Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum Talk Political Future, Far-Reaching Effects of State Laws

Joe Skipper/Getty Images; Danny Matson/Getty Images for SXSW

Amid speculation, which they've repeatedly denied, that they're planning to run for president, the former Georgia and Florida gubernatorial candidates spoke at a Bloomberg Equality Summit panel about preparing their home states to vote in the 2020 election.

After narrowly losing two high-profile 2018 gubernatorial races in Georgia and Florida, respectively, political and non-profit leader Stacey Abrams and former Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum have been repeatedly asked whether they’d join what is shaping up to be one of the most crowded and diverse presidential primary races in U.S. history.

Just as repeatedly, Abrams and Gillum have denied having plans to run and doubled-down on their decisions to forgo national campaigns when asked again on Wednesday during the Bloomberg Equality Summit, a daylong conference that features various industry leaders in conversation about the future and stakes of equality.

Referencing Abrams, Gillum joked that “unless somebody I know who inspires me on a regular basis decides to do something else,” he’d be focusing all his energy on getting Florida voters registered and turning the state blue in 2020. Meanwhile, a number of people in the crowd seemed just as eager for an Abrams senate run as a campaign for the White House.

“I am so honored and gratified with the work that we've done,” Abrams said. “But you shouldn't run for an office just because an office is there. You shouldn't run for an office as a stepping stone to another office. You should run when you are called to be the person to make that change.”

Having been a representative in the Georgia state legislature for 11 years, Abrams said that she understands both the capacity and restrictions of political office as well as the time demands of accepting a Senate seat, governorship or the presidency.

“I think I’m smart enough to do all these jobs, but the question is: am I the right person? Because the minute I step forward, or I win, I'm telling someone else they shouldn't be that person,” Abrams said. “My responsibility is to make a choice that is grounded in my values and the ethics of doing the right thing and making a choice that I can win. It's not about the poll numbers.”

During the rest of the 30-minute talk, which served as Gillum and Abrams' first joint panel appearance together since last November, the former candidates explained how they're trying to protect voting rights in their respective states.

Gillum lost to Republican Ron DeSantis by a margin of around 32,000 votes after a high-profile recount.

“I honestly believe in a state like Florida where every election seems to come down to a 1 percent difference — in my case, we're down to a 0.4 percent difference between the winner and the loser — every single vote matters," Gillum said.

Abrams' race involved a refrain from conceding after the author and non-profit CEO lost her race against Republican Brian Kemp by around 55,000 votes. During the panel, the voting rights advocate outlined the four federal lawsuits she’s filed since the election and discussed the work she's doing with her non-profits New Georgia Project and Fair Fight Action as well as her collaboration with Rep. Marcia P. Fudge and Rep. Terri Sewell to restore Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Abrams also underscored how conversations over a presidential run ignore the power of local and state leaders like governors. She used former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s role in enacting Stand Your Ground laws and the impact of former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson on “the erosion of welfare reform,” as she put it, as examples of the far-reaching effects of governorships.

“Jim Crow never had a federal law. It's all state,” Abrams said. “Governors are in court, and they're often discounted and devalued because they are not seen as the architects of social policy that they are.”

By panel's end, both had thoroughly argued in favor of staying away from the presidential trail and explained how their work in their respective states was pivotal to whatever ends up happening with the Democratic nomination.

“If we can change the electorate in Florida, we can create the kind of [national] electorate that we deserve and not just the one that we have,” Gillum told the crowd.