The bitter back-and-forth erupted almost as soon as Stacey Evans was shouted down from the stage by supporters of her Democratic rival for governor chanting “support black women.”
In that crowded hotel ballroom, on social media and in Democratic gatherings over the next week, accusations and insults flew between backers of Evans, who is white, and Stacey Abrams, who is black.
Though the protest was but one moment in a brewing campaign, it instantly underscored racial tensions within the Democratic coalition, a tenuous alliance of a growing bloc of black voters and a dwindling number of whites.
Laura Register came to the Netroots Nation event this month as an avowed Abrams supporter, toting the candidate’s T-shirts in her bags. She left the hotel ballroom worried that Democrats were “eating their own” — and is now a firm supporter of Evans.
“When the protesters turned on our table, they yelled that we were the problem because we were white, that I’m the problem because I sit on the sidelines and allowed racism to happen,” said Register, a Grady County school board member. “They were judging based on color.”
Abrams and her supporters say the campaign was “wholly unaffiliated” with the protest. Some said the incident was blown out of proportion and that it involved Evans’ education stance and not her skin color. But others share Register’s fear that it was just the opening salvo of a Georgia version of the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders feud that could cripple the party.
“I’d hate to see that happen,” said Diane Feil, a nurse who volunteers for Abrams, “because if it does, the Democrats will not be able to win the governorship.”
The race appears destined to remain testy, if only because their sharply divergent strategies are forcing Georgia Democrats to pick between competing visions of the party’s future for the first time since the crowded 2010 race for governor.
Abrams has shunned traditional Democratic strategy and is attempting to win with an alliance of liberal white Democrats and African-American voters.
Evans is tailoring her education-themed message to keep liberals in the fold while appealing to more moderate white voters, particularly those repelled by President Donald Trump. This strategy failed her party the past four elections, but it helped a generation of Georgia Democrats win office before them.
The Georgia struggle is more than a provincial squabble. Abrams is a darling of the national progressive movement, and her bid to be the nation’s first black female governor has cemented her rising-star status. And her battle with Evans has triggered an emotional fight for the soul of the party that partisans worry could debilitate both candidates.
“Democrats have had plenty of wake-up calls and we keep snoozing through them,” said Lisa Coston, a Lawrenceville small-business owner who hasn’t picked a side. “The Democrats are doomed, period, if we don’t stop the identity politics.”
Abrams’ refusal to rebuke the demonstrators — she said she would not “condemn peaceful protest” — sparked more sore feelings. And her call to take a symbolic sandblaster to remove the Confederate trio carved into Stone Mountain after the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., opened a new split. Evans didn’t match her stance, instead calling for legislation that brings more “inclusive” exhibits to the state-owned park.
The infighting has some Democrats worrying about a can’t-win scenario: The dodge to the left could deny Evans a chance to win a primary dominated by more liberal, and African-American, voters. But it could also make it impossible for Abrams to win in November against a Republican.
“You have to fight to win, but at the same time you can’t lose sight of the ultimate goal, and you don’t want to do lasting damage,” said Michael Thurmond, one of the state’s first black statewide officials and the 2010 Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate.
“We’ve had nasty primaries before. But we were also in much stronger position. Now that we’re weaker, we have to be much more strategic,” said Thurmond, who is now DeKalb County’s chief executive and has not endorsed either candidate. “Both Staceys have to remember: The ultimate goal is not to win the primary.”
Republicans, grappling with their own fractious rifts over Trump, have welcomed the infighting on the left by highlighting their relative unity. The two leading GOP candidates — Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp — have yet to publicly attack each other.
“As a Republican, I’ll benefit from this, but I’m sad that in 2017 we have people making voting decisions based on skin color,” Republican state Rep. Trey Kelley said of the Evans shout-down. “Behavior like this and the hate taking place in Virginia shows just how divided this nation is.”
A tale of two Staceys
As different as the Staceys are, the two have striking similarities.
Both grew up in poverty with stories that inspire awe, pushing themselves through college to earn law degrees, and their hardscrabble childhoods shaped their views of government.
Both were elected to the state House in their 30s, after Democrats had lost their generations-long grip on state government, and they were never encumbered by sometimes-stifling memories of the party’s glory days.
Both have had up-close views of the tragic toll of substance abuse on their families: Abrams’ brother Walter is serving a prison sentence stemming from a drug addiction and a long-undiagnosed mental illness. Evans’ brother Spencer has been in and out of jail and treatment for opiate abuse, and he has been clean for about a year now.
Both have cunning political instincts to back their ambition. The two entered the race for governor only days apart, each with a pledge to bolster the HOPE scholarship and make technical college tuition-free.
