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OZY and McClatchy are teaming up to deliver in-depth coverage of this year’s most pivotal political campaigns in the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections.
In her historic campaign to become the first female African-American governor in the United States, Stacey Abrams has captured the hearts of progressives who have long dreamed of turning the red clay of Georgia a liberal blue. But this spring, the Yale Law grad and entrepreneur had to confront what could be her Achilles’ heel: debt. Her financial disclosures showed more than $170,000 in credit card and student loan debt, and over $50,000 in deferred tax payments to the IRS, which she said she accrued while helping to support her parents and niece, when her father was undergoing cancer treatments.
“Debt is a millstone that weighs down more than three-quarters of Americans,” she wrote in an editorial for Fortune magazine, arguing that the debt she took on to help support her family humanized her and was, in part, emblematic of the disproportional debt African-American students carry. “It should not — and cannot — be a disqualification for ambition.”
Abrams was right that she isn’t alone. OZY analyzed the personal financial disclosure reports of 396 candidates who ran or are still running in the 56 most competitive congressional districts across the nation this election cycle, as determined by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Candidates are only required to report a range of what they owe — so exact figures are not available — but 62 percent of those congressional hopefuls, or 244 of the 396 candidates, had some liabilities, and at least 65 of them carried more than $50,000 in non-mortgage debt, holding on average:
- $13,189 to $32,708 on student loans
- $3,573 to $8,838 on credit cards
- $2,537 to $7,108 on cars, boats or planes
- $2,101 to $5,367 on personal loans
More first-time candidates, especially women and minorities, are running for office than ever before, buoyed by a resurgence in activism and political awareness since the 2016 presidential election. At the same time, Americans are more indebted than ever before – non-mortgage household debt is expected to surpass a record $4 trillion this year, according to Federal Reserve data analyzed by the financial website LendingTree in May. The two trends combined, debt experts say, means this crop of candidates likely owes more than any previous generation of would-be lawmakers. That reality is true for Democrats such as New Jersey’s Mikie Sherrill— who owes at least $45,000 on credit cards and $15,000 in personal loans — and Kansas candidate Sharice Davids, who holds at minimum $25,000 on credit cards and $100,000 on student debt. And it’s also true for Republicans, such as Tony Ghee, who lost his New Jersey primary earlier this year and ran with more than $75,000 in credit card debt and $100,000 in student loans.
To some of the candidates, Abrams’ forceful defense of her debt was inspiring, especially considering that more than half the members of Congress are millionaires. “I love the fact that she did that, and people rallied around her,” says Cori Bush, a Democratic congressional candidate in Missouri who took out $13,000 in student loans a decade ago but is now almost debt-free. “You’re fighting for people to not end up in that place. … It’s OK to look like the people you want to represent.” Abrams herself believes her experiences serve as an example — a positive one. “It is my hope that Georgians who have experienced financial hardship know that they do not need to be wealthy in order to enter public service,” Abrams, 44, told OZY in a statement.
But in many ways, the type of debt Abrams owes is different than that of her peers and constituents. Of the nearly 400 House candidates, only three owed back taxes — and none near the $54,000 Abrams owed. What’s more, Abrams has already donated $50,000 to her own campaign, opening her up to criticisms that she would rather fund her political ambitions than pay back the federal government (her campaign notes she is on a payment plan to pay back that debt). Fellow Democrats have accused her of mismanaging millions in donor dollars for her New Georgia Project, for which she took a $177,500 salary even as the group registered fewer than 100,000 new voters in 2014. Combined with her promise to expand Medicaid, Republicans are painting a picture of the Democratic nominee as a questionable steward for the state’s $25 billion budget, who will raise taxes while still owing them herself.
Her credit card debts are five times the national average; her student loans, three times. In a state that leans conservative, voters might judge her fiscal management harshly. Asks Ryan Mahoney, a spokesman for her Republican gubernatorial opponent, Brian Kemp: “How can you be the CEO of Georgia, one of the largest and most prosperous states in the country, if you can’t run your own personal finances?” But the Abrams campaign is hitting back in equal measure — with debts as their weapon again. “That multimillionaire Brian Kemp’s allies would launch disingenuous attacks while he’s still going to court to settle hundreds of thousands of unpaid debts that hurt farmers is rich,” says Priyanka Mantha, Abrams’ director of communications.
In early August, the Republican Governors Association launched a 30-second attack ad depicting Abrams hugging the Georgia Capitol’s gold dome while criticizing her IRS debt. “Guess every day is Christmas for Stacey Abrams,” a narrator pans.
Poor finances can be used as a cudgel against candidates of all stripes. During her failed U.S. Senate campaign in 2016, Bush remembers signing on to Twitter to find somebody had posted her credit report online. “The real report too, not just the one you get when you Google somebody,” says the St. Louis community activist, who lost her August primary. Darrell Rodriguez, who ran for Congress in Texas but dropped out early, listed a six-figure college loan debt that could be as high as a quarter-million dollars. “Young adults like me are saddled with student loan debt,” he wrote in his disclosure, adding that the issue was “a looming problem that needs to be dealt with now.”
