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Stacey Abrams: I'm running for governor and am $200,000 in debt

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on July 25.

Stacey Abrams is running for governor in Georgia. She would be the first black woman to be elected governor of a state in American history if she were to win Tuesday’s closely watched election in Georgia. But she faces some major roadblocks.

The office of governor was staunchly Democratic in Georgia until Sonny Perdue was elected in 2002. He was reelected in 2006 and was succeeded by another Republican, Gov. Nathan Deal, in 2010.

Abrams wrote an op-ed for Fortune in April, in which she argued her personal debt shouldn’t disqualify her from running for governor. She owes more than $227,000 in credit card debt, student loan debt and back taxes. She also owes $178,500 in real estate debt and $4,434 on a car loan (but since those are assets as well as debt, we haven’t included it in our breakdown of what she owes).

She isn’t alone. Millions of Americans are in debt. In fact, the total household debt in America is $13.2 trillion, according to the New York Fed, and balances are rising on most kinds of debt; credit cards were the only debt to see balances decline in the first quarter of 2018.

Higher profile politicians have struggled with debt, including former presidential hopeful Marco Rubio. When Rubio was first elected to the Florida legislature in 2000, he reported around $150,000 in student loan debt as well as $30,000 as assorted credit and retail debt, according to The New York Times.

IRS debt

Abrams owes back taxes in the amount of $40,201 for 2015 and $13,851 for 2016. In a Yahoo Finance exclusive interview, Abrams acknowledged she was supposed to pay quarterly taxes on self-employment income over the course of the year, but other priorities interfered.

“For a lot of folks who are doing quarterly taxes, there is a temptation — because it is cash that is sitting there — to spend it on the other insistent things in your life,” Abrams said. For her, that was helping to pay for her father’s cancer treatment.

Abrams served as a state legislator from 2007 to 2017, which is considered a part-time job with a salary of $17,342 per year, with a per diem of $173 as reimbursement for mileage and lodging when the legislature is in session. But Abrams runs other businesses, including a consulting firm. She is also a published author, having written books about her time as the Georgia state house minority leader as well as romance novels under a pseudonym. According to her personal finance disclosure, Abrams is owed a $150,000 advance for a book deal from Henry Holt & Co.

She said she spent the money that should have gone toward paying taxes on her family. “My family is best classified as working poor, and one reality for those of us who are the first generation to really make a good income is that you then become the money for everybody,” Abrams said.

Abrams isn’t the only one in her family to go into public service: Her sister is a U.S. district judge in Georgia. Abrams said she had never failed to report her taxes, saying she knew she could set up a payment plan. She is on one now for $1,000 a month.

Student loan debt

It’s no secret that student loan debt is crippling a generation, but Abrams isn’t actually part of the generation we widely consider the hardest hit by student loans. Abrams is a Gen-Xer, born in 1973. She owes $96,512 in student loan debt — nearly three times the national average.

“I attended Spelman College, the University of Texas at Austin, and Yale Law School — all of which were fairly aggressively expensive schools,” Abrams said.

She did receive scholarships and worked while in school, but the cost of “living, books, housing and other things” just added up. Abrams helped navigate the state’s HOPE scholarship through the recession and is pushing for debt-free college in Georgia.

“Any student who is willing to go to college and study and work should have a means to do that,” she said. “I actually want to start financial literacy in elementary school. You can do basic things like just learning how to save a few pennies, but also understanding how money works.”

Abrams said she didn’t fully understand how money worked when she started college, and that led to her incurring significant credit card debt.

Credit card debt

Abrams owes $77,522 in credit card debt, spread over nine accounts. That’s five times the national average household balance of $15,432.

“I did not understand that those magical slivers of plastic that I was getting in in college, a $100 purchase was going to cost me like $3,000 over the next seven years,” Abrams said. “And that if I didn’t pay the bill every month it was going on some report that was going to follow me even after I had a great job.”

Her family also uses her credit cards for their expenses, and Abrams said she uses credit cards to cover bills when “clients aren’t paying their bills in a timely fashion.”

There has been remarkably little negative campaigning against Abrams based on her debt, perhaps because the Republican nominee, Brian Kemp, was only chosen recently in a runoff election.

His financial disclosure form does not show student loan debt or credit card debt, but it does list a great deal of “notes payable to others,” including more than $1.2 million to various individuals. One of those notes was a debt to RLP Investments, LLC for $500,000. That investment firm sued Kemp in June for failing to repay the debt.

In his victory speech after winning the runoff election for the Republican nomination, he mimicked an advertisement from the Republican Governors Association.

“Stacey Abrams wants to raise your taxes – even though she doesn’t pay her own,” Kemp said to cheers. “I want to lower tax rates on Georgia families.”

Abrams hopes to improve financial literacy for families across Georgia, arguing her experience with debt makes her better equipped to fix a confusing system.

“That’s the kind of skill set you want: someone who can make choices when choices aren’t easy,” she said.

She wants to start teaching financial literacy as early as elementary school.

“There are some schools that do a great job with that,” Abrams said. “If you are in an affluent school district or middle class school district you probably are getting that, but if you’re in a working-class community, if you’re in a low-income school, you’re probably not getting that learning.”

Read more from Turner Cowles:

The lucrative life of a high-end auctioneer

How an NFL player planned his post-football finances

How Congress just made your taxes more complicated