The Trump-Country Democrat Preaching Hope in Georgia
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because biography is a powerful thing in politics.
By Daniel Malloy
It usually happened fast enough to ignore: a punch, a kick, a muffled cry in the next room. But one time, when Stacey was 12, she saw her stepfather deliver a prolonged beating to her mother outside their one-story concrete slab house. It’s one of the 16 homes — trailers, mostly — Stacey can remember from a vagabond childhood with her young mom surviving on low-wage work and, at times, bad men.
The pummeling that day was more than she could bear, so Stacey called the cops. She recalls, chillingly, the voice on the other end of the phone saying that he knew her stepfather, and he “wouldn’t hurt a fly.” The police would roll by if they could. They didn’t.
It’s a story Stacey Evans has told publicly numerous times. She’s now running for governor of Georgia, sharing the kind of powerful biography political stars are made of. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton drew from fatherless childhoods; closer to home, Jimmy Carter and former Gov. Zell Miller played up their humble, rural origins to great effect.
Evans’ bid rests on the intertwined tales of her own life and Georgia’s HOPE scholarship — launched in 1993 by Miller as a guaranteed ticket to college for students with a B average. But her dream is colliding with a better-known Democrat, Stacey Abrams, who’s running on her own powerful life story and a historic quest to be the country’s first Black female governor. And she’s up against red-state Georgia, where a Democratic revival powered by minority voters has been long on hype and short on results. But Evans’ focus on education and her struggles, which are relatable to many Donald Trump backers, offer an enticing road map for her downtrodden party.
When Evans was a kid and the phone or electricity would get cut off again, she made sure her schoolmates did not catch on to a life in disarray. “I kind of made up my own reality,” she says, and given how far she’s come on sheer force of will, it would be foolish to count her out now.
Evans tries waiting for the hecklers to finish, then she tries raising her voice, but it’s fruitless. “I think if you listen to my words, you’ll know there’s a true progressive up here who wants to change Georgia,” she tells the liberal Netroots Nation conference in Atlanta. Protesters backing Abrams cry out, “Trust Black women!” Evans tries in vain to start a counter-chant — “Hope, hope, hope.” She talks about the 16 homes, the beatings, but the protesters drown her out.
In a quieter moment with OZY, Evans, 39, tells her story deliberately and with little outward emotion, while drawing curlicues with her index finger on a polished wooden conference table in a law office perched high above Midtown Atlanta. The trip from here to the winding roads of the Ringgold area, where she was born, takes about an hour and a half, traffic permitting. It feels a world apart.
Ringgold, in northwest Georgia, is Trump country, and Confederate battle flags occasionally catch the eye. At a coffee shop downtown, Kim Godfrey, Evans’ mother, speaks with a rasp that hints at her “brown lung” diagnosis, from years of carpet mill work. Mother and daughter had a talk before Evans decided to run for governor. “A lot of crying, a lot of yelling,” Godfrey says. Throwing their messy history into the maw of politics was no small choice. But Godfrey told the daughter who always looked after her not to worry about the pain it would dredge up: “Tell your story.”
Politics shaped Evans’ life before she was even born. Her mother was just starting her senior year in high school in Huntsville, Alabama, when she found out she was pregnant. The way Godfrey tells it now, her 18-year-old fiancé was overjoyed at first. But he was also running for local office, and a shotgun wedding did not suit the image. Word got back to Kim that it would be best to have an abortion. Instead, she hopped a bus to Georgia to stay with her grandmother and never looked back. Kim, then 17, hawked the engagement ring to cover necessities for her and the new baby until she found work at a carpet mill, the dominant local industry. She never did finish high school.
Later, she married a coworker, Keith Godfrey, whom Stacey calls Dad (she has little relationship with her biological father). But after they split up, Kim’s choices in men suffered. Her second husband was the worst: She remembers enduring broken ribs and a dislocated jaw, among other injuries. The couple’s 1994 divorce describes an alleged assault so severe it forced Godfrey to take medical leave from her job, though he was not convicted of abuse. (The Evans campaign asked that we not reach out to the man in question for fear of reprisal.)
