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As Obama Prepares To Bid Farewell, Democrats Are Left With A Thin Bench


As Democrats bid farewell to the Obama era, they've got a big problem on their hands, and that's the next generation of political leaders. Under Obama, Democrats lost congressional seats, governorships and more than 900 seats in state legislatures.

Now, there are a couple of explanations. First, Democratic-leaning voters just didn't turn out in midterm elections the way conservatives did, and that meant later, Republicans would get the upper hand when it came to redistricting. And all of this meant potentially losing future stars for the Democratic Party.

So earlier today I spoke with a Democrat who helps recruit new talent, Stacey Abrams. She's the House minority leader in the Georgia State Assembly, the first black woman to have that job. And she told me that the party has failed to communicate to voters basically the importance of state and local races.

STACEY ABRAMS: Voters know what the president does for a living. Voters know what the mayor does - mayor picks up their trash. They know what the governor does. They rarely understand what a state legislator does.

I will give credit to the Tea Party. They were very effective at connecting the dots and saying, don't vote for this person; vote for a person who has this brand because the Tea Party is against your taxes going up or, you know, someone touching your Medicare. Regardless of the legitimacy of the question, they were able to frame an issue and tie it to a job. Democrats have to be willing to do the same thing.

CORNISH: But if you look at two, say, progressive movements that have risen for Democrats in the last eight years, one would be Occupy Wall Street - right? - and one would be Black Lives Matter. Neither of those movements is all that excited about being part of the establishment. So how do you - right? - try and get people excited about getting into the pipeline to begin with?

ABRAMS: As leader, part of my focus is to make sure we're talking about issues and not people. If you're running a candidate as the solution, you're not going to get people to turn out. The extent to which Democrats can articulate and lift up policies rather than personality - that's how we build the bench from the bottom up.

CORNISH: But is recruiting hard? I mean do people even want to be a politician?

ABRAMS: It is hard, but it's not impossible. I'm the daughter of ministers, and I've watched my parents get people to come to church. You're trying to convince both their hearts and their minds to behave in a way that you want. To get people to run for office, you have to make sure they understand what their voice can mean and how it can change.

CORNISH: If you remain in a situation where you keep losing the statehouses - right? - the legislative branches, how does that hurt the ability for any Democratic president going forward?

ABRAMS: A refusal to acknowledge the role of voter engagement in off-year elections is going to cripple state legislative opportunities. It's going to lead to more of the damaging and dangerous policies that we've seen promulgated across 30 states in the last few years - the restrictions on abortion, the attempt to drug test women and men on welfare. My mission is to make certain that the top of the ticket understands how important the middle of the ticket is.

CORNISH: Are you surprised to be here? Like, when President Obama came into office, I don't know. You're African-American. Were you, like, yay, boundary is broken; it will open the floodgates of new leaders - and then not so much.

ABRAMS: I am Southern at my core, which means I'm incredibly patient about politics. President Obama's election was a legacy moment, and it did open up opportunity. It helped me to encourage more people to run for office because they saw a possibility. Hillary Clinton's election is going to do the same. It's easier to recruit women when they see that women have a path to the very top. But the hard work of recruitment, the hard work of governing, the hard work of convincing voters that politics matters - that's a constant responsibility.

CORNISH: Well, Stacey Abrams, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ABRAMS: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

CORNISH: That was Georgia State Representative Stacey Abrams. She also sits on the board of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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