves.” But the district attorney was careful to add that plenty of Abrams supporters were in the house, too.

Boston chose her words carefully when she explained her support for Evans, a personal friend. “I believe that Stacey Evans message of hope for all Georgians is one that can resonate with anyone in the state,” she said. “And I think that it’s important for each of us to make decisions on the basis of the candidate that we believe can best move Georgia forward.”

To counter Abrams, Evans will need more support from African-American leaders like Boston to offset the stampede of black voters that Abrams would clearly like to create.

But Abrams has her own challenge: To persuade cautious Democrats, thirsty for a statewide win, that a primary in which racial identity is heightened and the party is pushed significantly to the left will still have mathematical possibilities in November.


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