I saw Stacey Abrams speak for the first time in 2018. It was the first time I remember a politician, let alone a democratic one, visiting my hometown of Dalton, Georgia. It didn’t make logistical sense for liberal politicians to visit one of the most conservative places in the nation.
In my sophomore year of high school, standing in a crowded convention center with people I had known all my life, I listened to Abrams speak. She talked about expanding opportunities for immigration status as so many people in town were concerned about their loved ones being deported. She discussed gun control, being that a few months prior, there had been a shooting at my high school. She spoke about reforming jobs in a way that motivated those who had been stuck under the oppressive nature of capitalism and their jobs at the carpet mill.
I was shocked. Not because of the nature of what she was speaking about, as those were standard ideas of the Democratic party, but because of her speaking to us in Dalton. Upon her first bid for governor, Abrams broke norms by visiting all 159 counties in the state. She went to places where other politicians had not, like my community center. She mobilized voters and activists to an extent that has never been seen. In recent years, this has been referred to as “The Stacey Abrams Playbook.” The term has even seen recognition in a New York Times’ feature podcast on the candidate.
The next time she visited Dalton, in July of this year, Abrams did the same, but for a larger audience.
This part of North Georgia, which elected racist and antisemitic conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene to office twice, has been historically overlooked by Democrats looking to make statewide plays. On the surface, Dalton is knowable — predictable in its conservative nature. However, by avoiding Northwest Georgia, many politicians overlooked what Stacey Abrams knew to be true: that there’s more to the city than the wealthy, white few.
Dalton proudly boasts being the “Carpet Capital of the World,” as the city is the nation’s largest textile production base. Since the “Carpet Boom” of the ‘50s, Latine people have made up the threads of Dalton’s culture. In the last census, 48.5% of the city’s population identified as Hispanic or Latino.
Dalton has a significant undocumented population, and for those that can vote, there are many barriers. Early voting in Whitfield County does not occur on weekends, and polls close at 5 p.m. on weekdays. Many employers do not give time off for workers to go and vote, and even if they did, many would not have a way to get there. A large number of people do not have a car, and there is no public transit in the city. Ballot propositions are confusing, especially if English is not your first language. Only those who specifically request and follow a tedious process can secure an absentee ballot, and there is no voter guide in English, let alone in Spanish. Drop boxes have been moved off of the streets, inside an armed space in city hall. You have to pay for postage to mail your ballot in.
Due to this suppression, lower income people and people of color have not historically turned out to vote in massive swaths. Seventy percent of the vote went to Donald Trump in 2020.
This is where Democratic candidates have typically bowed out — but not Abrams. In visiting Dalton twice, she gave people resources they needed to get to the polls and told them that their voices mattered.
With her Fair Fight organization, more than one million people have been registered to vote in the state. She is slowly but surely building a coalition of young people and marginalized groups, and telling them that they have power to demand the changes they want to see in the world.
Comparing the 2022 election results to the cycle before Abrams ran, there was a 1.5% increase in Democratic voter turnout in Whitfield County (home to Dalton). While this turnout is still minimal, and ultimately was not enough for Abrams to claim victory on election night, it has power in its context.
In one of the most conservative pockets of the nation, community activism is rising. I’ve seen subtle changes in the political threads of the town following Abrams’ influence. So much has changed since 2016 when my classmates sold Trump merchandise out of their lockers in middle school, to 2020 when Dalton joined with the national Black Lives Matter movement in a passionate protest downtown.
I am not implying that the deep south has magically turned into a liberal paradise, but changes are being made. It is inspiring to reflect on this development, as someone who has been yearning for these changes throughout my life. Despite her loss, Stacey Abrams has shown people that someone in the political world is listening to them, and that they have power to demand the changes they want to see in society.