Stacey Abrams, Brian Kemp clash in first debate

NEW: Trump tweets about Georgia governor’s race a day after the debate
10/23/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams and Republican candidate Brian Kemp greet each other before a live taping of the 2018 Gubernatorial debate for the Atlanta Press Club at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studio in Atlanta, Tuesday, October 23, 2018.  (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Combined ShapeCaption
10/23/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams and Republican candidate Brian Kemp greet each other before a live taping of the 2018 Gubernatorial debate for the Atlanta Press Club at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studio in Atlanta, Tuesday, October 23, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The fire alarm was a surprise, but otherwise Tuesday’s debate between Georgia gubernatorial candidates involved familiar themes in the fiercely contested race.

Democrat Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp (who were joined by Libertarian Ted Metz) clashed early and often during the event, part of the Atlanta Press Club’s Loudermilk Young Debate Series. Facing off in their first televised matchup, they sparred over healthcare, immigration, voting rights and their own personal finances.

MORE: The AJC's profile on Stacey Abrams

A day after the debate, President Donald Trump weighed in:

Abrams hit Kemp repeatedly over voting, an issue that’s attracted national attention.

“The right to vote is a right. My father was arrested helping people to register,” she said.

UPDATE: Where Abrams, Kemp stand on jet-fuel tax issue

A federal lawsuit filed by civil rights groups says Georgia's "exact match" law that has led to thousands of stalled voter registrations is discriminatory because it disproportionately affects minority groups. Kemp calls the accusations a concocted crisis meant to distract from what he calls Abrams' "extreme" agenda. The law says voter registration information must match driver's licenses, state ID cards or Social Security records.

“No one is being denied the right to vote,” said Kemp, who says voter rolls have grown by 1 million during his time as secretary of state. “It’s never been easier to register to vote.”

The two — who polls show are locked in a virtual dead heat — also crossed verbal swords over finances.

Abrams owes more than $50,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and about $170,000 more in credit card and student loan debt, according to personal financial disclosure documents released earlier this year.

“I have paid my taxes, unlike Ms. Abrams, when they were due,” Kemp said.

Abrams addressed the matter earlier this year in a Forbes magazine essay titled “My $200,000 Debt Should Not Disqualify Me For Governor of Georgia.” She says she incurred debt while caring for her parents, who suffered great losses due to Hurricane Katrina, then battled serious illness.

“You can defer tax payments,” she said. “You cannot defer cancer treatment.”

Besides, she says it's hypocritical for Kemp to ding her over financial issues when he has his own. Kemp was an early investor in Hart AgStrong, a grain processor struggling to repay thousands of farmers. The AJC reviewed more than 2,000 pages of Department of Agriculture records on AgStrong and found nothing suggesting Kemp was directly involved in its questionable business dealings, but some happened while he served on its board and while he negotiated to extend a loan that's now the subject of a bitterly contested lawsuit. Kemp left the company's board more than a year ago and says he isn't aware of its recent activities.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Minutes into the event at Georgia Public Broadcasting in Midtown, a fire alarm put a brief halt to the proceedings. That and Libertarian Ted Metz’ comments, many of them centered around the wonders of industrial hemp, offered a bit of spontaneity.

“Everything can be done with hemp,” he said.

Mostly, Abrams and Kemp played their greatest hits.

Abrams, a Spelman College, University of Texas and Yale Law School graduate who was born in Madison, Wisc. and grew up in Mississippi, said Medicaid expansion would be her Day One priority as governor. It would save rural communities and increase jobs in areas where hospitals are closing, she says.

“I know how to work across the aisle. Rural Georgia has been losing hospitals at an alarming rate,” Abrams said. The former Georgia House minority leader, entrepreneur and tax attorney has penned eight romance suspense novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery.

Kemp, a fourth-generation University of Georgia graduate who grew up in Athens, says expanding what he calls a “broken” system” isn’t the answer. Furthermore, he claims Abrams actually seeks a complete “government takeover” of healthcare, in the form of single-payer.

“Ms. Abrams’ plan will make your current plan illegal. She’s going to raise your taxes to pay for it,” he said. “This should scare you to death.”

Kemp and his wife, Marty, have been married 24 years and have three daughters. A former Georgia legislator with a background in construction, he has been Georgia’s secretary of state since 2010.

A decades-old issue involving the Georgia state flag barely registered as a debate topic.

On Monday, Abrams acknowledged that as a college student, she took part in a flag-burning protest. The state flag at the time, 1992, still featured the 1956 design, which included a Confederate emblem. The first question for Abrams regarded the protest, but it didn’t surface again after her brief response saying she had been disturbed at the Confederate image and “took an action of peaceful protest.”

Abrams, who has since been widely lauded for the action, noted during the debate that Kemp, a Georgia legislator at the time, voted to remove the Confederate emblem.

So did U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, who joined Kemp’s recent tour of South and Middle Georgia. Then a 31-year-old State House member, Scott told Gov. Roy Barnes at the time, “I'm with you when the time's right to change the flag."

Elected at 26, Scott was the only Republican in the House to co-sponsor the bill that removed the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia flag. “It was the right thing to do," Scott told the AJC at the time.

Abrams has in the past called for the removal of Confederate generals from Stone Mountain, but that didn’t come up on Tuesday.

Both camps have made use of recordings captured at the other’s campaign events recently.

At a recent event with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Abrams said the "blue wave" she predicts is on the way to change Georgia "is comprised of those who are documented and undocumented." 

A subsequent Kemp ad claims that means Abrams wants people in the country illegally to be able to vote and receive government benefits and that she aims to “change Georgia into a sanctuary state.”

During Tuesday’s event both candidates were asked if DACA recipients - people who were brought into the country illegally as children - should be able to attend Georgia colleges with in-state tuition or the HOPE scholarship. Kemp is a resounding no on this topic.

“We need to continue to fight for our own people,” he said.

Abrams says “every Georgian who graduates from our high schools” should be able to attend college as in-state students and receive the HOPE if academically eligible.

A second debate held by WSB-TV is scheduled for Nov. 4.

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