Democratic candidates for governor debate HOPE changes

Democratic candidates for governor Stacey Abrams, left, and Stacey Evans during the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Channel 2 Action News debate, Sunday, May 20, 2018, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Democratic candidates for governor Stacey Abrams, left, and Stacey Evans during the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Channel 2 Action News debate, Sunday, May 20, 2018, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

The two Democrats vying to make history as Georgia’s first female governor tangled over their roles in a 2011 deal to overhaul the HOPE scholarship in a televised debate Sunday, each framing herself as an unapologetic advocate for young people seeking educational opportunities.

Stacey Evans and Stacey Abrams also extensively litigated the other’s record in the state Legislature, including a tussle over early voting hours. Each framed herself as an unapologetic progressive who also wouldn’t hesitate to work with Republicans on certain issues.

“I’ll work with anyone to get good done, but I will always stand in the way of doing the wrong thing,” said Abrams, the former minority leader in the Georgia House.

Stacey Adams and Stacey Evans spar about the HOPE scholarship.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News debate was the final head-to-head matchup between the former colleagues ahead of the May 22 primary election.

As was the case throughout much of the campaign, the biggest sparks centered on Georgia’s lottery-funded HOPE scholarship.

Evans, a former state legislator, credits the scholarship for helping lift her out of poverty — she attended the University of Georgia through HOPE, later going onto law school. She said Sunday that an agreement Abrams cut with Republicans during the recession that scaled back some of the program’s funding was “disastrous,” particularly for African American students.

“That was a blow to the economy of this state to take so many that were on their way to get the skills and the training they needed to get into the workforce and take them out of the system,” she said.

Abrams vehemently denied Evans’ assessment. She said she did what she could to help prevent deeper cuts to the program, extracting concessions from the GOP on pre-K and other programs, and that Evans backed much of her work on the issue until near the end of the Legislative debate.

“As leader I fought to save HOPE, to make certain that 100 percent of students with a ‘B’ average have access to HOPE,” Abrams said. “I credit Stacey Evans for doing good work on HOPE but she has to admit she didn’t do it alone.”

Both Evans and Abrams have tacked to the left in order to win over black voters – the party's largest voting bloc – and the substantial numbers of undecided voters, but both insisted that their ideology would not get in the way of working with Republicans.

Abrams has attracted the lion's share of national money and attention, while Evans, trailing in the polls, has focused her efforts on winning over prominent state and local officials. A large chunk of likely voters remains undecided. One recent poll indicated that roughly one-third of Democratic primary voters have yet to pick a candidate.

During Sunday’s debate, both candidates pledged to expand Medicaid under Obamacare and expressed openness toward allowing casino gambling in Georgia in order to fund need-based student aid.

Each also vowed to push for new gun control policies less than two days after a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, left nearly a dozen students dead and another 10 injured, a major departure from the stances adopted by the five Republican gubernatorial candidates who also debated Sunday.

“We have to be certain that we put in place common sense gun laws, background checks, extreme risk protective orders and the things that are necessary to make certain families are taken care of and protected,” said Abrams.

Evans advocated for many of the same changes, along with banning bump stocks and high-capacity magazines. She mentioned her 6-year-old daughter, whose school now stages active shooter drills.

“To have her explain this to me broke my heart,” she said. “I don’t want my daughter to have to go through this. I don’t want any of Georgia’s children to go through this.”

Besides the HOPE scholarship, perhaps the biggest difference between Evans and Abrams has been over campaign strategy.

Abrams has built her gubernatorial run around a novel turnout model: encouraging 800,000 Democratic-leaning but infrequent voters, particularly people of color, to cast ballots.

Evans, meanwhile, has adopted a more traditional strategy of winning over independent and disaffected GOP voters, especially suburban women who are uncomfortable with President Donald Trump.

2018 campaign

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates ahead of Georgia’s primary on Tuesday. The AJC has already produced stories looking at gun rights, tax policy and how President Donald Trump factors in the stances candidates are taking. It also has conducted polls to determine what’s most important to voters from the two major political parties. Look for more at ajc.com/politics.