Democratic incumbents face off in race Republicans set up during redistricting

State Reps. Saira Draper, left, and Becky Evans are incumbents who were drawn into the same district during last year's redistricting process. They will face each other in the May 21 Democratic primary. Submitted photos.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

State Reps. Saira Draper, left, and Becky Evans are incumbents who were drawn into the same district during last year's redistricting process. They will face each other in the May 21 Democratic primary. Submitted photos.

A DeKalb County state House seat is host to the only legislative race in the state that will have two incumbent lawmakers facing off for reelection.

When House Republicans released updated district maps in the fall to comply with a federal judge’s order, they teed up what could have been several intraparty clashes between incumbents. But state Reps. Saira Draper and Becky Evans, both Atlanta Democrats, are the only two incumbents who will go head to head later this month.

The maps, passed by the Republican-led Legislature last year and upheld in court, were drawn in response to a federal judge’s ruling that the state’s political boundaries drawn in 2021 illegally weakened Black voting power.

Draper and Evans are two of eight lawmakers who were drawn into the same districts with colleagues from their own party under the new maps — six of them Democrats and two Republicans. One incumbent in each of the other “paired” races opted not to run for reelection.

Both Draper, who is in her first term, and Evans, who is seeking her fourth term, said the situation is unfortunate. About 70% of the voters in the new district are currently Draper’s constituents.

“I’m not excited about running against my colleague,” Draper said of Evans at a recent debate. “I have nothing but respect and admiration for you. This was not something that either of us asked for. It’s not something that either of us wanted. And to me it really underscores the fact that we have to get the majority in the Georgia (Legislature).”

Draper and Evans have similar voting records over the past two years. Both support top Democratic issues including expanding Medicaid, ensuring access to abortions and passing gun control legislation.

Draper, an attorney, says her voting rights background is what sets her apart. She worked with Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign as the director of voter protection.

“In the Legislature, I’ve been able to use that voting rights expertise at a very critical time,” she said. “I’m a leader in our caucus in all things voting rights, elections, democracy. Our caucus and our Democratic leadership looked to me to take positions of strategy on election bills.”

And she has the backing of several of her Statehouse colleagues. Draper last week rolled out a list of endorsements from about two dozen state and local lawmakers and activists, including House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairwoman Karen Bennett and the retiring Senate Democratic Leader Gloria Butler, both of Stone Mountain.

Evans, a retired health care executive and co-founder of a nonprofit, says she’s “the environmental candidate” in the race. She’s been endorsed by the Georgia Conservation Voters.

“I have a track record of different pieces of environmental and pro-ratepayer-over-shareholder-profit legislation,” she said. “I’m the Georgia lead for the (National) Caucus of Environmental Legislators, and I believe we’re going to accelerate this transition to a clean-energy economy.”

Evans also has support from colleagues at the state and local levels, including House Democratic Chairman Billy Mitchell and Dekalb County Sheriff Melody Maddox.

Suzanne Wakefield, a retired attorney who lives in DeKalb, has had a revolving door of representatives since 2017. She was a constituent of Stacey Abrams when she was the House minority leader and then Bee Nguyen when she took over the seat. In 2021, redistricting put Wakefield in Evans’ district.

The 2023 maps put her in the middle of the Draper-Evans primary.

“Becky is a fine representative, and I’ve had no problem with her or her work,” Wakefield said. “If she were not up against Saira, I would like her. But Saira is someone who is exceptional.”

Wakefield pointed to Draper’s experience on voting rights, which she said is the most important thing facing Georgia.

“If we don’t have the ability to vote, then we don’t have a say over anything that happens in our state,” Wakefield said.

Tom Clements said he’s known Evans for more than 20 years, dating to when he coached her daughter in a church basketball league. Clements said he was surprised when she knocked on his door six years ago while canvassing in opposition to a 16-year incumbent.

“I’ve been amazed at her tenacity,” Clements said. “What was interesting to me was, after she won I think she contacted us more than before she won, which is opposite of what it was for most politicians. She constantly gives her constituents information.”

Clements said the Republicans’ targeting of Evans proves that she is someone who is making a difference.

“There are folks on the other side of the aisle that would like to see her gone,” he said. “It made me want to try to reach out and support her more.”

Evans said it’s been difficult running against a colleague.

“On May 22 one of us will be the other’s state representative for the (2025-2026) term,” she said. “But we’ll both continue to be representatives through January 2025, and I know we’ll both help to get out the vote (for Democratic President Joe Biden) in November.”

Early voting for the general primary has begun and will run through May 17. Primary election day for in-person voting is May 21. For more information, visit Georgia Decides, a project of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Atlanta Civic Circle.