Democrats Abrams and Evans spar in televised debate on HOPE scholarship, political endorsements

The Democratic candidates for Georgia governor spoke about guns, healthcare, economics, and education Tuesday night during the Atlanta Press Club debate
Georgia Democtratic Governor Stacey Abrams Stacey Evans Debate
Stacey Abrams (left) and Stacey Evans before Tuesday’s debate

Photograph by Sean Keenan

Pundits aplenty have called it “the tale of two Staceys.” Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, both former Democratic state representatives for Georgia, are vying for the state’s top job. Should one claim the gig, she’d be Georgia’s first-ever female governor (and Abrams would be the nation’s first black female governor). The May 22 primary elections are now just six days away.

On Tuesday night, the two progressive candidates, flanked in the gubernatorial race by seven male Republican hopefuls, faced off in an Atlanta Press Club debate at Georgia Public Broadcasting’s studio in Home Park. Both wearing cobalt blue dresses, the candidates hashed out policy plans—and, of course, qualms with their opponent’s plans—for the likes of gun control, education, economics, and healthcare. Abrams has been leading Evans in recent polls, although last night’s back-and-forth could help introduce the latter to more voters and potentially close that gap.

On many fronts, the two candidates stand in lockstep. On others, such as the past and future of the Georgia lottery-funded HOPE scholarship program, Evans and Abrams, butt heads. Evans, who grew up in a poor family in Ringgold, Georgia, says she couldn’t have accomplished so much were it not for the HOPE scholarship that helped her attend the University of Georgia.

Discussing the program Tuesday, Evans lamented that her state House colleague in 2011 supported legislation that effectively “gutted” the lottery-funded system that sends high schoolers with good grades to college sans tuition fees. Abrams resented that notion, retorting that “the scholarship is alive and well . . . it is a falsehood to say otherwise,” and that Evans is merely trying to put undue worries in parents’ heads. Nevertheless, a centerpiece of Evans’s campaign is rebuilding HOPE to be more inclusive.

Abrams, the former House minority leader, also wagged a finger at Evans’s support of Governor Nathan Deal’s “Opportunity School District” plan, which would have yielded the state control of chronically suffering public schools. Even Evans agrees endorsing OSD was a bad move. Still, said Abrams, “I understand and appreciate that she now stands on the side of public education, but I never wavered.”

Also on the topic of schools—but straying into the realm of gun-control debates—both women want the controversial “campus carry” law, which allows licensed gun owners to tote firearms on campus, scrapped from Georgia code.

Whichever woman scores the primary win next week will likely be considered the underdog of the November general election. Abrams prides herself on staving off a Republican supermajority in Georgia’s state House, but Georgia hasn’t had a Democratic governor since Roy Barnes vacated the post in 2003 to make room for Sonny Perdue. But some once-red districts in metro Atlanta turned blue in the 2016 presidential election, and the region is becoming more diverse, which could bode well for Democrats.

Abrams and Evans are staunchly anti-Trump, and they both said Tuesday that as governor, they’d be voices of resistance to the president’s administration. Asked by debate moderators how they’d have reacted to Trump’s polarizing past actions—if they were in Deal’s shoes—Abrams said she’d have shot down the president’s ask for National Guardsman to head to the country’s Southern border. She even added a dig at Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, considered the GOP gubernatorial frontrunner, saying, “That’s a wrong-headed use of our National Guard, and I think it’s a demonization of the people who live in our state.”

Curiously, neither Abrams nor Evans evoked the president’s name during her mention of him. “The man in the White House has upset a lot of [people] in this country,” said Evans. “He has worked to divide us when there is much more that unites us.” Abrams, deriding the Trump’s proposed ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries, said, “I fought when the Muslim ban came down from the occupant in the White House.”

Both bent on establishing themselves as the ideal progressive for Georgia, Evans queried Abrams about why she didn’t make an official endorsement of Keisha Lance Bottoms’s mayoral bid. “As a Democrat, I absolutely believe in supporting candidates, but I also recognize that there’s politics involved in politics,” said Abrams, adding that Bottoms’s camp offered a “tentative endorsement of Evans” during their discussions. Abrams decided she’d support Bottoms, but wouldn’t throw her full-throated backing behind her.

“I have invested more money as the Democratic leader in Georgia in hiring and electing Democrats than anyone else, and I stand proudly by the record of flipping six Republican seats back to Democratic seats,” Abrams said. Evans was not impressed. “The fact is that true progressives in Atlanta, and all across the state of Georgia, rallied behind Ms. Bottoms to get her the narrow victory, and she was the only self-declared Democrat in the race,” Evans said, later adding, “It’s important that we [progressives] stand together at all times, not just when it’s convenient or politically expedient for us.”

The one-hour event, however, wasn’t spent entirely on trading barbs. Both Democrats said they want to see major Medicaid expansion, a plan which, they believe, could quell many of the other problems Georgians face. They also agreed that Georgia should fight to earn Amazon’s second headquarters, although they said the benefits reaped by the state should outweigh the incentives offered.

There was also a mere moment when Abrams seemed to offer Evans something of an olive branch—albeit a short one—during a portion of the debate where the candidates got to ask their own questions: “In what has been an intense campaign, the benefit of what I’ve seen this year is that we have two women who are running for governor in the first time in Georgia’s history. What would you say to young girls watching this has been the best part of being able to share this opportunity?”

Responded Evans: “While I’m sure neither one of us endeavors simply to be the first female governor—we endeavor [instead] to be the best and a good governor—it is very exciting to think about the example we’re able to provide for little girls and boys all over the state that women can rise and lead the state of Georgia. That’s quite exciting. And I think it’s also good for little boys and girls to see—and all Georgians to see— that two women can be strong, can be dedicated to running a good campaign, and can stand firm on their principles and draw contrast in this race between issues and policies that voters need to understand. It’s not just the men; it’s the women.”

Atlanta Press Club’s all-male Republican debate will be televised on Thursday at 7 p.m. on GPB.

Learn more about all of the candidates running in the May 22 primary here.

Watch the full Democratic debate on GPB