Oct 12, 2022 - News

The making of Stacey Abrams

Photo collage of Stacey Abrams.

Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: Benjamin Lowy, The Washington Post, & Bloomberg via Getty Images

Stacey Abrams became a household name following her historic 2018 bid to be Georgia governor, her voting rights work and her White House ambitions. Since her last time on the Georgia ballot, she's gone from state lawmaker and tax attorney to a sought-after national speaker with lucrative book deals.

  • Less well understood is the network of nonprofit and for-profit enterprises the Democrat has built over two decades and how it laid the groundwork for her national platform and her rise to millionaire status.

Why it matters: Abrams' work has been an undeniable success — in raising her own profile and that of Georgia as a national battleground that elected Biden and flipped the U.S. Senate. But that success has also given Georgia Republicans a new talking point.

  • She is again seeking the governor's mansion, and her opponent Gov. Brian Kemp (R) is running an ad campaign calling her "Celebrity Stacey," accusing her of using Georgia as a "stepping stone" to the presidency.
  • She rejects GOP criticism of her career. Abrams told the 19th last month: "They're mad because I'm not broke. They're angry because I leveraged my intellectual capital and my business acumen to do something over the last four years."

Yes, but: Regardless of the outcome in November, Abrams has amassed the influence and financial strength to play a long game statewide and nationally—more than a dozen Democratic officials and operatives have told Axios.

Be smart: Abrams, 48, isn't the first politician to have started businesses or advocacy groups. But her volume of work across the nonprofit, political and business sectors stands out as a remarkably broad portfolio — and her entrepreneurialism is key to her rise to prominence.

  • She's also chasing history. No Black woman has been elected an American governor.
  • In 2018 she was the first Black woman to become a major party gubernatorial nominee. She narrowly lost by fewer than 2 points.

What's happening: Abrams grounds her case to voters in this resume: She highlights her experience as a state lawmaker and her nonprofit work on the trail and has released ads featuring her business experience. She told Axios in an interview early last year that she has been intentional about engaging in the public, private and nonprofit arenas.

  • "I operate in all three," she says. "And I've been successful in all three. And I understand how all three not only work independently but how they're interrelated."

The intrigue: Over the years, Republicans in state government have alleged unlawful blurring of nonprofit and political lines among these groups as well as voter fraud during her voter registration efforts — accusations she and her allies have decried as politically motivated.

  • Democrats, meanwhile, have at times been skeptical that Abrams' touted voter registration strategy truly lived up to expectations, but few are willing to speak on the record about it.
  • "The Democratic Party is, in effect, Stacey Abrams and her machinery," a longtime Georgia Democratic activist told Axios on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

The big picture: Abrams' experience has ranged from voting nonprofits like the New Georgia Project and Fair Fight Action; to Nourish, a now-shuttered venture that offered pre-measured bottled water for mixing baby formula; to a production company; to a mystery business kept secret under an NDA.

  • According to an Axios review of disclosure reports, business records, public statements and interviews, her holdings and ties include: eight businesses across multiple industries, nine nonprofits, advocacy groups and political action committees and at least 15 book deals—including two that are yet to publish.

What they're saying: Michelle Nunn, whose 2014 Senate campaign Abrams advised, describes Abrams as a "civic entrepreneur" who takes a unique "portfolio approach to change-making."

  • "I call her a Jill of all trades," Sally McDaniel, a friend and supporter of Abrams since her undergraduate years, told Axios. "She always had two to three things going on at once. There was always something new."
  • Abrams has recounted creating a spreadsheet of life goals as a teenager, goals including being governor and president.

By the numbers: During her 2018 run for governor, Abrams was more than $200,000 in debt. It's a topic she openly addressed, including her need to financially support family members. Since then she has risen to national prominence, and in 2022 she reported a net worth of nearly $3.2 million.

  • She told Glamour in 2018: "People of color, women, people from marginalized communities — we're not encouraged to seek wealth. I want to get to the place where my children, if I have them, do not have the same anxiety I had."

The other side: Kemp, who is ten years older at 58, started out wealthier and has seen that wealth grow.

  • He reported $8.6 million in mostly agriculture and real estate holdings this year, up from $5.2 million in 2018. That increase largely came from cutting ties with a troubled agribusiness investment, according to an AJC review.

Of note: If elected, Abrams has vowed to create a blind trust and told Axios she would step down from compensated boards. She removed herself from all nonprofits before ramping up her campaign.

  • Kemp has not put his investments into a blind trust because they do not interact with the state, a spokesman told Axios. (One of his businesses, Specialty Stone, received a $38,000 federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, which was forgiven.)

Editor's note: A forthcoming Axios piece will dive into Kemp's own resume and history.

Data: Axios reporting; Table: Jared Whalen/Axios
Data: Axios reporting; Table: Jared Whalen/Axios
Nonprofits and politics

How we got here: Abrams developed a nonprofit tax law specialty at Yale Law School, graduating in 1999. In 2003 she cut short a stint in private law to enter public service, beginning in the Atlanta city attorney’s office.

