2 Georgia Democrats Race on Parallel Paths
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2 Georgia Democrats Race on Parallel Paths

Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans try to bring different voters along on their run for governor.

Dave Schechter

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Stacey Evans and Stacey Abrams sport different shades of blue, which may or may not reflect differences in their political approaches, while listening to Valerie Habif open a Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon forum in Sandy Springs in February.
Stacey Evans and Stacey Abrams sport different shades of blue, which may or may not reflect differences in their political approaches, while listening to Valerie Habif open a Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon forum in Sandy Springs in February.

As “the Staceys” — Abrams and Evans — wrapped up their pitches at a Jewish Democratic forum in February, a man walking out was overheard telling his female companion, “It’s the same message.”

While the two former state representatives align on some issues, they  diverge on others, and each is confident that her strategy is the only one that can elect a Democrat governor Nov. 6.

Jewish Democrats must decide which shade of blue they prefer, a choice perhaps epitomized by Evans’ light-blue jacket and slacks and Abrams’ bright-blue jacket and dark slacks at the forum in Sandy Springs sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Democratic Salon.

Whichever woman emerges from the May 22 primary likely will be painted by whichever man the Republicans nominate (the Georgia Constitution bars Republican Gov. Nathan Deal from a third consecutive term) as a blue peg that doesn’t fit into a red square — er, state.

(Note: This article looks at the candidates’ positions on issues of likely interest in the Jewish community. You may want to consult the secular news media regarding other issues.)

The last Democrat elected governor was Roy Barnes in 1998.

Georgia has never elected a woman or an African-American as governor, so the election of either Evans or Abrams would make history (doubly so for Abrams, who is African-American).

A poll conducted in February for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution put Abrams ahead of Evans, 29 percent to 17 percent, with 54 percent undecided among a sample of 500 likely Democratic voters. Neither demonstrated great name recognition, and those who knew their names were more neutral in their impressions than favorable or unfavorable, suggesting that both have work to do before early primary voting begins April 30.

Interviews for this article were conducted Feb. 26 at Abrams’ headquarters, an airy, metal-framed space along the railroad tracks in Decatur, and March 9 at Evans’, a house near Midtown that she and her husband, Andrew, own and that houses his law office.

Both candidates have risen beyond their childhood stations in life.

Evans, who turns 40 in early May, was born to a 17-year-old single mother. Growing up in Ringgold in northwest Georgia, “she moved around from place to place as her family tried to stay ahead of bill collectors,” according to her campaign bio.

Thanks to the HOPE Scholarship, a cornerstone of her life story and her campaign, Evans became the first in her family to attend college, graduating from the University of Georgia in 2000.

Former state Rep. Stacey Evans seeks support among potential voters at the Jewish Democratic forum.

“I know the difference in a state that works for people and a state that doesn’t and the difference I can make in our individual lives because I lived the difference,” Evans said. “If it wasn’t for good leadership and Democratic policy back in the early ’90s, creating the HOPE Scholarship, I literally wouldn’t be here.”

Evans traces her determination to become a lawyer — she graduated from the UGA law school in 2003 — to police rejecting her telephoned plea as a 12-year-old to stop her stepfather from beating her mother.

She met her husband in law school. They are the parents of a 6-year-old daughter, Ashley.

The key event in Evans’ legal career came in 2015, when she helped represent two whistle-blowers in a Medicare fraud case against DaVita Health Care Partners, a provider of dialysis services. (Evans then was a partner in the firm of Wood, Hernacki & Evans. Today she is in private practice.)

Without admitting wrongdoing, the company, which changed its name to DaVita Inc. in 2016, paid $450 million to resolve the claims — with 72 percent returned to the U.S. government and the remainder going to the law firms handling the case.

Evans represented House District 42, which includes Smyrna and Marietta, from 2010 to 2017, resigning to run for governor.

Abrams describes her family as having been among the “genteel poor” in Gulfport, Miss. “We had no money,” she told the Jewish forum, “but we watched PBS and read books.”

Abrams, now 44, was 16 when her parents moved the family to Atlanta as both pursued divinity studies at Emory University and became ministers in the United Methodist Church.

Former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams speaks with potential voters at the Jewish Democratic forum.

The oldest of six children, Abrams graduated from Avondale High School and went on to earn degrees from Spelman College (1995), the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas (1998) and Yale Law School (1999).

