Democratic state Rep. Stacey Evans entered the race for Georgia governor on Thursday with a pledge to make technical college tuition-free and a vow to fight for struggling Georgians ignored by the powerful.
The Smyrna attorney’s campaign sets up what will likely be a divisive Democratic primary for the state’s top job in 2018. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams has also filed paperwork to run for governor and is expected to soon make a formal announcement.
Evans said in an interview she is putting “hope” – the scholarship and the concept – at the heart of her bid to replace a term-limited Nathan Deal. She has been one of the most forceful critics of the 2011 law he signed that slashed funding to the popular program.
“It gutted the program that was responsible for everything that’s good in my life,” Evans said. “The Stacey Evans born today doesn’t have the same opportunity that the Stacey born in 1978 had.”
The 39-year-old’s background will play a central role in her campaign. A child of a struggling teenage mom, the Ringgold native was the first in her family to graduate from college. She used her share in a massive whistleblower settlement to create a $500,000 scholarship for first-generation graduates at the University of Georgia’s law school.
She said it was her feeling of hopelessness as a young girl that helped inspire her to run for public office. When she was 12, Evans called the police to report that her mother was being abused by a man she was dating. She said the authorities dismissed her complaint, saying the man “wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“It was a very powerless moment,” she said. “Even with the eyes of a child, I could see what was going on. It taught me it matters who is in government. It matters who is in positions of power. And it matters whether they use it to protect people in power or they use it to protect the people in need.”
Her entry into the race sets up a potentially bruising fight that Democrats managed to avoid in 2014, when then-state Sen. Jason Carter ran for the party’s nomination unopposed. It also reflects a queasiness over Abrams, a fundraising dynamo with a national profile who some party leaders worry can’t win in a general election.
A parallel struggle is happening across the aisle as some Republicans uncomfortable with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle – the GOP’s presumptive front-runner – are searching for other contenders. Secretary of State Brian Kemp and state Sen. Hunter Hill have joined the race, and several more are exploring a run.
Evans, for her part, said she’s not concerned a heated primary could weaken a Democrat's chances.
“The party will be fine. Choices are a good thing,” she said. “My intention is to be positive and spread my message – a message that all Georgians want to hear. I’m not running against Stacey Abrams. I’m running for Georgia.”
Her supporters hope she’ll be better-suited to reach out to independents and Republicans disillusioned by Donald Trump and the GOP field in the general election. But her first daunting task is winning the party’s nomination.
Black voters make up by far the largest bloc of the Democratic electorate, and Abrams has already captured national attention – and even stray talk about a presidential run - in her bid to be the nation’s first black female governor. Evans, who was elected to the Legislature in 2010, said she’s confident her message can transcend racial and demographic lines.
“This is something everyone understands. Everyone has felt the power of hope – and everybody has felt what it feels like to feel hopeless,” she said. “I have faith in the electorate that they will be looking at our message, and decide who will wake up every day to fight for them. And that answer will be me.”
Her initial endorsements include former state Rep. Ronnie Mabra, an African-American attorney who said Evans could build a “coalition that helps bring better opportunity to every Georgia family.” Her campaign will be chaired by former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, who once represented a Cobb-based district that’s now held by the GOP.
Throughout the interview, Evans darted back to the 2011 changes enacted by Deal and a coalition of lawmakers that aimed to prevent the lottery-funded HOPE program from going broke.
Designed by Zell Miller, the program once funded all public college tuition if students maintained a 3.0 GPA. Under the 2011 law, only the state's most accomplished students, about 10 percent of recipients, get full tuition awards. For other students, the scholarship amount depends on lottery revenue.
It is an area where Evans hopes to draw a clear contrast with Abrams, who supported the 2011 changes as the only way to salvage the program and stood by Deal as he signed them into law.
Evans called that bill-signing the "most devastating day" of her legislative career.
“My story starts with the HOPE scholarship. It was the center of my success,” she said. “But it’s also about a much broader theme. It’s about having hope in your government. And it’s about having hope in yourself.”