  • She went on to leverage her legal expertise to build a network of nonprofits, advocacy groups and PACs, which have gained impressive followings and national donor files.
  • They've also changed the map of Democratic politics in Georgia.

Flashback: As state House Minority Leader, Abrams began expanding a national fundraising network with Georgia Next in 2012, a PAC that raised millions to elect Democratic state lawmakers. Abrams created her best-known group, the New Georgia Project, in 2013 to boost minority and youth voter turnout. (She is no longer affiliated.)

  • That nonprofit became the poster child of Abrams' vaunted approach to Democratic victory in Georgia through an expanding electorate. Today, the group claims to have registered more than 500,000 voters. In 2020 it raised nearly $25 million. It just released a video game featuring "Mr. System and his plan to disenfranchise every voter he can."
  • Its sister advocacy group, the 501(c)4 New Georgia Project Action Fund, was created after Abrams left the nonprofit. It shares staff with the 501(c)3 and expects to knock on 2 million doors this year.
  • The Republican-led state ethics commission this fall sued the groups, alleging illegal political coordination.

In the years since Abrams' 2018 loss, her nonprofit and advocacy portfolio — and their budgets — have grown.

  • She launched Fair Fight Action in 2018, a now influential, if sometimes divisive, voting policy presence in Georgia. It was among the loudest protest voices against the state's 2021 Republican-led voting policy overhaul and also challenged the constitutionality of Georgia's voting system after Abrams' loss, a lawsuit that a federal judge just threw out.
  • Its affiliated PAC, Fair Fight, has brought in more than $110 million.
  • Abrams also created Fair Count, a nonprofit focused on the Census and redistricting and the Southern Economic Advancement Project, a progressive think tank.

Of note: Key to Abrams' ability to launch these groups has been a core group of loyal aides.

  • Abrams' 2018 and 2022 campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo also helped launch the New Georgia Project, Fair Fight and other precursor groups.
  • Originally a friend of Groh-Wargo, Nse Ufot, has been running the New Georgia Project since its inception.
  • Former director of the Democratic Party of Georgia Rebecca DeHart led Fair Count before recently returning to the party for Abrams' election year.
The business side

All the while, Abrams has also been founding and co-founding businesses.

  • "I am good at building. I am excellent at planning and at sustaining. I hire good people. I manage them well," she told Axios.

Zoom in: Her first business, a consulting firm called Sage Works, lent her legal expertise to clients, including the WNBA's Atlanta Dream, starting in 2006.

  • Sage Works Productions, a 2020 company, develops film and television projects, including the documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy, and content based on Abrams' books.
  • In 2007, Abrams and longtime business partner Laura Hodgson started the now-dissolved Insomnia Consulting to work on "complex and innovative infrastructure projects" like transporting zinc in frigid Alaska and desalination technology.
  • That same year, they launched Nourish. The bottled-water-for-baby-formula company folded after struggling to scale production. Plus, Abrams in 2014 co-founded The Family Room, an app where children can interact and play with adults remotely.

Abrams' best-known business, NowAccount Network Corporation, was also co-founded with Hodgson in 2010 to help small businesses bridge the gap of long invoicing windows. After a five-year leave, Abrams rejoined as an advisor in 2021 and helped lead a recent $9.5 million round of investment funding. She remains an investor.

  • Abrams' 2018 Democratic rival Stacey Evans accused Abrams of using her legislative position to steer state contracts to NowAccount. Abrams insisted she maintained proper firewalls, and no wrongdoing has ever been found.

The latest: A mysterious company on Abrams' 2022 disclosure, Dream Project Partners, is "an entrepreneurial venture designed to support new businesses," Abrams told Axios. "But we're under an NDA, so I can't really say much more." She said she's been brought in to help develop the business model.

Data:Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission; Note: Other includes nonprofits, paid board seats, political and photo royalties; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios

When Abrams left a lucrative job at a law firm in 2003, she recalled that her mother jokingly declared it her "trajectory of downward economic mobility."

  • But wealth has indeed come to Abrams — largely from speaking fees and book royalties since 2018.

By the numbers: Abrams reported zero speaking income in 2017 and more than $1 million in 2021, represented by the same agency as Hillary Clinton and Venus and Serena Williams. (She stopped paid appearances after launching the 2022 campaign.)

  • Abrams' career as an author began in law school with a side gig writing romance stories under the pen name "Selena Montgomery." Her annual reported royalties — while $125,000 in 2017 — reached more than $2 million last year.

The bottom line: "In the last four years, more people were able to pay attention to what I was doing," Abrams told Axios. "They were more aware of my books."

  • "But there was nothing overnight about what happened," she said. "I was able to maximize my productivity of 20 years. That's a really long time for an 'overnight success.'"

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the New Georgia Project Action Fund was created without Abrams’ direct involvement, and that Abrams has ties to nine nonprofits and advocacy groups, not 10.

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