CHATSWORTH, Ga. — Stacey Abrams’s Republican opponent in the Georgia governor’s race is fond of calling her an “out-of-touch radical liberal.”
But when Ms. Abrams was beginning her long run as the minority leader in the State House of Representatives, Republicans who were getting to know her style told a different story: They saw a Democrat with a “balanced view on issues,” as the speaker of the House, David Ralston, put it at the time, and an “ability to reach across the aisle.”
The governor’s race in Georgia this year is one of the most closely watched in the country, in large part because of who Ms. Abrams is and what she represents. If she wins, she will be the first black female governor in the nation’s history, and she will have gotten there by running unapologetically as a liberal, with an embrace of gun control, gay rights and access to abortion.
In today’s polarized political climate, liberals have hailed her as a “progressive champion” possessing “superpowers” and “Black Girl Magic,” while Republicans have issued dire warnings about her “extreme agenda.”
In the six years when Ms. Abrams led the Democrats in the State House, though, she proved to be a much more complex political character than the portraits now painted by either her most outspoken adversaries or her most fervent fans.
Rising from obscurity in 2011 to helm a diminished and beleaguered caucus, Ms. Abrams, a Yale Law School graduate, showed a penchant both for standing on liberal principle and for negotiating with her opponents.
She charmed Republicans and earned their trust. She inspired fellow Democrats and helped them claw back some seats in the legislature. She also prompted grumbling from some Democrats that she could put pragmatism over principle.
The criticisms came over her positions on voting hours and banking regulations, and over the question of whether Confederate symbols should be removed from public places. And her decision in 2011 to work with Republicans on cuts to a wildly popularcollege scholarship program eventually became the focus of opponents’ attacks during this year’s Democratic primary.
Today, both the reality and the perception of her record have taken on new importance as she faces her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, the Georgia secretary of state. While Ms. Abrams has embraced liberal policy positions, she is also trying to persuade Georgia voters that she was a pragmatic legislative leader with a record of finding common ground with conservatives.
Campaigning recently at a recreation center in Murray County — a rural, mainly white bastion of Republicanism on the Tennessee border — she stood before TV news cameras, reminding people of her work helping to pass a bipartisan billion-dollar transportation bill, and her support of legislation that supports grandparents and other family members raising children.
“I know how to work across the aisle when we need to,” she said.
Ms. Abrams, 44, who favors the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare and the extension of state scholarships to the immigrants known as Dreamers, has given Republicans many opportunities to argue that she is too far left for a state like Georgia. Senator David Perdue recently called her “the most radical liberal.”
Supporters like Gerald Griggs, a vice president of the state N.A.A.C.P. chapter, reject such descriptions as inaccurate — and also hear in them a coded effort to scare off white voters.
“Definitely, it’s a dog whistle embedded,” he said.
Ms. Abrams was elected to the General Assembly in 2006, two years after Republicans had taken control of the Georgia House for the first time in more than a century. She was young, but not green. She had served as student president at Spelman College, Atlanta’s storied African-American women’s college, and kept her life ambitions, eventually including the goal of becoming president, listed in a spreadsheet. “The sheer boldness of my ambitions gnawed at me,” she recalled in her 2018 autobiography, “Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change.”
Style-wise, she was more of a listener than a glad-hander, more policy wonk than enforcer. She was a careful, prepared speaker with a bookish quality, a wry sense of humor and a tendency toward efficiency.
“She engendered a sense of loyalty in a lot of people that way,” said Brian Thomas, who was a member of the House Democratic leadership at the time. “A lot of people just respected the fact that she was just a lot smarter than some of us, and able to use that intellect in ways that were really effective.”
Ms. Abrams, through a campaign spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Her debut on the political scene had effectively come in 1992, when she emerged as a leading voice among black students. Atlanta, like other American cities, was racked by protests and riots after police officers in Los Angeles were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Eventually she found herself at a televised town-hall meeting with Maynard Jackson, the city’s first black mayor. As the cameras rolled, Ms. Abrams recalled in her book, she “excoriated his record and scoffed at his leadership.”
Mr. Jackson later co-opted his eloquent critic, giving her a job in the city’s office of youth services. She went on to earn a law degree and a master’s in public policy, and at the age of 29, to serve as deputy city attorney.
She made her bid for minority leader in November 2010. The Democrats had just lost more House seats in the Tea Party wave election, and were watching bitterly as a number of their white lawmakers jumped ship to the Republicans.
The caucus, which had become majority black and held fewer than 70 of the 180 seats in the House, turned to a young backbencher. “I took the lead of a broken party,” Ms. Abrams wrote, “knowing that we would wander in the political wilderness for at least a decade.”