Before entering politics, Abrams co-founded NOW Account, a business-to-business financial services firm.

Abrams represented House District 89, which covers a swath of DeKalb County, from 2007 to 2017, serving as minority leader from 2011 until she resigned to run for governor.

While in the legislature, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project, an ambitious effort to register hundreds of thousands of minority voters.

Neither Abrams nor Evans grew up around Jews.

Abrams’ first encounter with Jews was the girl she roomed with for six weeks at the Telluride Association summer program on the Cornell University campus between her junior and senior years of high school. Her greater exposure to Jews came at Yale.

Evans first met Jews at the University of Georgia, she said. “I made a lot of great friends in Jewish circles at UGA, friends that are actually helping me on the campaign.”

Based on 2016 election results, Georgia has roughly 1.6 million to 1.9 million Democratic voters.

Some rudimentary math — involving the number of Jews in Georgia, the percentage that are voting age, the percentage that might turn out to vote and the percentage therein that might vote Democratic — suggests that Abrams and Evans are competing for somewhere in the range of 55,000 Jewish votes.

That’s a small voting bloc, albeit one that votes at a rate greater than the population at large. Candidates know that most Jewish voters pay extra attention to matters involving Israel and how religion plays in the public square.

One issue between Abrams and Evans is the 2016 Georgia law that bans the state from doing business with any contractor that boycotts Israel in support of the boycott, divest and sanctions movement, which endorses economic pressure to force changes in Israeli policies, particularly what is referred to as Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the building of Jewish settlements in that territory.

When the House voted 95-71 on March 22, 2016, to approve the anti-BDS bill already passed by the Senate, Evans voted for the measure, but Abrams against it.

Debate over Abrams’ vote has carried on in the pages of the Atlanta Jewish Times, including a column she wrote explaining her vote.

The AJT interviewed Abrams a few hours after Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican candidate for governor, said he would block tax breaks for Delta Air Lines after the carrier ended a minor relationship with the National Rifle Association in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shootings.

“I believe there is no more salient example in recent history of my concern about the (anti-BDS) legislation,” Abrams said. “I condemn BDS. I condemn the global BDS movement. I voted on a piece of legislation that can be used as a precedent for blocking political speech. We have to understand that the imprimatur of the state government should never be used to crack down on political speech. It is a freedom that we enjoy, and it is also a freedom that Israel celebrates, this notion that you should be able to have free speech. And when my vote is narrowed down to a top line, I completely understand the disagreement. But this is more than a matter of principle. This is a very practical question.”

Evans rejects Abrams’ reasoning.

“You don’t have to question whether Israel has a friend in Governor Evans because I have always stood with Israel and was proud to support the anti-BDS bill,” she said. “As much as she’s trying to rationalize it and explain it away, it was wrong. And when your friends need you, you stand up and fight with your friends.”

Some Jewish voters may take issue with a photograph of Abrams and Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American woman and outspoken BDS advocate who was among the organizers of the Women’s March the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The photograph was taken at this year’s Jan. 20 women’s rally in Atlanta.

Sarsour’s comments about Israel and about the place of Zionist women in the feminist movement, as well as supportive words about Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, have raised the ire of a wide spectrum of Jews.

Abrams said the women’s rally was the only time she has met Sarsour.

“I believe that my record is unimpeachable. If you look at how I have voted and what I stand for and what I’ve done, there is no sense that I have harbored or would ever harbor any anti-Semitic beliefs. And, in fact, I have been, of the candidates, the most personally aggressive about making certain that I have demonstrated my support of the Jewish state. Of my own volition I joined Project Understanding. Of my own volition, I traveled to Israel. … I worked quietly with legislators to help make certain we were constantly being protective of the Jewish state,” Abrams said.

“That said, Linda is one of the co-founders of the Women’s March. She helped to bring about a national conversation about the role that women play in transforming our nation and reclaiming it from a racist, misogynistic xenophobe. And in that place, we stand in absolute solidarity. … (On BDS) she and I fundamentally disagree. I condemn the global BDS movement. I believe it is anti-Semitic. I believe it is wrong. And she and I fundamentally disagree on this.”

(Note: Evans had planned to visit Israel in December 2011 but was seven months’ pregnant and could not travel. Evans said that, if elected, she hopes to lead a trade mission to Israel, as Deal did in 2014.)

