A biting Abrams-Evans exchange over HOPE, state contracts

Stacey Evans and Stacey Abrams are Democratic candidates for governor.

Stacey Evans and Stacey Abrams are Democratic candidates for governor.

The fight over the HOPE scholarship has been one of the deepest undercurrents of the Democratic race for governor. And in a recent forum, it was in the middle of the sharpest clash yet between former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans.

The exchange began with a familiar divide: Abrams said she struck a deal with ascendant Republicans in 2011 to slash the scholarship’s awards to stave off deeper cuts, while Evans said Democrats were betrayed.

But the back-and-forth at the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys event, which you can find near the 1:15:00 mark, quickly took a different turn. 

It started when Abrams pivoted from an unrelated question to tackle the HOPE debate, saying Evans “has consistently mischaracterized” what happened in 2011. Abrams told the audience her work at the negotiating table prevented Republicans from instituting an SAT requirement for scholarship recipients and helped save more benefits for the pre-kindergarten program.

Said Abrams:

"This is about hard choices. Here's the reality: Yes, 40,000 people couldn't go to technical college. We fixed that problem and we've continued to try to fix it. But here's what else happened: Half a million four-year-olds have gone to pre-K since that day, and have had a full day of pre-K. Because four-year-olds don't get a do-over. And 100,000 this year alone have the HOPE scholarship they would not have had the standardized test requirement been implemented. And so I'm not walking away from what I did on HOPE, I'm standing here telling you we need a governor who will do that on HOPE. ... You need a leader who can work with everyone to get the best we can and keep fighting."

The moderator tried to pivot to another question, but Evans quickly returned to the HOPE debate. She said emails released by Abrams that show the two Democrats worked closely together in the negotiations don't ever mention the SAT threat.

Said Evans:

"I remember the bargaining chips that were brought to the table ... I was there. I remember what Rep. Abrams told us she got for those negotiations. It wasn't taking care to make sure there wasn't an across-the-board SAT score. She's released a couple hundred pages worth of emails that talk about the discussions around HOPE and there's not one place in there where she told the caucus I saved us from an across-the-board SAT cut. You won't find it there because it did not happen."

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Evans said she "wracked her brain" for reasons why Abrams allied with Republicans at the time, and that she now has a possible answer: A recent report that Abrams had a minority stake in a financial services company called NOWaccount that contracted with the state through two non-profit corporations.

“It breaks my heart,” she said, adding: “It’s a tragedy and I’m committed to my core to righting that wrong for kids all across the state.”

Now it was Abrams’ turn to respond. She opened with a lament:

"There's an old playbook in Democratic politics in Georgia. it begins with accusations of corruption. You then add whisper campaigns that raise specters of things that aren't quite provable, but no one is going to ask the question so it just settles into truth. Then you add a little patina of grievance and concern." 

She then said more “seasoned members” of the Democratic party sided with her in that 2011 vote because they “knew that the only answer was to go to the table and get good things done” or risk harsher repercussions from the GOP.

As for NOWaccount, Abrams said she got a verbal opinion from the state Attorney General that her ownership was not a deterrent to the program’s involvement with state contracts. And she said she “didn’t receive a single dollar of taxpayer funding” from NOWaccount.

“I don’t have to apologize for what I’ve done because I think about who I’m serving every single day,” she said. “And I have the receipts to prove it.”

Evans retorted by telling the audience other veteran Democrats also opposed Abrams’ HOPE deal. And she took a parting shot at her opponent in her closing remarks.

“I’m not against compromise. You’ve got to get compromise to get things done,” she said. “But you’ve got to be willing to stand on principle.”