In Stacey Abrams, HIV Advocates Could Finally Have an Ally in Georgia's Governor's Mansion

Stacey Abrams
Stacey Abrams addresses the Barbara Jordan Forum in 2012
Kerri Battles [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Over the past year and a half, the state of Georgia has repeatedly found itself in the unfamiliar position of being the object of national liberal ambition and attention. In fall 2016, during a time that seems forever and a day ago both chronologically and politically, the pundit class was vigorously debating not whether Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, but whether she would win it by a large enough margin to notch a victory in typically dirt-red Georgia along the way. Then, in 2017, a center-left millennial Democrat by the name of Jon Ossoff found himself bearing hopes of the anti-Trump resistance -- along with about $30 million in campaign contributions -- on his way to narrowly losing the special election to fill a vacated House seat in Georgia's 6th district.

This year, a pitched primary battle between two young, female candidates for a space atop the state's Democratic gubernatorial ticket has already garnered interest from the national media, and it should be on the radar of HIV advocates across the country as well. Normally, a state governor's race isn't the sort of thing that HIV advocates would or should be paying much attention to, but Georgia is not an ordinary state, and this race has the potential to reshape the realm of what is politically possible in the South.

The current frontrunner in the Georgia Democratic gubernatorial primary is Stacey Abrams, a 44-year-old who, despite her youth, has already served 11 years in the Georgia General Assembly and is quickly making a name for herself as one of the more promising, up-and-coming, progressive politicians in the country. In 2010, Abrams became the first woman to serve as the leader of either major political party in the General Assembly and, should Abrams win Tuesday's Democratic primary and then pull out a victory in the general election this November, she would be first black female governor in the country's history.

As one might expect, Abrams is not your father's Southern Democrat. Her stances on issues ranging from LGBTQ rights and health care to abortion and the criminal justice system look less like the platform of a blue dog trying to make it in a traditionally Republican state and more like a genuinely progressive woman who believes the best way to combat deeply harmful conservative policies is not with appeasement but with conviction. Her campaign is built on a bedrock of principled, yet pragmatic, progressivism that is representative of the new class of Democratic political hopefuls that has emerged in recent years. Medicaid expansion, the decriminalization of poverty, automatic voter registration, universal pre-kindergarten, and fervent protection of a woman's right to choose are just a few of the issues that set her campaign apart from that of your usual Democratic candidate for statewide office in Georgia.

On HIV, Abrams has spoken out on the need to treat the HIV epidemic in the state "as the crisis that it is" by committing the resources needed to provide quality, affordable health care for all Georgians living with or affected by HIV. And, perhaps just as important as her call for robust HIV funding, Abrams has also acknowledged the importance of changing the toxic atmosphere that often characterizes debate around HIV in the state, noting that it will take an affirmative and open dialogue about HIV from government officials and the general public to effectively address Georgia's HIV epidemic. And, make no mistake about it, Georgia is currently in the midst of an epidemic unlike that faced elsewhere in the U.S.

In 2016, Georgia earned the dubious distinction of having the most new HIV diagnoses of any U.S. state. At 31.8 new diagnoses per 100,000 residents, the HIV rate in the Peach State was more than 2.5 times the national average and was indicative of the geographic and demographic changes to the makeup of the HIV epidemic in the U.S. In Georgia, the burden of the HIV epidemic is overwhelmingly carried on the shoulders of black residents, who represented 71% of new diagnoses in 2016 despite making up just 32% of the state's population. At the same time, Georgia's new HIV diagnoses are predominantly occurring among men who have sex with men, who represent an estimated 66% of overall diagnoses.

Abrams has also shown sustained support for the LGBTQ community in Georgia during her time in the political arena. This willingness to stand up for the rights of LGBTQ Georgians was evident as early as 2006, when Abrams openly supported same-sex marriage at a time when Democratic candidates in far more liberal states were still waffling on the issue. Since then, Abrams has fought against a slew of disingenuous "religious freedom" bills in the state legislature that were aimed at curtailing the rights of LGBTQ Georgians, and she has sponsored legislation that would prohibit workplace discrimination against LGBTQ government employees in the state.

This commitment to securing rights for LGBTQ Georgians has led Abrams to secure endorsements from both the Georgia Stonewall Democrats and Georgia Equality. In a statement accompanying Georgia Equality's endorsement, executive director Jeff Graham said that Abrams was "exceptionally strong on LGBTQ issues" and lauded her history of actively supporting LGBTQ candidates and working to construct a more progressive and inclusive Georgia. Abrams has also received endorsements from a veritable who's who of progressive organizations, including Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, EMILY's List, and MoveOn.org.

It is worth noting that Stacey Abrams opponent in Tuesday's Democratic primary, Stacey Evans, has a solid record on LGBTQ rights as well, and has similar stances on a number of issues, although her public statements on HIV are a bit sparser. The biggest difference between Abrams and Evans cannot be identified as clearly from the issues pages of their respective websites as it can be from their rhetoric and overall campaign strategies. Evans, who is white, has been using the traditional Democratic playbook that says the path to electoral victory lies in winning the votes of disaffected, formerly Democratic whites -- while counting on black Democrats to do the heavy lifting with less fanfare.

Abrams' electoral strategy centers on the formation of a broad, multiracial voter base that courts progressives who don't always vote, rather than independents and former Democrats who do. It seems as if the bulk of both local and national advocacy groups have chosen the grassroots, diversity-affirming approach of Abrams over Evans' "common-sense" independent-chasing strategy. We'll see which of them the Democratic electorate chooses tomorrow.