She could be the first black, female governor. ‘I’m Georgia-grown but Mississippi-raised.’

Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, Stacey Abrams, unveils her “Jobs for Georgia” plan during a town hall meeting at the Community Church of God in Macon.
Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, Stacey Abrams, unveils her “Jobs for Georgia” plan during a town hall meeting at the Community Church of God in Macon. Clay Teague

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams says she likes to tell people that she’s Georgia-grown but Mississippi-raised.

Abrams returned to her state of birth Friday and regaled attendees of the Congressional Black Caucus Institute’s annual policy conference in Tunica with stories of her upbringing in Gulfport and Mississippi’s Gulf Coast region, using the vignettes to explain why she’s vying to become the nation’s first African American woman governor.

“I’m not running for me,” Abrams told a conference luncheon Friday. “I’m running for my family, I’m running for my community, I’m running for the South. And when we win the South, we win America.”

The daughter of United Methodist ministers who struggled to make ends meet, Abrams recounted visits to Hattiesburg — where her parents grew up — that always included a stop to visit a woman named “Miss Gert.”

Abrams said she and her siblings didn’t know why they always made the stop until their mother, the Rev. Carolyn Abrams, explained that “Miss Gert” encouraged and helped her to return to school after she dropped out in the third grade.

Abrams said her mother went on to become the valedictorian of her high school and pursued higher education at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, and Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

“I tell this story of ‘Miss Gert’ because of what this organization is here for, what we’re here for,” said Abrams, whose family moved to Atlanta from Mississippi in 1989. “In this room are the ‘Miss Gerts’ of Mississippi, and Georgia, and Tennessee, and Texas, and California. You’re ‘Miss Gerts’ because you see the potential that so often that our people do not see in themselves. You see beyond the moment to the possibility of what can be.”

“Being the ‘Miss Gerts’ of America means we have to see beyond the difficulty to the opportunity, and we have to do the work,” she said.

Abrams spoke generally about her campaign without mentioning Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, her Republican rival for the governor’s mansion.

The contest between Abrams and Kemp is a marquee battle of the political bases and is shaping into one of the most-watched races in the country with the candidates offering sharp contrasts between liberal and conservative agendas on issues from immigration to abortion to gun control and health care.

Abrams did take a not-so-veiled jab at Vice President Mike Pence and Republicans who oppose expanding Medicaid.

She noted that Pence, who endorsed Kemp, expanded the program in Indiana when he was governor. “Mike Pence expanded Medicaid in Indiana. (Gov.) Jerry Brown expanded Medicaid in California,” she said. “If Mike Pence and Jerry Brown agree on anything, it must be the right thing to do.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., a Congressional Black Caucus member, said he invited Abrams, a former Georgia House minority leader, to Tunica because of her Mississippi roots and her potential history-making run.

“On election night, when she’s victorious, we’ll claim her and we’ll say ‘We won,’” Thompson said.

Thompson said Abrams’ candidacy, along with former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy’s Democratic bid to fill Thad Cochran’s Senate seat in November, could potentially change the 2020 electoral map in the South if they win.

“It shows that the South, grudgingly, is changing,” Thompson said. “We think that inviting Stacey to speak to a group like this is an opportunity for people to see something that they haven’t seen in their lifetime: An African American female with a serious chance of winning.”

Espy, who attended Friday’s luncheon, said he’s impressed with Abrams.

“It’s what Martin Luther King said — he dreamed of a day when people would give credence to less about race and more about the content of someone’s character,” Espy said. “Looking at Stacey Abrams and myself, I see that quote come alive.”