Former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams believes she can turn Georgia blue.
The Democratic candidate for governor, who represented parts of southeast Atlanta while in the state House, says the composition of the state is changing and points to Hillary Clinton winning Cobb and Gwinnett counties in the 2016 election as evidence of the shift.
“The reality is this is the year because the composition of the state is different,” Abrams said in a recent interview at the MDJ’s offices. “We've been waiting for this inflection point that was parity (between the parties), which I don't think is necessary. It's about coalition, and we have the available folks for a coalition. And if you look at Cobb County, if you look at Gwinnett County, we know that that coalition exists.”
Abrams faces another former state representative — Stacey Evans of Smyrna — in the May 22 Democratic primary for governor.
The wide-ranging interview with Abrams below was conducted April 2 and has been edited for space and style.
Q: If you were writing Atlanta’s or the state’s offer to Amazon for HQ2, what would it include?
A: I think the most effective tax incentive programs have a couple of features. One is that it talks about how we will invest in worker training and creating that worker pipeline because I think any effective tax incentive has to have a core benefit to the state. I think the second piece is going to be trying to put together a tax package that provides access to the amount of land necessary but without undercutting the ability of those local governments to provide the public services that they need to provide. … And so it’s really about looking at the two major pieces that a company wants: a place to work and the ability to have the workers to fill those places.
Q: Some states are talking about billions in incentives. Is that out of the question for Georgia?
A: Again, I think the question is what are the incentives to leverage? If the goal is to say, ‘Here’s the largest pot of money available,’ that is an attractive notion on the outside, but if you’re a business making a decision, your goals are to ... locate your business in the place where you’re going to have the lowest external costs and the longest shelf life. … We know how that works because we have created one of the most successful tax credit programs in the country through our film incentive program. … What we were able to do through that film credit is actually create a supply chain so that companies could grow and build and thrive by supplying films when they came to Georgia, so much so that we now have our own studios. … And so my initial response is to speak to what would be directly offered to Amazon, but what I would say writ large is that as the next governor, I would intend to (increase) our investment in transit, … education and … healthcare so that when Amazon comes, they know that the families that will be working for them will be able to live, work and play in the state of Georgia.
Q: On incentives in general, not even just for companies of Amazon size, what is your take on the role that the state should play attracting new businesses?
A: … My approach to tax incentives is very basic. Incentives should be designed to attract business, but to also sustain those businesses when they come. Otherwise, you’re just playing a waiting game for the next state to offer more incentives to take those jobs away. … Our responsibility to every company, whether they’re homegrown or that we’re attracting from other states, is to create an atmosphere where coming to Georgia means being able to stay in Georgia. That means investing in worker training, making certain that the cost of living is met by the salaries paid, making certain that we have quality schools, quality transportation (and) quality healthcare and doing so in a way that is sustainable over time. … What I would want the state to do is think even more broadly about how do we provide access to capital — either through direct tax incentives, through tax credits, through refundable credits or through partnerships with our financial institutions — to make certain that we are advancing access to capital to our small, homegrown businesses … so they have the capacity to grow as well.
Q: What is your take on everything that happened with the Legislature regarding the Delta tax issue and the NRA?
A: I strongly disagree with trying to stunt the First Amendment and the right to free speech. … When it comes to the issue of the Delta tax credit, the fact that the lieutenant governor would threaten one of our major corporations for their free exercise of their First Amendment right is deeply disturbing. … And unfortunately, we were pulled astray from the core message, which is how do we provide safety for our young people, into a false argument about tax policy. And fundamentally, this is a First Amendment issue and the right of those young people to speak, the right of the NRA to be angry if they want to be and the right of Delta to say that they were going to take an action that reflected their neutrality on this issue.
Q: What changes, if any, would you support to Georgia’s gun laws?
A: … I think we have to begin with universal background checks. We have to ban assault weapons and the accouterments that make those weapons so dangerous. We have to, I think, investigate extreme protective risk orders, which allow interventions when someone poses a danger to either themselves or to others. We should absolutely increase the monies we’re spending for domestic violence survivors because that is a dramatic portion of those who face harm. ... I would repeal campus carry. … Between the set of repeals and a set of affirmative bills, I think that we can make Georgia a safer place for everyone. … I do not oppose the ownership of weapons. I believe, as every responsible gun owner believes, that we have a superior obligation to make certain that those who have access to weapons are not predators and that they are equipped to actually handle that responsibility effectively.