Several dozen Jews supporting Abrams were signatories to a “Dear Georgians” letter in the form of a half-page advertisement in the March 23 edition of the Atlanta Jewish Times. “We are deeply troubled by those who have questioned her support of the Jewish community,” the letter reads, going on to cite Abrams’ “longstanding relationship with the Jewish community, one that goes beyond simple statements of support and instead demonstrates constant solidarity.”

Jewish day school parents will be interested in how Georgia’s next governor manages the student scholarship organizations under a program that grants $58 million in state income tax credits to people who donate to support private school scholarships. The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta created a nonprofit, the ALEF Fund, to facilitate donations to day schools and Jewish preschools.

Stacey Evans

Evans said her concern is less with the tax credits in principle than the program’s transparency, making sure the state knows how those scholarship dollars are being distributed.

She supported an SSO bill in 2011 but voted against it later when transparency provisions were removed. Both Evans and Abrams voted against expanding the program.

Evans does not foresee increasing the $58 million cap and said SSOs need to be considered as part of an overhaul of the funding formula for public education.

“When I’m governor, that’s a priority because we haven’t done it since the early ’80s. We’ll be rewriting the funding formula, getting our hands around the dollars we have available for public education, then work on bringing transparency to the SSO program,” she said. “There’s just such a lack of resources going to the traditional public schools right now that we’ve got to make that the first priority.”

But Evans said she does not plan to eliminate the existing scholarship program, which Abrams opposes.

“I believe that public education is the prerogative and the responsibility of the state — and that private education should be available to all who seek it, but it is private for a reason and therefore should be financed by those who can take advantage of it. I do not believe that the state should finance private education,” Abrams said. “The student scholarship organization diverts public dollars from a school system that supports 96 percent of Georgia’s children. Private education is absolutely the right of every parent, but it is also the responsibility of every parent who wants to provide that education.”

One point of acrimony between Abrams and Evans stems from a 2011 measure that changed the structure of the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship — created to make in-state college more affordable — at a time when lottery proceeds failed to keep up with rising enrollment and tuition.

House Bill 326 reduced the expenses covered by HOPE; established the Zell Miller Scholarship for high achievers while creating a less generous, second-tier HOPE with lesser qualifications (a lower required grade point average and no minimum SAT or ACT score); and higher academic requirements for the HOPE grant, which finances technical education.

The changes put Zell Miller recipients at the front of the line as HOPE money was allocated, which critics said hit students from less-wealthy backgrounds the hardest. Until that provision was partially reversed, the number of students enrolled in technical education declined sharply.

Stacey Abrams

Abrams defended the compromise measure she crafted as minority leader with Deal and the Republicans. She said it prevented more severe cuts, avoided a minimum SAT/ACT score for the basic scholarship, funded remedial classes for HOPE grant recipients, preserved full-day pre-kindergarten, and created a low-interest loan program.

Evans remains rankled by the 2011 legislation.

“I was there. I know what she did in co-authorizing those cuts with Deal, and what she told us in the caucus as to why she was doing it does not match what she’s saying now,” Evans said.

Abrams explained her approach to the job of minority leader to the AJC in 2015. “It’s insufficient to simply be the party of opposition. Georgians do not care which party you’re with; they care what you’re doing for their lives or to their lives. So my first job is to work together with the majority party.”

The candidates align in opposition to “religious freedom” legislation.

“I believe in the separation of church and state,” Abrams said. “I cannot divorce my religious upbringing from my decision-making. I’m the daughter of two ministers. To be able to divorce those things means my parents were failures. But what they raised me to understand is that I have a moral framework that is informed by my religion, but that I have an independent mind that must take into account information and make decisions based on what’s right and the job that I have. And my job as a legislator is not to enforce religious orthodoxy. In fact, I revile that and pushed back against it wherever I found it.”

Evans, who was raised Baptist but now identifies as a Methodist, said: “It’s terrible. It’s hateful legislation, a license to discriminate, and it’s not just hateful, it’s harmful to our business climate. It’s harmful to the potential for tourism, and I don’t know why any government official continues to bring up these measures because they do nothing but hurt our state.”

Several Republican candidates for governor have pledged to sign such legislation if approved by the General Assembly — in contrast to Deal, who was applauded by Jewish organizations for vetoing a religious liberty bill in 2016.

