At campaign events, gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Evans talks of being 12 and seeing her stepfather beat her mother in the backyard of their home in Ringgold.
“I had seen domestic violence before, but this felt much more intense and violent to me,” she said. “And so I picked up the phone and called the police. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do when someone needs help.”
But help didn’t come that day, she said. The person who answered the phone in her small hometown told her they knew her stepfather, and she was told he “wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“It’s in that moment that I realized just how much it matters who’s in power and what people can do with their power,” she said.
That quest led her to become an attorney, then serve in the state House of Representatives and now run for governor.
“There’s nowhere you can affect more people more broadly than as governor,” the Smyrna Democrat said.
‘Not governor of D.C.’
Evans, who served in the House from 2011 to 2017, is applying an oft-used strategy to try to rebuild the coalition of working-class whites and urban blacks that lifted the Democratic Party to power for generations.
Her critics, including her Democratic opponent, former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, say it’s a formula doomed for failure, as it was in 2006, 2010 and 2014. But Evans believes her story — growing up poor in northwest Georgia, going to college on the HOPE scholarship to propel her to success — creates the right formula for a win.
She’s attracted a mix of supporters, including many Democrats who rally behind her as an alternative to Abrams, who hope Evans will be able to defeat her better-known rival in this month’s primary.
While she lags in campaign fundraising — as of March 31, Evans raised about $2.6 million to Abrams’ $3.2 million — Evans notes that the bulk of her money comes from Georgians. Evans also has pumped about $1.2 million of her own money into her campaign.
Between Jan 31 and the end of March, only about one-third of the $1 million Abrams raised came from Georgia donors. Of the $321,000 raised by Evans in that same period, the vast majority of donors were local.
“She has a significant amount of support from national donors,” Evans said of Abrams. “But I’m running for governor of Georgia, not governor of (Washington,) D.C.”
DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston said Evans has an ability to connect with people from all backgrounds. She first met Evans in 2009 when both were considering getting into politics.
“What I see with Stacey Evans is just a true passion and commitment to working hard to help Georgians right now,” said Boston, a Democrat.
‘Bringing hope back’
Evans is one of more than 1 million Georgians to receive a HOPE scholarship, which she used to enroll at the University of Georgia in 1996. She centers her campaign on her desire to restore the program to when it was most inclusive.
“If (former Gov. Zell Miller) and the Democrats had not created HOPE, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said.
She proposed legislation in 2017 to reinstate tuition-free technical college and implement full-tuition HOPE grants for Georgia residents, but her bill received little traction.
Evans said if elected governor, expanding access to HOPE is one of her main priorities.
To many Democrats who support Evans, she is an alternative to someone they see as a problematic potential party standard-bearer.
Abrams has been a somewhat polarizing figure in Democratic circles, with some in the party poo-pooing what they call her cozy relationship with the state’s Republicans.
“It’s difficult to express why there are so many Democrats who do not support Abrams,” former state Rep. LaDawn Jones said, “but I think voters have to take into consideration the experiences — the continued and very similar experiences — and negative interactions people have had with Abrams.”
Evans has racked up public endorsements from the state’s most recent Democratic governor, Roy Barnes; a little more than a dozen former and current Democratic state lawmakers; and the Georgia Federation of Teachers.
More than the ‘other Stacey’
While campaigning, Evans seizes on opportunities to set herself apart.
She points to Abrams’ votes on legislation that implemented restrictions to the HOPE scholarship and early voting.
Jones said, “It was clear (Abrams’) decision-making was the majority of the time based on what would better propel her rather than what was good for the people, good for the party and good for policy.”
In 2011, the General Assembly increased the requirements for those receiving full-tuition scholarships. In the past, anyone graduating from high school with a 3.0 or better grade-point average — and maintaining it in college — got the full HOPE. Under the legislation, those graduating as valedictorian or salutatorian of their high school class, or having at least a 3.7 GPA with a 1200 SAT score, qualified.
Abrams said she supported the legislation to keep the program solvent for the future.
Abrams’ campaign points to Evans’ B rating from the National Rifle Association in 2012, questioning her stance on gun safety. Evans’ most recent NRA rating is a D.
The race has been combative from the start. A tense moment during the Netroots Nation conference of progressive activists in August set the stage for what has been a testy campaign.
Evans’ speech quickly became chaotic, with protesters holding signs interrupting her repeatedly and causing her to struggle to make herself heard over chants of “support black women.”
Vic Cornetto, a retired Cadillac designer who lives in Lovejoy, said he decided early on to support Evans because he thought Abrams was spending too much time promoting the idea that, if elected, she’d be the nation’s first black woman to serve as a governor.
“I don’t understand what race has to do with it,” he said during a recent meet-and-greet for LGBT supporters at Evans’ Midtown campaign office.
‘Righting a wrong’
A native of Ringgold and graduate of Ringgold High School, Evans was the first in her family to attend college. After earning bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science from UGA, she stayed in Athens to attend law school.
Evans’ family struggled financially as she was growing up, living in 16 different homes by the time she was 18.
After graduating from law school she moved to Atlanta to begin her career as an attorney. She and her husband, also a lawyer, and 6-year-old daughter Ashley live in Smyrna.
Evans, who will turn 40 on Saturday, was on a team of attorneys that successfully pursued a Medicaid fraud whistleblower case that returned $324 million to the federal government. Evans, her legal teammates, and her clients received a cut. According to her personal financial report filed in March, she has a net worth of about $5.2 million.
Boston said Evans’ work on the lawsuit shows her passion to fight for the little guy.
“I was there when she left a lucrative, big-firm job to take on essentially one case fighting fraud and abuse. People don’t realize how big of a sacrifice something like that is,” Boston said. “She did it because she believed that she could right a wrong. That’s gutsy and she did it.”