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These Bay Area activists helped Stacey Abrams win Georgia’s Democratic primary

San Francisco Chronicle

By Joe Garofoli

There’s a major Bay Area connection behind the success of Stacey Abrams, who won the Democratic primary for governor in Georgia this week and would be the first African American woman to lead a state in the nation’s history if she prevails in November.

Long before liberal pundits and MSNBC jumped on Abrams’ bandwagon, she was getting strategic help and money from a small crew of Bay Area political operatives and wealthy donors. She’s about to get $10 million more for the general election from that group, headed by San Franciscans Steve Phillips and his wife, Susan Sandler.

To them, Abrams represents what the Democratic Party should be doing to win back red states like Georgia as a way to take control of Congress and the presidency.

The plan: Forget chasing working-class white voters who backed Donald Trump in 2016. Instead, appeal to a coalition that includes people of color, young voters and progressive whites.

Or, as Abrams said on a 2017 episode of my “It’s All Political” podcast: Democrats need to spend less time convincing “Republicans to be Democrats instead of getting Democrats to be Democrats.”

“This is a seminal moment,” said Phillips, a former San Francisco school board member and author of “Brown is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority.” “That’s why we’re so heavily involved. We see winning 2020 in winning 2018. This is the down payment.”

Abrams won Tuesday’s Democratic primary, with 76 percent of the vote, over Stacey Evans, a wealthy former state legislator who invested $2 million of her own money and followed the traditional path of trying to appeal to moderate whites.

Abrams’ strategy won’t change in the general election, Phillips said. The key is turning out the potential voters they know — not convincing the ones they don’t.

To win in November, Phillips says Abrams must increase turnout among nonwhites by 230,000 — about the margin by which Georgia Democrats have lost statewide races to Republicans in recent years. There are 1.2 million eligible nonwhites who aren’t registered to vote in the state, Phillips said. His organization, PowerPAC Georgia, plans to spend $10 million in the general election to move them.

It won’t be easy. Georgia hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1998. While its demographics are changing — the state is poised to become majority-minority in 2025 — it is still a red state, where President Trump beat Hillary Clinton by five points in 2016.

To aid Abrams in the primary, Phillips raised $1.5 million from Bay Area donors including his wife, daughter of billionaire Golden West savings and loan founders Herb and Marion Sandler; Atherton’s Liz Simons (daughter of hedge fund billionaire James Simons); and Oakland attorney Quinn Delaneyand her real estate developer husband, Wayne Jordan.

That money helped Abrams match her wealthier opponent’s TV ad spending. Much of it was used in areas outside Atlanta where Democrats have run especially poorly because they’ve been unable to turn out African American and other nonwhite voters in large numbers. PowerPAC’s strategy will be the same in November.

Four years ago, former President Jimmy Carter’s grandson, Jason Carter, fell in the governor’s race in Georgia to GOP incumbent Nathan Deal by eight points “because he lost by 300,000 votes in the small towns,” said Andy Wong, PowerPAC’s chief political strategist and executive director, who has worked with Phillips on campaigns for 30 years. “Our goal is to cut that differential to 100,000 votes.”

“In many of those towns,” Phillips said, “people of color are so beaten down, they didn’t turn out. And there was no infrastructure there to connect with them.”

That’s the gap that Phillips and Wong are trying to bridge.

The pair have a history of being the political equivalent of early angel investors for African American candidates. In 2007, they supported then-presidential candidate Barack Obama by spending $10 million across 14 states. They were also early backers of Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris’ first statewide run in 2010 for California attorney general, and Democrat Cory Booker’s winning U.S. Senate run in New Jersey in 2013.

They see Abrams, daughter of Methodist ministers and a graduate of Yale Law School, as next in line.

“I always thought she was one of the most sophisticated and strategic people I’ve met in national politics,” Phillips said. “It’s the level of data and analysis around where the votes are, where the trends are. She is rooted in numbers and data — and she has a real gift on how to build coalitions.”

Wong said the strategy could work in other Republican states in the South such as North Carolina and Alabama.

“This,” Wong said, “is definitely replicable.”

Phillips asked an important question: Will the Democratic Party listen — and change?

Olivia Parker