If Democrat Stacey Abrams wins Georgia’s gubernatorial election and becomes the first black woman to run a state government, it will be in part thanks to people like Caty Cowsert. The 25-year-old art school grad and queer woman works as a server at a popular Atlanta restaurant but hopes to one day pay the bills as a professional tattoo artist.
What sets Cowsert apart from other Atlanta-area liberals is that she’s a member of one of the most powerful conservative families in Georgia. Born and raised in Athens, she’s the daughter of Georgia Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert and the niece of the Trump-or-die Republican secretary of state running for governor, Brian Kemp.
Cowsert’s story is one of many involving young people breaking from their more conservative elders—a theme that seems to have been amplified in the politically divisive Donald Trump era. Moving to Atlanta from Athens after college, Cowsert told me, was a breath of fresh air for her, though she still keeps her beliefs at bay during family get-togethers.
Last Christmas, she said, “I hoped I could say, ‘Ha! I told you guys Trump wasn’t going to win.’ But it obviously didn’t go that way. I started counting the amount of times I heard ‘Trump’ at the dinner table, but then I just had to tune it out.”
Cowsert learned how polarizing politics could be in middle school, when she traveled with her father on the campaign trail, knocking on doors to woo voters. One day, a man answered the doorbell and told her father, “Fuck off and go to hell.”
Cowsert ran back to their car, awestruck and emotional. “I was weeping about the fact that this said could hate my father without even knowing him, especially with me under his arm,” she said. The man later apologized, but Cowsert had caught a glimpse of what politics could do to a person’s sense of etiquette.
After a semester at Belmont University, in Nashville, she returned to Athens and came out to her parents as gay, feeling liberated and determined to “never be that token queer kid in campaign photos.” Still, being the only open liberal in Kemp’s extended family—her two brothers lean right—has been, at times, uncomfortable and trying. Cowsert told me she isn’t very close with her uncle, but she still spends almost every major holiday with her parents, “Uncle Brian,” who married her mother’s sister, and his kin.
“There’s family behind politics, but politics is not always about supporting your family,” Cowsert said. “And sometimes, your family doesn’t support you, but you know they love you. You just have to find the politician that supports you.”
Her uncle’s campaign showcases the difference between public and private personas. In Kemp’s ads, he’s a confrontational, in-your-face personality: One shows him pointing a double-barrel shotgun at a young man who wants to date his daughter; another features explosions, guns, his truck, and a promise to “round up criminal illegals and bring them home myself.” But he’s not the same person at home. “He’s soft-spoken and reserved,” Cowsert told me. When she saw his ads, she told me, she thought, “‘This is not Uncle Brian… I really thought it was a joke, like someone had dubbed his voice over things.” She chalks his behavior up as an appeal to Trump’s voter base—a large, powerful body in ultra-red Georgia.
Once the absurd Kemp ads began airing, Cowsert took a closer look at her uncle’s platform. “The fact that he’s essentially running as Trump,” she said, was what got her interested in his politics. “I don’t want to live in state where Trump is governor, too.”
Kemp does own guns, a chainsaw, and a truck, Cowsert told me; he’s also avid overseer of the family farm in Athens. (He married into the family that owns it.) But though another ad has his wife saying she told him he was “too honest for politics” when he decided to run for governor, Kemp’s political career stretches back into the early 2000s, when he ran for the same state senate seat Cowsert’s father now holds.
In other races around the country, family members of candidates have appeared in campaign ads to slam their relatives, but Cowsert isn’t involved at that level. (She is not in touch with Abrams’s campaign, though she met her once at a book signing.) Nevertheless, Kemp’s peculiar ads, coupled with the fact that Trump endorsed him, sparked Cowsert’s serious skepticism with her uncle’s politics, and led to tension between her and her Aunt Marty, Kemp’s wife.
Cowsert changed her name on social media after a reporter prodded her for an interview some years ago, and she isn’t connected with her family online, so she felt safe making some pro-Abrams pronouncements on Facebook in July. “I can’t wait until she’s our governor,” one of Cowsert’s posts read. “Georgia needs more compassionate and intelligent politicians,” said another.
Marty Kemp, after learning of the posts, sent a text to Cowsert to say that she and the family have always supported “whatever path you’ve chosen in life”—Cowsert feels this is a reference to her sexuality and political leanings—and request they “respect each other during this political journey,” rather than incite discourse about the gubernatorial race.
Cowsert feels she’s owed an apology , but her aunt hasn’t sent her any follow-up messages. In a statement from Kemp’s campaign, the secretary of state told me, “We love, respect, and support Caty. Families don’t always agree on everything—especially politics—and that’s OK. Who she backs for governor does not change how we feel about her.”
But the differences between her and her family aren’t normally so stark. When she joins them for Thanksgiving or Christmas, she’s usually ready to set ideological differences aside. (She told me she’ll likely skip Thanksgiving if Kemp wins and holds it at the governor’s mansion.) There are subtler pressures, however: Some of Cowsert’s family have given her grief in the past for having tattoos, urging her to cover them up during gatherings. She doesn’t have the look of someone who is part of a conservative political family. She has cropped, bleached-blonde hair and wouldn’t be caught dead in stale politico garb like a skirt suit.
Nevertheless, she said, her father, Bill, is “as cool a dad as you can ask for.” When she’s in Athens, they debate politics at the dinner table, and she even said she’s swayed the senator’s opinion on policy in the past. Take, for example, last year’s “campus carry” legislation, which enabled licensed firearm owners to tote guns on public college campuses in Georgia. Cowsert badgered her father about the legislation, which she found dangerous and unsettling. “Imagine me, as a queer woman, debating whether to speak my mind about policy when sitting next to a frat boy with a Glock on his hip,” she told me. “I’d probably stay silent.”
After voicing her discontent with the proposal, she said, her father, who had voted in favor of the bill during the General Assembly, opted to vote against it in 2017. (The bill passed anyway.)
Cowsert now hopes her proximity to Brian Kemp will help lend some insight to the candidate’s off-air persona, as well as present Abrams as the shining star here to save Georgia from its long-lasting Republican rule. (The last Democratic Georgia governor was Roy Barnes, who finished his term in 2003.) She hopes that by speaking out, she’ll inspire uninvolved or unlikely voters to educate themselves and mobilize, even if it means going against the family grain.
“[Kemp] has never voted for LGBT rights or any sort of equality matters that would make me want to vote for him, whereas Stacey has voted for those policies for more than a decade, and she knows minorities, and she knows equality and has a different standpoint that I can back,” Cowsert told me. “And I can understand that, as a representative who understands being a minority or being discriminated against, she’s going to vote in my favor.”
Cowsert doesn’t have any plans to work directly for the Abrams campaign or actively lobby against her uncle. Right now, she wants her expressive artwork—the creativity she hopes will carry her as a tattoo artist—to speak her politics for her. And she intends to march whenever the opportunity arises.
Asked if she’d ever weigh her own bid for elected office, Cowsert said she’s not sure. “I don’t see it, but I wouldn’t put it passed me,” she said. “I come from a family of politicians, so, in my mind, one of us is bound to be a politician. Do I see it as me? Maybe.”
Sean Keenan, an Atlanta-based freelance journalist, has reported on politics, real estate, social issues, and crime for myriad publications, including Atlanta Magazine, Curbed Atlanta, and the New York Times, among other outlets.