By Dan Merica and Donald Judd, CNN
(CNN) — Stacey Abrams is not coy about her ambitions: She wants to be Joe Biden’s running mate. And she is everywhere.
The former top Democrat in the Georgia House has been everywhere this month, giving interviews and speeches, appearing at digital forums and writing op-eds. She has described herself in interviews as an “excellent” pick for Biden, publicly gamed out how she would debate Vice President Mike Pence and argued why it would be a mistake not to pick a black woman like herself. These comments come as Biden, whose primary campaign benefited immensely from widespread support from black voters, faces public pressure to pick a woman of color as his running mate.
The directness belies years of precedent by prospective running mates, who often publicly play coy about the vice-presidential ambitions while simultaneously privately running campaigns to get themselves picked. In a series of interviews with CNN, aides, former bosses, and longtime friends say that straightforwardness reflects who Abrams has been for her entire adult life: A black woman raised in Mississippi and Georgia who feels if she is not upfront about her ambitions, she will get passed over.
It’s an argument that Abrams has made herself in the early stages of Biden’s running mate search. Abrams used a call with donors this month to explain that no one asked her to lead as a young black girl in Mississippi, so she learned to raise her hand and make it known that she wanted a position of power, a source on the call said.
“As a young black woman, growing up in Mississippi, I learned that if you don’t raise your hand, people won’t see you, and they won’t give you attention,” Abrams told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday. “But it’s not about attention for being the running mate, it is about making sure that my qualifications aren’t in question, because they’re not just speaking to me, they’re speaking to young black women, young women of color, young people of color, who wonder if they too can be seen.”
Advisers tells CNN Abrams has aspired about being president since her days at Spelman College and, as a student, she created a spreadsheet with career goals that she still uses today.
And Abrams aides tell CNN that the former gubernatorial candidate feels she has always had to loudly broadcast her credentials and ambitions. It is that backdrop, they explain, that leads her to openly speak about her credentials to be vice president.
“I don’t mince words because I grew up around politicians who wanted to tell you what you want to hear but not tell you the truth, and I was raised to believe that you tell the truth,” Abrams said Thursday. “As a woman of color, as a black woman, as a person of color, I cannot be shy about my response, because any hint that I don’t think I’m qualified, that I don’t think we can is used as a justification for saying that we can’t.”
For Abrams, there have been many words not to mince.
The Democratic politician, appearing from her suburban Atlanta home, has been omnipresent over the last two weeks, just as Biden and his top advisers begin looking for a running mate.
She has appeared on multiple podcasts, sat down for countless national interviews, published an opinion-editorial with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on how rural America is dealing with the coronavirus outbreak and joined former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and a coterie of celebrities in spearheading a push to give SNAP families direct payments during the coronavirus crisis. A former aide even published a New York Times op-ed on how Abrams inspired black voters during her failed 2018 gubernatorial run.
“I try to be straightforward because while we hope the work speaks for itself, sometimes the work needs a hype man,” Abrams said on The View this month. “And I learned early on that if I didn’t speak for myself, I couldn’t tell the story.”
To Eliza Leighton, who met Abrams when they were both in college, that directness is what she saw in her friend decades ago.
“She has such a strong sense of self and confidence to be who she is despite the fact that she was raised in an America where black women have not been given all the benefits and have had a lot of barriers,” said Leighton. “She was so clearly herself and so true to herself and not willing to waiver.”
The bluntness has led Republicans, including President Donald Trump’s campaign, to mock Abrams. “Stacey, you’re embarrassing yourself,” Savannah Viar, a spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign wrote in an email that hit Abrams for “her desperate audition to be Joe Biden’s Vice President.”
Abrams first ran for office in 2007, when she won her Georgia House seat. Over the next 10 years, she built a reputation as a hard worker and fully read in lawmaker, a standing that helped her launch a gubernatorial campaign in 2017– a bid that would’ve made her the nation’s first black woman state leader.
But Abrams lost that election against then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who was overseeing the election that he competed in. Voting rights was a flash point in the race, with the Republican secretary of state enforcing some of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation, and some Democrats contend that Abrams would be the governor of Georgia without the restrictive voting laws.
The loss, though, turned Abrams into a well-known and sought-after Democrat, with nearly every presidential candidate in 2020 looking to tie themselves to her in some way. After the election, Abrams founded Fair Fight, an organization that advocates for voter protection across the country.
To Jessica Byrd, who served as Abrams’ chief of staff in her 2018 gubernatorial bid, her former boss’ ubiquity as Biden openly discusses who to make his running mate is just Abrams building on her work.
But, she added, that any suggestion that her open ambition is misplaced is “both very familiar and really frustrating.”
“I also know the way that black women leaders can be used by white politicians and white men,” Byrd said. “And I think that Stacey has found herself in a position where it was important to name drop her in the 2020 primary, and nearly every single candidate did. And then when she is pointedly asked the question about her ambition, she started to be criticized for that.”
Shirley Franklin, the former mayor of Atlanta who Abrams worked for during her time as deputy city attorney, said this directness shows how women — especially black women — feel they must be direct or risk being passed over.
“She believes that women are often passed over and that they have to speak up for themselves, so why shouldn’t they,” said Franklin. “And you can’t argue with that. Women have been passed over!”
Abrams, along with many of her political allies, have argued it is crucial that the Democratic ticket include a woman of color. More than 200 black women signed a letter on Friday urging Biden to do just that, writing Biden should “recognize and seize this moment in our country’s history, and its bold future” by naming a black woman as his running mate.
Abrams, too, has made this case, telling CNN this month that it is an “important signal to have someone of color on the ticket” because for “communities of color, particularly for the black community, there has got to be a recognition that their needs are met.”
Many of Abrams’ friends and colleagues echo this argument — and are candid when asked what it would mean to have a black woman on the ticket.
“It would excite people beyond anything that could be done. It would carry Georgia,” DuBose Porter, a longtime Abrams friend and the head of the Democratic Party during her gubernatorial run. “If you want to create the magic of the Obama-Biden team, you would do that best with a Biden-Abrams ticket.”
For Byrd, a Biden-Abrams ticket would not just help Democrats, it may be one of the only paths to victory over Trump.
“I do not believe that we can win the Democratic primary with two white candidates at the top of the ticket,” said Byrd. “I think it’s a strategic imperative that we have a black woman standing next to Joe Biden.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the settings in which Abrams has weighed in on the vice presidential nomination. It has also been updated to correct the spelling of DuBose Porter’s name.
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