Q: Do you support arming public school teachers to help with school safety?
A: No, I do not because teachers should be educating. They should not be a secondary police force. That is not their responsibility, and it is both dangerous to the children (and) also dangerous to the educator. And it is an abdication of the responsibility of the state and local governments to actually provide the kind of safety and security that our children should expect.
Q: Gov. Deal put together an education reform commission a couple years ago to take a look at K-12 funding and a potential (change to the funding) formula. Nothing seemed to come out as a result. Is that an issue you would take up as governor? And if so, how would you change the formula?
A: … Here’s what I believe: We know it is more expensive in the state of Georgia to educate children who are low income, … rural children, … children who speak English as a second language, … (and) children who have special needs. Therefore, any formula that we have has to increase the amount of investment we make in those categories … The reality is the QBE formula is from a bygone era where the composition of the state of Georgia was very different, and therefore, what the formula has to face is an updating that actually reflects the current composition of the educational system in the state of Georgia. …
Q: Cobb County is going to forgo $144.5 million for our 5 mill share for 2018, and it means high class sizes, lower teacher pay. … If you do revise the QBE, can you make sure that Cobb doesn’t lose that $144 million?
A: Cobb is a perfect example. The QBE formula was put in place when Cobb was largely more rural, where it was much less diverse and where its system had a different set of obligations. … But it was exactly that conversation — the fact that some communities will be asked to pay more and others will be asked to pay less — that led to the stalling and the paralysis around Gov. Deal’s multi-year evaluation of what we should do with the formula. And my mission is to say, look, we know what the basics are. Funding education is not a mystery. It is a set of choices. It’s a function of leadership, and we have to have leaders who are willing to have the very real conversations that education costs more for certain children and that the … return on investment lowers our public welfare costs, lowers our incarceration rates (and) lowers all of the social welfare programs that we have to put in place. …
Q: In the budget that was just passed by the Legislature, for the first time in years, education was fully funded up to the QBE level. Would you say that your plan would have the same amount of funding?
A: We would have to spend more. … I would argue that given how much money has been invested in education and given the results, we know we have to invest more. The issue then is how much more and how and in what ways are we going to do that. And I believe that it’s investing more into STEAM education. It’s investing in reducing class sizes. It’s investment in paraprofessionals, education professionals in the classroom. It’s increasing teacher salaries. … I want to be the governor who, over the next four years, makes the investments necessary so that we are reducing our long-term cost and we are increasing the long-term return on investment that we have from education. And that begins with revising the formula and putting more investment into education.
Q: Gov. Deal had proposed the Opportunity School District a few years ago, but voters rejected that. Then he got a more watered down version of it through the Legislature, called it the chief turnaround officer. Do you support the state intervening in chronically underperforming schools or should (that) be more up to the local authorities?
A: … I strongly oppose the Opportunity School District because it concentrated too much power in the hands of an unelected official who would be solely appointed by the governor. … The difference that I see between what OSD would have done and what happens through the school turnaround officer … is that it, for the first time, acknowledges those increased costs that I talked about. It is the first time we’ve seen legislation regarding education where as a prerequisite for any assignment of cost or blame, we have to actually investigate what’s happening with the children in those schools. … Number two, it puts educators at the table, and not just teachers, but it included school board officials (and) paraprofessionals. … Number three, it acknowledges that the low-performing schools that are struggling because of the economics are often going to need intense assistance, and the state does have a role to play in that. And the way the legislation is written, the state has to be in partnership with those local schools. …
Q: There are projections that our state could grow by 4 million people in 15 years — that’s the population of South Carolina — and that most of the growth is going to be in the metro area. What is your plan to manage such growth so that we’re not tripping over one another?
