ATLANTA — One spent much of her childhood in trailers, raised by her mother, college made possible partly by a lottery scholarship and other grants. The other grew up in a working-class, African-American household in the Deep South, her path to law school also paved with financial aid.
Now, 40-year-old Stacey Evans and 44-year-old Stacey Abrams, both Atlanta-area attorneys and erstwhile legislative colleagues, want to bolster those boot-strap biographies with the Democratic nomination for Georgia governor.
Either would be the first woman to claim that distinction and, if victorious in November, the first to serve as chief executive. Abrams would be the first black female governor in any American capital.
Besides their personal success stories, the two rivals have similar policy aims on everything from health care and education to opposition to President Donald Trump. Yet they find themselves along increasingly sharp fault lines over their legislative and professional histories as they debate just who has the attributes to make life better for poor, marginalized and middle-class Georgians.
Their May 22 contest is part of Georgia Democrats’ latest attempt to dent GOP domination in the state. Nationally, it’s a benchmark of Democrats’ ongoing push for identity and direction in the Trump era.
Abrams, who has outraised Evans and leads in public polling, said she has pursued “freedom and opportunity” for all Georgians as an attorney, entrepreneur and Georgia House minority leader, a post she resigned to run for governor. Her top policy priority is expanding the Medicaid insurance program, something outgoing Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and GOP lawmakers have refused to do since national Democrats’ 2010 health insurance overhaul.
Evans’ top policy priority is expanding Georgia’s well-known HOPE lottery scholarships, restoring all four-year awards to full tuition and making two-year college tuition free. She said she also supports Medicaid expansion.
Each woman cites her challenging upbringing as a defining force that qualifies her for the job.
“Anyone who has ever had their lights turned off, was evicted or worried about their next meal knows that the experience never leaves you. It defines you,” Evans wrote in her campaign biography.
One of her advertisements tells voters she lived in 16 different homes in her 18 years growing up in Ringgold, and she mentions often her own HOPE scholarship she used at the University of Georgia.
Abrams noted she’s the “daughter of a shipyard worker and librarian” who “understands first-hand that discrimination and disability can be barriers to success.”
Besides her legislative work, she touted her partnership in a company designed to help small businesses with cash flow as they balance their obligations and accounts receivable from larger outfits. She willingly explained her own personal debts incurred from her Yale law education and the fact that she continues to support her aging parents and other relatives.
The two have jousted over who’s worked harder to represent struggling households.
As Evans tells it, Abrams once cut a deal with Republican legislators that “gutted” the HOPE scholarship program. In contrast, Evans said she worked toward restoring some of those cuts in subsequent legislative sessions.
Abrams replied: “Ms. Evans has a demonstrated pattern ... of recasting the past for a more favorable impression.” And Abrams noted that she also has pitched another HOPE expansion, offering aid based on financial need, without steep academic requirements.
The former minority leader acknowledges she ultimately backed a Republican-driven measure in 2011 that trimmed HOPE amid lottery revenue declines that followed the 2008 housing and market crash. Among other changes, the plan imposed higher academic requirements for technical-college awards and imposed new academic requirements for full-tuition scholarships at four-year schools, with lower-achieving students getting smaller awards.
Abrams said the move preserved money for pre-kindergarten programs and staved off even tougher academic requirements she says Republicans wanted for all four-year award recipients — an idea Abrams argued would have cut off college access for tens of thousands of Georgians.
Evans pointed out that thousands of students left technical colleges anyway. She insisted Abrams had “no justification” for a deal.
When lottery finances improved, Evans did sponsor legislation that eased some HOPE contraction. But Abrams wants voters to remember that she, as minority leader, picked Evans for that role.
“My issue is that she has cast herself as both a nonparticipant in the process (in 2011) and as the victim of the result, neither of which is true,” Abrams said.
On banking policy, Evans hit Abrams for her 2017 vote in favor of a law, approved overwhelmingly, that critics assert makes it too hard for plaintiffs to recover damages from bank executives and board members in civil litigation.
“I thought it was shareholders and members of the public that needed more protection,” Evans said.
Abrams said that argument is inconsistent with some of Evans’ legal work on behalf of big financial institutions accused of harming consumers. Evans once represented Countrywide Financial, a Bank of America subsidiary, in litigation with the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta after the 2008 mortgage crisis.
Evans said she has no recollection of the case and “must have been a low-level associate” for a firm that she left before the case settled.