And both have carved out prominent profiles, although Abrams has received the lion’s share of national media attention.
‘We could resist’
Abrams grew up in Gulfport, Miss., raised by parents who instilled in her a desire for public service. She graduated from Spelman College, where she was student body president, and she later received her law degree from Yale University.
Before she was 30, she was a deputy attorney for the city of Atlanta who had growing political aspirations of her own. She ran for an open seat representing an east Atlanta district in 2006, defeating two opponents, and she made a quick mark at the Capitol asking pointed questions that helped shape legislation even she opposed.
She called the small band of Georgia lawmakers she helped form in her early years under the Gold Dome the “Strike Team,” and she said it set out to quietly complicate the GOP agenda by launching sustained assaults on Republican initiatives in committees or orchestrating filibusterlike questioning on the House floor.
“We weren’t going to overthrow the legislative order. We didn’t have the means to topple the speaker of the House. But we could make their work harder,” she said. “We could summon their victims to the Capitol. We could resist.”
Abrams rose to be the House’s top Democrat — and one of the most prominent in the state — although in making her bid for governor, she left that position earlier this year, and she resigned from the Legislature this past week.
But while she had her hand on the rudder, she used her position to launch the New Georgia Project voter registration group with the goal to add 800,000 minority voters to the state’s rolls within a decade.
She picked up enemies for her sometimes-brusque style — she once told a crowd “if I could cry, I would” — and sharp criticism from her own party for her handling of the voting registration effort. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, former Gov. Roy Barnes and Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort have all been at odds with her.
Her allies say ruffling feathers goes with the territory. State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, said there are some attention-hungry legislators whom she alienated by urging them to back off problematic legislation.
“The bills might look like apple pie, but it’s really spoiled banana pudding,” Williams said. “And she can pick out those flaws. When you do that, you make enemies. But you have to make tough decisions.”
Even as she’s staked out an image as an unabashed progressive who resists the GOP, she’s known in Georgia as a deal-maker with a knack for negotiating with Republicans. The most controversial of those compromises was her support of a 2011 law engineered by Gov. Nathan Deal that cut deeply into funding for the state’s HOPE scholarship program.
Designed by Zell Miller, the program once funded all public college tuition if students maintained a 3.0 grade-point average. Under the 2011 law, only the state’s most accomplished students, about 10 percent of recipients, get full tuition awards. For other students, the scholarship amount depends on lottery revenue.
Abrams said she had little choice but to band with Republicans to help the lottery-funded program avoid insolvency, and that she staved off deeper cuts to the pre-k program that “would have lost a generation of children who don’t get a do-over.”
That decision helped trigger today’s clash with Evans, who called that law’s signing the “most devastating day” of her political career. Evans forcefully advocated against it in 2011 because, she said, the scholarships should remain tuition-free to give poor students a path to a better life.
Born to a teenage mother who long worked at a truck stop in Ringgold, Evans was the first person in her family to earn a college degree — thanks partly to the HOPE scholarship and grants — and she stayed at the University of Georgia to earn her law degree.
A feeling of hopelessness as a young girl in an abusive household fueled her desire to run for office. When she was 12, she said, she called the police to report her mother was being abused by her boyfriend. When the authorities shrugged off her complaint, she said it taught her it matters whether politicians use their power “to protect the people in need.”
A campaign video that showed the 16 homes she lived in before she was 18 — and frankly discussed the abuse her mother experienced — elicited a wave of campaign donations and glowing reviews. Democratic strategist Paul Begala said “candidates like Stacey remind me why I’m a Democrat in the first place.”
Elected in 2010 to a Smyrna-based district, she put expanding HOPE at the center of her agenda. A recent settlement in a whistleblower lawsuit against a chain of dialysis clinics netted Evans and other attorneys $45 million in legal fees and costs that gave her the financial firepower to help finance her campaign.
Today’s duel was a fight Democrats managed to avoid in 2014, when then-state Sen. Jason Carter was the only candidate to challenge Deal, and the two Staceys have already quickly carved up loyalties within the party.
Abrams has locked down support from U.S. Reps. John Lewis, Hank Johnson and David Scott, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, as well as Emily’s List and a host of progressive groups. Evans has the endorsement of Barnes and a lengthy list of African-American state legislators. Other prominent names are staying on the sidelines — for now.
One of them is Reed, who said Democrats should relish the battle. Today’s infighting, he added, will ready them for tomorrow’s partisan attacks.
“Tough campaigns are healthy because they test whether a person really wants the job. You’ve got to be able to get out here, mix it up, have good days and bad days. And wake up the next day and get right back at it,” he said. “If you don’t have that capacity, you won’t be much of a leader anyways.”