The former Georgia House Minority Leader and current Democratic candidate for governor appeared at an Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce networking event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Midtown on Jan. 26, then followed that up by meeting with a few dozen LGBTQ elected officials and candidates, activists, nonprofit leaders and other influencers Saturday afternoon to pitch herself as the candidate of choice for the community. The LGBTQ push comes as the Democratic primary fast approaches on May 22.
The LGBTQ Policy Roundtable Discussion was held at Abrams’ campaign headquarters in Kirkwood, where she touted her track record of opposition to religious exemptions laws, early (2006) embrace of same-sex marriage and cosponsorship of a bill to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation within state agencies.
“It’s about protecting communities, the LGBTQ community, from being able to be fired, or denied access to housing, denied access to services,” she told the crowd. “It’s about fighting back not only locally but nationally and letting the state of Georgia be a voice not of discrimination but of defense. It’s about making sure that discrimination of any kind, that from the beginning, the governor is the face of what will not happen in the state of Georgia, and that’s why I’m running.”
Path of LGBTQ support
Abrams got an early introduction to the LGBTQ community after moving to Atlanta with her family as a girl and joining Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Midtown.
“I think it was the first time I really had a stark conversation about the LGBTQ community,” she said.
Later, as a student at Spelman College in the 1990s, she backed the creation of a lesbian alliance.
“One of my proudest moments was as SGA vice president authorizing that organization on campus,” Abrams said. “It came at a bit of a cost. I got phone calls and threats and had to have campus security for a while. But for me, the responsibility was to do what was right, not what was political.”
She surprised many by voicing her support for same-sex marriage during her first state House run in 2006, but won, and has faced no opposition since.
The former House Minority Leader opposed religious exemptions bills since they first appeared in the state Legislature in 2015, saying that a sponsor of one such bill approached her that year to ask for her support due to the fact that her parents were ministers. Abrams said that after turning them down, she tipped off Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham and then-Georgia Equality lobbyist Cathy Woolard about what was coming.
As governor, Abrams said that not only would she not support such bills, but she would stop them from even getting a hearing. And there would be a political cost involved for legislators who push back.
“Part of it is the signal you send: what will you entertain, and what is the cost of entertaining that conversation? People will understand there is a cost to entertaining legislation that purports to discriminate,” she said. “They will know that as governor, I will not tolerate it and I will be very angry about having to have that conversation, because the governor sets the tone for the state we want to live in.”
Abrams looks to wield the power of the governor’s office when it comes to Medicaid expansion as well — a move that would help in the fight against HIV, especially in rural areas of the state.
“Bills that may make it through will get a veto unless we have done the work we’re supposed to do,” she said. “We don’t need a budget, we don’t need to do any legislation until we have solved the problem of half a million Georgians, and making certain that no one in the state of Georgia dies because we were too mean to take the money to keep them alive.”
Different strategy for Democrats than in 2014
Abrams’ public embrace of the state’s LGBTQ community during her gubernatorial campaign is in stark contrast to that of the campaign of former state Sen. Jason Carter, who ran for governor on the Democratic side in 2014. Carter stayed mum on LGBTQ issues, skipped marching in the Atlanta Pride parade, refused interviews with LGBTQ media and quietly came out for same-sex marriage a day after a Georgia Voice editorial criticized him for not already doing so. Democrat Michelle Nunn, who ran against David Perdue for a U.S. Senate seat that same year, followed the same playbook.
“I think that 2018 is a very different year than ’14,” Abrams said when asked about the difference in strategies and if she’s worried about the repercussions of publicly embracing the LGBTQ community. “I don’t cast aspersions on their approach, but I will say that my approach to every campaign that I’ve ever run is to be as engaged as possible and to be as accessible as possible. For me, the LGBTQ community is a critical part of our economy, and the conversations that we’re having about progress and prosperity and success cut across every community, and there’s no reason not to be actively engaged with the LGBTQ community.”
Both Abrams and former state Rep. Stacey Evans — Abrams’ challenger in the Democratic primary — marched in last October’s Atlanta Pride parade. Georgia Voice has reached out to the Evans campaign for an interview and we’re being told a time is being set up.