Many candidates still in the running in 2018 are also saddled with debts. In those most competitive House races, multiple Democratic nominees endorsed by the major pro-choice bankroller Emily’s List have significant liabilities. That includes Lizzie Pannill Fletcher in Houston, with an auto loan of more than $30,000 and a personal loan over $100,000, Susie Lee in Nevada with over $25,000 in credit card debt and Lucy McBath in Georgia with more than $10,000 in credit card debt. None of those candidates commented on record, or agreed to clarify the exact amounts owed.
In her editorial, Abrams not only described her experience with debt, but argued it was a systemic issue for women, and particularly, women of color. She wrote that while the average U.S. household wealth was $81,000 in 2013, the real splits were by race: White families had $142,000, while Latinx families had $13,700 and Black families had only $11,000. She also highlighted the gender pay gap: Women make only 80 percent of what men do. “Systemic biases, legacy barriers, and current explosions of inequality conspire to undermine wealth generation among minorities,” Abrams wrote. That message resonates with Liliana Bakhtiari, a former Atlanta City Council candidate. “As a brown, queer woman, I’m never going to be able to make a mistake the way a White man can,” the Iranian-American woman says.
Bakhtiari applauds Abrams for having “humanized” her debt. “People in office very much perpetuate the culture of it being inaccessible for the average person. I come from a millennial generation where we make no money, we came into adulthood during a major recession, there is still a shortage of jobs, our student debts are through the roofs and the interest on our loans is ridiculous,” says Bakhtiari, who owes $9,000 in student loans. “This is a woman who is a leader and is doing it as a Black woman in the South. She is going to have to take larger risks than anyone can imagine.”
Although a majority of American adults owe some sort of debt, people aren’t always so forgiving to those whose financial laundry is aired publicly. Lizbeth Pratt, the CEO of Givling, a company that uses the money it makes off a trivia game to pay student loans off in a lottery, asked members early on to tell their debt stories. She remembers being shocked by the vitriol those members received in response. “People who don’t have debt have no sympathy for anyone with student loan debt,” says Pratt, whose company has a database of more than 125,000 borrowers. Even those who do have debt could “care less about feeling any sympathy,” she says. “It’s projecting: If you can attack somebody for your weakness, it makes you seem not so bad.” Polls show Americans view credit card debt even more harshly. “When you look at debt, there’s definitely a hierarchy in terms of what is considered acceptable,” says Miranda Marquit, a financial expert with Student Loan Hero.
The “money mistakes” Abrams writes about — particularly of going to college and utilizing credit cards as if they were “magical slivers of plastic” — are common, Pratt says; a result of what she calls predatory practices that target students. “The grand irony is that you have Donald Trump, who I believe declared bankruptcy three or four times as a business tool, and who for all intents and purposes is deeply in debt of hundreds of millions, but people don’t view that as a liability,” Pratt says (actually, Trump’s businesses have declared bankruptcy six times). Personal loans are often seen differently than business ones, even if legally they are hardly different, Pratt says: “When you bring it down to the individual, human nature is highly judgmental.”
How will voters judge history’s most indebted political class? Georgia may provide a clue, but even in Abrams’ home state, opinion is far from settled. “I’m more than likely voting for Abrams, but I am not thrilled with the debt,” says Andrew Brandt, an Atlanta lawyer who used to back Republicans but voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, adding that the credit card and IRS debt troubled him the most. It’s swing voters like him whom she will have to convince, and who remain the most hesitant to give a pass on the debt question. “As an African-American woman in the South, the cards will never be even. However, she is 20 years out of law school. It would be nice to see her have a little better grasp on her own debt,” he says.
Others, such as Emory University grad student Hannah Wilson, say it makes her relatable. “For someone seeking public office, the circumstances of the debts — and the candidate’s candor or obfuscation — matter a lot more than the number,” she says. ”Her circumstances are understandable, and her honesty is commendable. If anything, I like her more now.” Echoes Sarah Margaret Aumen, a Montessori teacher in Athens, Georgia, in her 20s: “In the world we live in, debt is unavoidable unless you come from a very privileged background.”
Some Republicans see it as a losing battle to critique Abrams’ money woes. Georgia state Sen. Josh McKoon, in a Facebook post, warned fellow conservatives to lay off it — saying the party had excused Republican candidates who “got behind the eight ball” while helping family members. “People already see us as the party of rich people. Why play into that stereotype by appearing disconnected from the plight of everyday folks?” Others aren’t so gun-shy. Karl Rove, the famed Republican adviser to George W. Bush, argues voters will forgive some debt but that the IRS payments will hurt her at the ballot box. Abrams, Rove says, “said she can sympathize with the problems of families. Not paying for your taxes — most people can’t get away with that.”
Regardless, Abrams certainly hasn’t shied from her most visible weakness. In a live Atlanta taping of the popular liberal podcast Pod Save America in June, Abrams deadpans to the crowd, unprompted: “You may have heard I have some debt,” she says, adding that she has made good money, and spent it on others. When a woman in the audience starts to cheer loudly, Abrams breaks off her sentence, lifts a fist and smiles: “Yes – yay, debt!”
This story was originally published on September 4, 2018 by OZY.