She had already established herself as one of the smartest members of the Legislature. Her background in tax law helped her analyze the deep structure of complex bills, landing her on the powerful Ways and Means Committee as a freshman. Even Republicans saw her talent: In 2011, State Representative Allen Peake called her “brilliant.”
“People who underestimate her risk complete embarrassment,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time.
Her first big test as minority leader came in the crisis over the state’s Hope Scholarship program, arguably the Georgia Democrats’ proudest achievement of the last quarter-century. Begun in 1993 under Gov. Zell Miller and financed with state lottery revenue, the generous program signaled that Georgia saw investment in higher education as a catalyst for progress.
But from the beginning, the program has also raised complicated questions about how to allocate government aid to students — by need or by merit. Initially, the Hope Scholarship paid full in-state college tuition and fees for any student in the state who had at least a B average and family income of less than $66,000 a year; the income cap was removed in 1995.
By 2011, Hope had helped send more than a million Georgians to college, and roughly the same number to preschool under a separate arm of the program.
But it was also going broke, and fixing it became a priority for Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, after his election in November 2010.
The Republican solution was to retain the original scholarship with a reduced award amount, and then to create a second scholarship that would offer a smaller group of students a full ride: those with a high school G.P.A. of 3.7 or better and at least a 1200 score on the SAT test.
Vincent Fort, a liberal from Atlanta who was then in the State Senate, and several other Democratic lawmakers passionately opposed the plan, and pushed to return to the original idea of a means test based on family income.
“I’m a college teacher,” Mr. Fort said. “I’d been in classrooms, and I knew that SATs were not a predictor of academic success. And I knew that it would not only exclude students of color, but rural white kids as well.”
Some Democrats wanted Ms. Abrams to work with Republicans to solve the problem, she wrote in her book, while others wanted “to force the G.O.P. to take responsibility” for cuts to the scholarship.
She chose to negotiate.
In the book, she said that she “secured” the system that preserved a partial scholarship for B students, pushed for a new low-interest college loan program, and was able to preserve the full pre-K program.
“I angered a number of Democrats,” she wrote. “I understood, but I disagreed.”
There were moments in her tenure when she could sway public policy by dint of sheer intellect. During her first year, she analyzed a Republican-backed flat-tax plan and showed that it would amount to a tax increase — not a break — for the middle class. Even some Republicans bailed.
Representative David Dreyer, a Democrat who entered the Legislature in 2017, said that Ms. Abrams was a master of the art of the possible — even when her party’s limited power often left her with few possibilities.
“You get small bites accomplished legislatively, while you’re also having a conversation with the larger issues,” he said. “You offer a vision.”
The moments in which she disappointed some Democrats have been chronicled in recent months by The Intercept.
Though Ms. Abrams has championed greater voter access, and founded a nonprofit group that, according to her campaign, has submitted voter registrations for 200,000 people, she also supported a bill in 2015 that was later criticized for setting district boundaries disadvantageous to minority voters. Her campaign said in a statement that Republicans “misled her” about the matter.
In 2011, she voted for a bill that reduced early voting periods in the state, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-leaning research institute at New York University. The bill was part of what the Brennan Center called “a massive crackdown on voting rights” nationwide. Ms. Abrams’s campaign said she had been concerned about how much it cost local governments to keep the polls open so long.
Another stinging criticism came last year from Representative LaDawn Jones, a Democrat and African-American. On Aug. 13, the day after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Ms. Jones wrote in a blog post that Ms. Abrams had declined to support a bill in 2015 that would have banned Confederate symbols from state property like Stone Mountain, the site of a giant relief carving of Confederate figures.
“I wrongly presumed that the party of freedom would jump at the opportunity to make a stand in that historic moment,” Ms. Jones wrote. “Abrams quickly and definitively said no.”
Ms. Abrams’s campaign declined to comment about Ms. Jones’s assertion.
Two days after the critical blog post, Ms. Abrams, in one of the most attention-grabbing announcements of her nascent bid for governor, called for the carving at Stone Mountain to be removed.
Since Ms. Abrams won her bruising primary fight in May, Democratic lawmakers have been rallying to her side, their complaints melting away in the face of a chance to make history, and in widespread faith in her ability to lead them.
“She wasn’t just a musician, she was a conductor, and she was able to conduct an orchestra with many different instruments,” said Joe Heckstall, a Democrat who had his disagreements with Ms. Abrams when he served in the House. “Some of those play by themselves, and out of tune, but she was able to harmonize. There were some things where we didn’t agree with her. But she was able to keep us focused.”
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