Abrams and Evans differed on a measure to require the placement of a granite monument at the Capitol that depicts the Ten Commandments, the preamble to the Georgia Constitution and a portion of the Declaration of Independence. The measure specified that no public funds would be spent on the monument.

On March 3, 2014, Evans voted yea and Abrams nay as H.B. 702 passed the House 138-37.

“Before H.B. 702, state law already permitted the Ten Commandments in the Capitol, and they were in fact already displayed there. H.B. 702 addressed a theoretical granite monument. Many of my fellow Democrats also voted for this bill, which, importantly, required the inclusion of the preamble to the Georgia Constitution and a section of the Declaration of Independence. I would not have voted for a bill that did not include these other two important secular documents,” Evans said.

The Senate passed and Deal signed the legislation, but to date no monument has been erected. Similar measures in other states have faced constitutional challenges.

Which shade of blue Democrats choose may depend in part on how they regard the strategies the candidates employ in seeking votes and in raising and spending campaign funds.

As of a Jan. 31 deadline for candidates to file finance reports, Abrams and Evans both had amassed about $2.3 million. Both had lent money to their campaigns: Evans $1.25 million and Abrams $50,000.

Based on the Jan. 31 reports, Abrams has spent more aggressively thus far, while Evans has kept a greater share in reserve for the final two months of the primary race. The March 31 deadline for updated finance reports will illuminate the financial condition of the campaigns.

Evans’ donors are heavily from Georgia, while Abrams’ include a higher percentage from out of state, particularly from Washington, D.C., New York and California.

“We are raising money where we have support. I have support in state. She apparently doesn’t have as much support in state. She knows she has to spend her time raising money out of state,” Evans said. “It’s just a function of where we’ve spent our energy over our time in public service. … She spent a lot of time traveling to D.C., New York and California and getting to know the national Democratic scene, and now that’s where she is able to raise money.”

Abrams makes no apology for her appeal beyond Georgia.

“I have a national presence because I’ve spent the last decade building the reputation of Georgia, rebuilding the capacity of Georgia Democrats to be seen as viable in a national election,” she said.

Abrams’ donors include financier George Soros (and his son, Alexander), whose support of organizations that challenge the current Israeli government has made the Jewish emigre from Hungary a target of criticism by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the American political right, including Jewish conservatives.

“George Soros and the Soros family have demonstrated nothing but deep investment and commitment to social justice. That is how I came to know them because they were early investors in the New Georgia Project, a project whose sole purpose was to expand the ability of people of color and low-income people of color to exercise their right to vote, and my experience of open society and the work they have done has been that of a family committed to social justice. And I am proud to have their support,” Abrams said.

Abrams is waging an “unapologetically progressive campaign” aimed at attracting what she believes is a large pool of potential Democratic voters, especially African-American women, who, uninspired by the party’s offerings, have sat out recent elections.

Evans eyes progressives but also moderate suburban Democrats and potentially disaffected Republicans, a strategy that Abrams eschews.

“I wouldn’t be in the race if I didn’t think that our strategy was the only one that can get us across the finish line victorious in November,” Evans said. “This idea that you can just go huddle in the left corner with every Democrat in the state and win an election, I think the math doesn’t add up.”

“I know that the complexion of the electorate in Georgia has transformed dramatically in the last 15 years,” Abrams said. “I know that that electorate has a tendency, on the Democratic side, to value progressive ideas, but that candidates who have run under the banner of the Democratic Party have often ignored those voices and pursued more conservative votes. And often, to attain those conservative votes, Democrats have taken middle-of-the-road positions or have refused to engage in certain debates because they did not want to be tagged as too Democratic or too progressive.”

Abrams’ and Evans’ websites boast rosters of in-state endorsements. Abrams also touts support from political figures and organizations that operate on a national stage.

“I think the worst thing that we could do as Democrats in Georgia if we want to be successful in November is to nationalize this race,” Evans said. “Governors’ races are about Georgia, and it’s about what Georgia voters think, not what the national press thinks and not what national Democratic organizations think.”

Whichever Stacey advances May 22 may have to wait until the summer to know her Republican opponent. The AJC’s poll of 500 likely Republican voters put Cagle ahead of five other GOP hopefuls with 27 percent (while 31 percent were undecided), suggesting that a July 24 runoff between the top two primary finishers is likely.

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