A: … A part of that is thinking about how we expand our energy grid so that we can actually absorb that population. … Georgia is uniquely positioned in the Deep South. We can do hydro, biomass, wind and solar (energy). … We have to have a regional transportation and transit conversation that has to be broader than the one we’ve had for the last 40 years … because the reality is not everyone who moves here is going to have a car or be willing or able to drive because part of the population that’s coming is going to be retirees. … We have to also increase our conversation and our conservation efforts when it comes to water. … And then finally and fundamentally, it’s about having the jobs necessary for companies to be able to hire this increasing workforce. … You can get 50,000 jobs from Amazon, but you can also get 5,000 small businesses to increase their workforces by 10 people each. That has a much broader impact because those community businesses often anchor communities in ways that large regional businesses do not. They are more likely to have stable workforces, and they’re more likely to generate additional jobs across those communities.
Q: What are your thoughts on the final version of that transit bill that came out of the General Assembly?
A: I’m still reading it. It was a long bill. Here’s the thing: The broad brushstrokes are right and I think are critical. And it did more than we have done in the 40 years since we first brought MARTA to Georgia. … What we have finally done, I think, with this bill is acknowledged that transit is more than an Atlanta issue. It is a regional issue. It is a jobs issue. But it’s also an affordability issue. You could have the best regional employers in the country or in the state, but if no one can get there because the cost of actually living where the jobs are is too high or because you cannot afford to own a vehicle, we have to do something different. …
Q: Putting the transit bill aside, what in terms of transit and transportation does metro Atlanta need to improve its traffic flow and efficiency?
A: I think part of Georgia’s challenge is that we, unlike many states, have actually commoditized transportation. … Moving goods and services through Georgia is part of our GDP because of (interstates) 85, 75, 20, 285 (and) access to 95. We have turned the state of Georgia into a transportation hub, and that is anchored by the Atlanta airport and the Savannah port. Because we’ve commoditized it, we have a different challenge than a place like California would or even North Carolina when it comes to our transportation infrastructure and our cost. … It is a statewide issue because one of the reasons they’re coming through Atlanta is they’re trying to get to other parts of Georgia, they’re trying to get to other parts of the South. … When we think about how much transit we need and whether managed lanes work, we have to go beyond the perimeter. … It’s thinking about truck lanes in certain parts of the state, if that makes sense. It’s having a conversation about increasing transportation and transit investment throughout the state of Georgia because transit is fundamentally designed to get people off the roads and that has to happen everywhere. …
Q: Is Georgia in need of religious freedom legislation? Gov. Deal vetoed it a couple of years ago.
A: We have a First Amendment that has worked very well. ... We have not only a constitutional protection, but we have legislative protections that have been put in place that I think more than adequately provide for religious freedom in the state of Georgia. What these bills have proposed, and I voted against or worked against every single one of them, they propose to legalize discrimination. And they can wear different faces each time they attempt it.
Q: Discrimination against whom?
A: Often it’s discrimination against LGBTQ community. However, the framing of some of these bills could actually also harm other religious faiths, including Muslim communities. And so my fundamental belief is that there is no additional protection needed for the protection of those who are of a specific faith, but that there is incredible harm embedded in the legislation that has been proposed, which is why I strongly opposed to every one of those bills.
Q: So the flip side of that: Does the state need some sort of legislation to protect the rights of the LGBTQ population?
A: Yes. The state of Georgia actually dramatically, desperately needs to expand its civil rights legislation. One of our secret shames, although it’s not as much of a secret, is that Georgia doesn’t have a civil rights law. We have essentially operated in many aspects in good faith, but I was very proud to co-sponsor with Chairman Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, a civil rights bill that would’ve provided accommodations. However, it did not go far enough and really should have included protections for the LGBTQ community because in the state of Georgia, you can be fired from your job for being a member of that community. And that is, in my mind, untenable for a state that seeks to be one of the leaders in the country.
Q: If you’re elected governor, would you support bringing casinos to the state of Georgia?
