(Bloomberg) — Stacey Abrams is known for upending Georgia’s Republican-dominated politics, her voting-rights activism and even for pseudonymously writing romance novels. On the campaign trail for governor, the Democrat is emphasizing a different role: businesswoman.
The former Georgia House minority leader has been touting her credentials as a serial entrepreneur who understands the needs of small businesses. It was the subject of one of her first ads. It featured prominently in an economic speech she gave earlier this month. She regaled a crowd about it at a recent gathering in an Atlanta suburb, saying a fintech company she co-founded in 2010 should be a model for helping small businesses handle cash flow.
As Abrams, 48, tries to unseat incumbent Republican Brian Kemp — himself a wealthy businessman — her entrepreneurial interests are taking a growing role both for her campaign and among conservatives seeking to undermine her. Some writers in the right-wing media have taken aim at her ballooning wealth, as well as the fintech firm, NOW Corp.
Abrams, who’s also a tax attorney, has seen her net worth soar from about $109,000 in 2018, when she first ran against Kemp for governor, to $3.2 million last year, according to financial disclosures. Most of the increase appears to spring from her growing fame, and its effect on her ability to sell books and command speaking fees.
But she also has reported ownership stakes of at least $5,000 in eight companies besides NOW Corp. They include a consulting firm and a company that works with the state’s brisk movie production industry, among others.
Abrams’s emphasis on her business experience makes sense as a way to win over the narrow sliver of the Georgia electorate that hasn’t already chosen sides for the race, said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Atlanta’s Emory University who has followed both of the candidate’s gubernatorial bids.
“She is trying to cultivate a broad base of appeal and showing she has been in position to show leadership and management skills,” Gillespie said. “Many people assume all she did was serve as a state legislator.”
It also counters Kemp, 58, who consistently portrays himself as a small businessman first and a politician second. According to his financial disclosures, the governor’s business interests largely involve real estate. He listed a net worth of $8.6 million. Kemp currently leads Abrams in polling by about four percentage points, according to a Real Clear Politics average.
The Abrams campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment on the candidate’s finances and the Republican attacks, although it did provide information on NOW Corp.’s business.
Reversal of Fortune
Abrams’s finances were also a focus of the 2018 campaign. When she first ran for governor, she owed the IRS $54,000 for back taxes from 2015 and 2016, which she said was tied to the cost of taking care of a sick parent. That led to Republican attacks questioning her ability to manage the state.
It almost certainly hurt her in the election, Gillespie said. Abrams lost that race by 1.4 percentage points, or 54,000 votes — the closest any Democrat has come to winning the Georgia governorship in more than 20 years.
“There may have been some people who preferred that she clean up her own house before managing the state,” she said. Abrams’s financial reversal, as well as her focus on her business expertise in this race, “takes that story away.”
Gillespie predicts that Republicans will now weaponize Abrams’s improved finances as a sign that she’s a wealthy national figure out of touch with the average Georgia voter. Already, her rising fortunes have been jabbed by Fox News, the right-wing Free Beacon and a group called StopStacey.org, which put out a press release about Abrams’s new $1 million house. Some of Abrams’s supporters have noted the irony of a party that champions free enterprise and business success criticizing a Black woman for her financial achievements.
Abrams’s rising wealth owes a lot to her presence in the national spotlight. Her publishing income, for instance, climbed from $173,000 in 2018 to more than $2 million in 2021. While she previously wrote romance novels under a pen name, Selena Montgomery, Abrams wrote a mystery, a children’s book, a political tome and a motivational book under her own name as her fame grew.
Abrams’s “proven track-record publishing across multiple genres and her rising profile on the national stage has done nothing but grow her audience,” said Kristen McLean, an analyst with market-research firm NPD BookScan.
Her speaking fee income went from $254,192 in 2019 to $1.1 million in 2021. Abrams also earned between $200,000 and $250,000 a year in the three years starting in 2019 from The Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank in New York. The money was for her role as a founder and director of the Southern Economic Advancement Project, created by Abrams in 2019, which coordinates with organizations doing economic policy work in the South.
But it’s NOW Corp., branded as NOWAccount, that Abrams mentions most on the campaign trail as evidence she understands small business. The company is similar to factoring firms that loan money against unpaid invoices so companies get paid faster, with differences that it says make accessing cash easier and cheaper for small businesses. It received almost $40 million in new financing from investors last year.
Abrams co-founded NOW with business partner Lara Hodgson in 2010 after an earlier venture failed because of invoices that took too long to get paid. According to research firm Growjo, the closely held company today employs 70 people and has an estimated annual revenue of $8.2 million.
Abrams, who last earned income — $279.940 — from NOW Corp. in 2018, is an advisory member of its board and has a less than 15% stake in the company, according to her campaign.
NOWaccount clients sell some or all their unpaid invoices to the company and pay a one-time service fee of 3% to 5% based on the length of the payback terms with customers. They get 95% to 97% of what is owed compared to the 80% or less that factoring companies often pay, said Sheila Jordan, an entrepreneur and factoring veteran who has used NOWaccount for eight years.
NOW’s key innovation is to evaluate clients based less on the business’s credit worthiness, and instead on that of the customers who owe them. The invoices it buys are for entities known to pay, including governments and some of Georgia’s top companies.
“Everyone I know in small business has been burnt so many times,” said Jordan, whose Atlanta-based software company, Knowledge Architects, sells training videos. “With NOWAccount, they use my client’s credit and they take the onus off of me.”
NOW got a boost from the state in its early years, when Abrams was the minority leader of the Georgia House. Using a provision in the 2012 Jobs Act, the state Department of Community Affairs under former Republican Governor Nathan Deal offered credit guarantees that helped convince a consortium of credit unions to participate with Now.
The guarantees became a minor issue in 2018, when a primary opponent said Abrams should have told Democrats she was doing business with a Republican administration. Peter Schweizer, a senior writer for the right-wing outlet Breitbart News, dug it up again this year, saying that the media had focused too much on her book sales and speaking fees as the source of Abrams’s wealth — even as both are outlined on her financial disclosures — and not enough on NOW Corp. and its boost from taxpayers.
Abrams had “leveraged her public position to make millions of dollars for a company she partially owned,” Schweizer wrote on the website of the Government Accountability Institute. Since NOW Corp. is closely held, its finances aren’t knowable, and Schweizer included no evidence of how Abrams would’ve received special treatment from a Republican administration.
Justin Vining, a spokesman for the community affairs department, said the state contracts that allowed the credit guarantees ended in May 2017. Overall, NOWAccount enrolled 394 loans and received $10.3 million in guarantees from the program, which allowed the company to extend $83 million in funding to customers, he said in an email.
Politically, it’s to the GOP’s advantage to at least hint that there is something suspicious about getting richer while also practicing politics, even if there’s little to back it up, said Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia. But the switch between targeting Abrams for her debts to attacking her for doing well is striking, he said.
“She’s not making the argument, the Republican one, that ‘I know how to run a state because I have run a company,’” Bullock said. “She is saying that she doesn’t want to be seen as just a politician, but as someone with real world-experience.”
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