‘Shocking, I’m human.’ Abrams, Evans grilled at Young Democrats meeting

Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans address the Young Democrats of Georgia.

Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans address the Young Democrats of Georgia.

Stacey Abrams nodded to her federal tax debt – “shocking, I’m human,” she said – in her speech Saturday to the Young Democrats of Georgia before she was peppered with questions about her support of a HOPE scholarship overhaul.

Her opponent in the race for governor, Stacey Evans, faced her own tough line of inquiry about a campaign video that ended by fading from her face to Martin Luther King Jr.'s image.

The two Democratic candidates spoke back-to-back Saturday at the group’s annual meeting and addressed some of the biggest flashpoints of the race.

“Vehicle,” the Phrase of the Week by James Salzer. Video by Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Abrams, the former Democratic leader of the Georgia House, she tallied the roughly $54,000 she owed to the Internal Revenue Service while helping her elderly parents pay their medical expenses and that she's on a payment plan to settle it.

“Sometimes we stumble and we have to have a leader who understands those struggles,” she said. “Because falling down does not mean you have to stay there – and stay silent.”

During a question-and-answer session, she heard first from a member who said he faced $56,000 in college debt because of a 2011 law supported by Abrams that cut awards to the HOPE scholarship. Abrams said her work at the negotiating table helped stave off deeper cuts.

“I did not gut the HOPE scholarship. The Republicans had a plan that would have eliminated not only your ability to get the HOPE scholarship, but your siblings’ ability,” she said, saying the initial GOP plan called for higher SAT grades.

When Abrams paused, the questioner said he wasn’t satisfied with her answer.

“I’m still $56,000 in debt so that’s how much it cost me to vote for you,” he said, as some in the crowd murmured for him to quiet down.

"Look, I'm $96,000 in debt still, so I understand," said Abrams, referring to her student debt, adding: "My job was to make sure as many people as possible had as much as we could get. And that's what I did first. And I did it in cooperation with my opponent in this race."

Speaking next, Evans told the audience that those changes to the HOPE scholarship drove her to enter the race. A HOPE recipient, she said she felt betrayed by her own party when the changes “ripped to shreds” the scholarship that helped her go to college.

The former state legislator was later asked by a member why she "initially blamed the Abrams campaign" for the video shot for Evans at Ebenezer Baptist Church on MLK Day. The 43-second clip ends with an image of Evans clapping in slow-motion as her face fades out and a poster of King comes into focus, juxtaposing the two briefly.

Amid a fierce backlash, the Evans campaign said the criticism was an effort by Abrams to "distort" the meaning of the video and that she's focused on bringing Georgians together.

On Saturday, she said the video had "no fanfare" for almost a week after it was posted. Then she said she took a call from an Ebenezer official who told her the church was worried the video could jeopardize its tax exempt status. She said she apologized to the church and took it down.

“And then it was several hours later that the video resurfaced on social media with certain screen shots and certain characterizations. And that started with some supporters of my opponent,” said Evans.

“That was the reason. I don’t blame her. And I’m sorry for any offense that the video caused. It certainly was meant to do nothing other than to reflect how proud I was to be part of a celebration of one of Georgia’s most amazing citizens.”

Other tidbits:

  • Asked whether she would declare Georgia a "sanctuary state" that would defy federal immigration laws, Abrams pointed to Republican-backed legislation that forbids such a designation. But she said she'd appoint more diverse members, including immigrants, to the Board of Regents and a state immigration enforcement panel that sets Georgia policy.
  • Evans said she was not ready yet to embrace legalizing recreational marijuana, but backed setting up regulatory framework that could pave the way for an expansion of medical marijuana. "I'm going to start with a medicinal marijuana expansion because I know that's where families need it," she said. "Let's set up the regulatory framework. It's the same that we need for recreational. And let's see where we go next."
  • Abrams on the state's changing demographics: "Georgia is a blue state. We're just confused."
  • Evans on "religious liberty" legislation: "I want to be the governor that sends the message loud and clear that we're a state that's open for business and closed for hate.