A: I support putting it on the ballot. I grew up on the Gulf of Mexico. I remember before casinos and after casinos. Casinos bring with them social problems and challenges, but the reality is we started that when we allowed for the lottery. … I think the conversation that we have to have is where and how much and the use of the revenue. I think ‘where’ should be left to public referendum. I think ‘how many’ should be very carefully studied based on what has happened in other communities. … There are areas of Georgia that would have a better benefit and where the actual utility of having a casino could boost the economy dramatically (compared to) other places. … For me, the use of the funds is very clear. The funds should be used to provide for need-based aid for college students, and it should be used for expansion and true universality of pre K. Those are two areas that we know need long-term, consistent, sustained funding. …
Q: If elected, will you pledge to never sign into law a tax increase of any kind?
A: No. I will not make that pledge. I believe that leadership requires making the best choices based on the economic situation at the time. … The reality is, anyone who pledges not to serve the state by making a decision about how much it will cost to meet the obligations of the state has not paid attention to the economics of America. In times of recession and times of catastrophe, we have to make choices. And so what I would pledge is this: I will always make the most responsible decision regarding our tax structure possible. Sometimes that will be reducing taxes on communities. Sometimes it will mean investing in the areas that we need to invest in, but it will always be based on what are the core obligations of the state, what are the needs of our communities and how do we make certain that we are making the most responsible decision possible. …
Q: According to the Georgia Department of Corrections, Georgia contracts out with two private prison companies. There’s about 8,000 people incarcerated across four facilities that they have. … If you’re elected governor, would you continue Georgia’s practice of contracting with private prisons?
A: I would not. I do not believe in the privatization of justice. And there is a profit motive behind private prisons that is anathema to the core of who we are as Americans. ... Most private prisons actually used the prisoner labor at fractional (costs). ... I have a very personal experience with this. My brother’s not in a private prison, but he is in a state prison. And prison labor is often dramatically cheaper than the open market. And private prisons benefit from that labor. They benefit from their contracts. … People who are in prison have committed crimes and should be held accountable. But that accountability does not diminish their humanity, and private prisons allows us to diminish their humanity by treating them as commodities instead of treating them as people. …
Q: There was a bill in the Legislature to change the way the state does elections so that there’s an auditable paper trail, but the bill failed to get out of the session. Where do you come down on that issue? Should there be auditable paper trails and did the bill do the right thing?
A: I think there should be paper trails that can be audited. … I think the broader issue is that Georgia has antiquated machines that are well beyond their use-by date (and) do not provide the sense of safety and security that is necessary for democracy to be effective. … I actually think the bill that failed had some flaws, and among those flaws was that it would allow the Secretary of State alone to vet vendors, and that should not happen. This is a responsibility that should have concomitant investment and voices from the state Legislature as well as the Secretary of State and the Attorney General and the governor’s office. And I think that a more comprehensive approach is necessary.
Q: Georgia has open records and open meetings laws that apply to counties, school districts and cities, but the General Assembly itself is exempted. If you’re elected governor, would you work to change that law to have the General Assembly come under that law?
A: I think that we have to expand the coverage for the General Assembly.
Q: What grade would you give Gov. Deal for his eight years in office?
A: On criminal justice reform, an A-plus. On willingness to fully engage the cross section of our state, B-minus, C-plus. On healthcare, immigration and guns, an F.
Q: Overall? Can we average it?
A: I would not do that because I think those issues matter. … I believe that the areas where he’s failed, the failures have been dramatic and, unfortunately, will have a long reach. And the places where he has been willing to be thoughtful and brave — and I give him credit for those places — he’s done extraordinary work and he has again put leadership ahead of politics and gotten good done.
Q: Politicians always like to tout their accomplishments, but what’s something that you’ve made a mistake on or were wrong about and what did you learn from it?
A: ... I am not the most social person, and I think that there are places where I did not engage enough with the camaraderie of the (House of Representatives). I’m focused so often on the delivery of results. … The Legislature is a body of relationships, and one thing I learned during my tenure is the importance of those relationships if you haven’t built them. That becomes incredibly necessary, and as I traveled the state, what I think about is I wish I had done this differently. I wish I’d been more engaged on the relationship side. ...
Editor’s note: Times-Journal newspapers invited gubernatorial candidates to the MDJ for interview sessions over the last month. The interviews for leading candidates were transcribed and edited to a Q&A format. Some candidates did not accept the invitation.