Voting rights activist and progressive organizer Stacey Abrams speaks during a Sept. 22, 2021, appearance at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. (Photo by JT Cestkowski)
Voting rights activist and progressive organizer Stacey Abrams speaks during a Sept. 22, 2021, appearance at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. (Photo by JT Cestkowski)

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and voting rights activist visits Wisconsin on a speaking tour.

Democratic political organizer and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams spoke to an audience of several hundred inside Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater Wednesday evening, discussing her Wisconsin roots and vision for the future of progressive organizing.

The 2020 election cycle saw Democrats take both the presidency and Senate, as well as retain a slim majority in the House of Representatives. Abrams’ vision for continuing to build on those successes in 2022 revolves around one central tenet: persistence.

A record number of Americans flocked to the polls in last year’s election that seemed largely to be a referendum on former President Donald Trump. The result, a victory for now-President Joe Biden, was widely celebrated by Democrats. Padding Biden’s victory were Georgia’s 16 Electoral College votes, which hadn’t gone to a Democrat since 1996. Abrams went on to help Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock win US Senate seats a few months later, giving Democrats control of the chamber. 

Wisconsin’s political status as a swing state will again have it in the crosshairs of both parties come next year’s fall election as Republicans hope to unseat Gov. Tony Evers and Democrats hope to oust GOP Sen. Ron Johnson from his seat and expand their Senate majority.

Milwaukee will be particularly important in those battles. Lack of turnout among the city’s Black population during the 2016 election is one of many factors that some have said cost Hillary Clinton the presidency in 2016. Clinton also failed to visit Wisconsin during the general election.

Democrats seem eager to avoid that mistake in the future, having poured immense resources into the state. The Democratic National Committee attempted to host its 2020 convention in Milwaukee until the coronavirus pandemic ultimately forced the party to hold a virtual gathering.

Visits by high-profile progressives like Abrams have indicated a commitment to keep fighting for the Badger State.

Only prolonged social movements, Abrams argued, stand the test of time. 

RELATED: Wisconsin Voting Rights Groups Ask Biden, Congress to Revive For the People Act

She used the example of health insurance reform. Democrats had worked for decades to pass something on that front before President Barack Obama finally signed the Affordable Care Act into law. According to Abrams, it was the inertia behind the policy that helped it weather multiple attempts at repeal by Republicans.

“Voting is not magic,” she said, “it’s medicine.” She continued the metaphor by reminding those in the audience that when people stop taking medicine, the disease can come back.

Abrams cautioned that while Trump may be out of office, he was—in her mind—a symptom of a larger problem that needs to be defeated at the polls with consistent turnout from progressives like in 2018 and 2020.

Attempts to curtail voting rights in states around the country have given the organizer cause for concern. Each time elected officials restrict access to the polls, “we squander what we could be,” Abrams said.

She diagnosed many of the fears on the right as based on America’s changing demographics. Abrams urged progressives to lean into the nation’s changing identity and to push back on conservative framing of issues.

She castigated President Ronald Reagan for having weakened civic faith. “Government is people” working together to achieve something larger than themselves, she said.

Abrams was joined on stage by Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes who acted as interviewer and moderator for the night. Barnes is also running to unseat Johnson. 

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, left, moderated a discussion with voting rights activist and progressive organizer Stacey Abrams during an event at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. (Photo by JT Cestkowski)

Abrams referenced her personal Wisconsin connection, having been born in Madison while her mother attended and worked at UW-Madison. According to Abrams, her mother made less than a janitor due to her race and gender.

Abrams said money being tight left an impact on her growing up, due in large part to how her parents used their lack of means as a lesson. “No matter how little we have, there is someone with less,” she quoted her mother and father as having told her. “Your job is to serve that person.”

While Abrams and her family eventually moved to Gulfport, Mississippi, the drumbeat on the importance of service from her parents never stopped.

Her decision to run for governor of Georgia in 2018—the first Black woman to do so—was based on her desire to provide good governance, she said. Abrams ultimately lost the race to Brian Kemp, a Republican who the year before the election used his position as secretary of state to purge hundreds of thousands of names from the state’s voter rolls.

“Being first ain’t fun,” Abrams said. “Sometimes you are the first to lose.” She went on to say that she is not focused on achieving “The First” title while running for certain offices, and is instead committed to making sure she is not the last.

That desire is reflected in her work: a commitment to training people of color in political organizing. Abrams said a community’s support of a political goal is predicated on members of that community helping lead  the movement.