The first showdown between Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans was not a bare-knuckled debate that left both bruised and battered, but neither was it a polite velvet-gloved discussion that spared the sharp elbows.
It was a decided mix of both: A forum that yielded fiery press releases but also compelled hard-bitten aides – and the candidates themselves – to applaud their rivals’ speeches.
The Georgia Win List event on Monday – the first gubernatorial forum featuring the two Democrats – featured two of the biggest hits likely to be litigated through May 2018.
They clashed over whether Evans supported plans that could “privatize” public education. And they sparred over what Abrams called the “donkey in the room” – the Netroots protest against Evans that has framed the early stretch of the race.
We’ll get to that demonstration shortly. But first, more on the clash over the education vote. It came near the start of the forum, when Abrams said she was “the only candidate in this race not to privatize education.”
Prodded by Evans to explain the accusation, Abrams listed two incidents: Her support of Gov. Nathan Deal’s failed schools initiative and a vote “for vouchers” that she said would pave the way for privatization.
“Those are signals of privatization of public education,” said Abrams.
Evans said she voted for Deal’s program “not because I thought it was a good bill, but because I couldn’t stand by and let the status quo continue.” And she flatly denied the voucher claim.
“I’ve never voted to privatize schools, I’ve never voted for vouchers – and I never will,” she said. “I believe in the power of public education.”
Abrams’ campaign later said she was referring to a 2011 vote on House Bill 325 dealing with School Scholarship Organizations, a tax credit program that has helped pay for thousands of children to attend private schools.
And Evans’ campaign fired back with a press release, saying the measure she voted for added provisions to improve the transparency of the program – and that when the final version of the bill hit the floor and those provisions were taken out Evans voted against it.
Now to the aforementioned “donkey in the room,” when Evans was shouted down from the stage at a liberal conference in Atlanta this summer by Abrams supporters chanting “supporting black women.”
“I support the right of folks to peacefully protest. That’s not what happened at Netroots,” said Evans. “If something like that happened to my opponent … I would’ve stood up to say that’s wrong, because it was wrong.”
As she did after that August protest, Abrams said she had no involvement in it. Also as she did after that August protest, she said she would not condemn the demonstrators. Those movements, she said, give voice to the voiceless.
“Protest is disruptive. It’s uncomfortable,” Abrams said. “But for communities who have been silenced it’s sometimes the only way they can be heard.”
The bottom line: Don’t expect either of those episodes to vanish from the campaign trail any time soon.