Stacey Abrams has made history for several reasons. In 2011, with her installation as leader of the Democratic caucus in the Georgia House of Representatives, Abrams became the first woman ever to lead a party bloc in the Georgia General Assembly. She was also the first African-American to assume the top spot of either party in the lower chamber.
But Abrams took over a caucus in crisis. Eight Democrats in the House -- including one who had just been elected to the No. 2 spot -- switched to the Republican side following the 2010 election. The Republicans were close to controlling a supermajority. They got even closer the next year when Democrats lost more seats in subsequent redistricting. “My selection was heralded by defection,” Abrams says. “I very clearly framed my campaign and my leadership around the idea that we have to be good at being in the minority. It is not sufficient to simply be the opposition party lambasting the other side.”
That meant being willing to work with Republicans in the House, even as she tried to boost the size of the Democratic caucus.
Abrams walked that tricky line, for example, by supporting legislation championed by Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, to overhaul the state’s Hope Scholarship program. While she disagreed with the governor that the program should be based on merit rather than need, Abrams was able to convince Deal and a majority of Republicans to compromise on other parts of the bill. Ultimately, the two sides agreed, among other things, to include low-interest loans and preserve most funding for pre-K programs. “My fundamental philosophy,” she says, “is that my first job is to cooperate and collaborate with the other side whenever I can.”
But sometimes conflict is unavoidable. “When those ideological differences are evident and are necessary, it is insufficient to say simply say, ‘I don’t like what the other side is doing,’” she says. “We have an affirmative obligation to offer either an alternative or a cogent rebuttal that shows what they’re trying to do is wrong for Georgia.” In 2011, she gathered an unlikely coalition -- including fellow Democrats, Tea Party activists and Southern Baptist leaders -- and successfully fought Deal on a plan to cut income taxes and raise sales taxes. It worked. A narrower package of tax breaks passed with bipartisan support the next year.
“I find her to be a person interested in policy and the right policy,” says state Rep. Mickey Channel, a Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee and who worked with Abrams on the tax breaks. “I do think it’s refreshing to have somebody who can work across the aisle and do, hopefully at the end of the day, the best thing for Georgia.”
Abrams credits her time as a “bureaucrat” -- before being elected to the Georgia House in 2006, she had worked for the city of Atlanta and the federal government -- for her ability to blend party loyalty and a pragmatic approach to ensuring that government works well for its citizens. “Fundamentally, Georgians don’t care about your party. They care about their lives.” -- By Daniel C. Vock
Read about the rest of the Public Officials of the Year here.