At the time, battered wives had fewer legal protections, and Godfrey often blamed herself for the abuse. It was Stacey, then about 16, who snapped her out of it. “Look in the mirror,” Stacey told her mother. “Who do you love more: him or what’s in the mirror?” “So I left,” Kim says now, dabbing at tears with a napkin.
Evans was always a sharp student, packing her days with extracurriculars in a subconscious effort to avoid home: track, mock trial, the dance team, working as a grocery store cashier. Childhood friend Lexi Cummings recalls a fearless classroom debater — even then a rare Democrat in GOP country — and someone who also “ran the show” at home with her mom.
College was always part of the plan, but until Governor Miller came to Ringgold High School and spoke about the HOPE Scholarship, it was not yet a reality. In the 1990s the lottery-funded program provided four years of state college tuition for any Georgia high school student maintaining a B average.
Evans took the free ride to the University of Georgia, where the Young Democrats were a pathway to politics, and she stayed on for a law degree, for which she’s still paying down the debt. She developed a specialty in business litigation — winning one of the largest-ever Medicare fraud settlements — and worked behind the scenes to help elect female political candidates.
When Evans’ state House district opened up, she ran and won in 2010, taking office at a fortuitous moment. The Great Recession had damaged HOPE’s finances, and Republican Gov. Nathan Deal was looking to trim the program. Together with the new House Minority Leader, Stacey Abrams, they worked out a compromise: To qualify for four-year college tuition, students now must show a 3.7 GPA and 1200 on the combined math and verbal SAT.
Evans saw dreams of kids like her dashed in those numbers: She’d only scored a 1060. The freshman legislator told her leader she planned to vote no and speak out forcefully on the floor. It passed anyway. “It was awful,” Evans says. Abrams spokeswoman Priyanka Mantha says her boss “had the experience to know that doing nothing was not an option and that taking symbolic positions that do nothing to save the HOPE scholarship would hurt families and their kids.”
Evans came back in subsequent years to restore some of the cuts, working with Deal to increase aid to two-year technical college students. Evans also endorsed the Republican governor’s push for more power to take over failing schools and expand charter schools across the state.
In the governor’s race, the easy narrative of the rural white moderate challenging the urban Black liberal is more complicated up close. Evans can attack Abrams from the left on HOPE; Abrams can hit back from the left on charters. Their support cuts across racial lines.
Abrams, 43, has her own resonant personal story. She grew up in and out of poverty in Mississippi and has a brother in prison. She writes romance novels and is dynamic in front of a crowd. For years branded a rising star in left-leaning political circles, Abrams has a national profile, though Evans raised money at a faster clip than Abrams in the campaign’s early months.
They are running on divergent strategies. Abrams is counting on revving up the Democratic base and has spent years trying to register more minority voters through her New Georgia Project. But the multimillion-dollar effort has not cracked Georgia’s GOP hegemony, and Evans sees an opportunity to win back rural white ex-Democrats who could be inspired by her story and inclined to side with the party on education and health care.
This. This. This. This is why I'm a Democrat. Please take a look. https://t.co/TzfG18mCpb
— Paul Begala (@PaulBegala) June 12, 2017
The state’s Democrats, already an uneasy lot, worry the party will be damaged by the Battle of the Staceys. Evans, who resigned her state House seat this month to focus on her bid for governor, is seen in some corners as jumping the line over the more experienced Abrams. Evans says she’s aware of the concerns, but no one has tried to persuade her to run for lieutenant governor — not that she would.
Ask Georgia’s Republicans who they are more afraid of in a general election, and it’s unquestionably Evans, particularly after a campaign video about her childhood called “16 Homes” sparked national buzz. “She’s got the kind of story that has any kind of political party or operative just salivating,” says Kerwin Swint, political science professor at Kennesaw State University. “It’s a true rags-to-riches story.”
Evans is now married with a 5-year-old daughter, financially secure enough to help her mother with expenses like dental work. Her brother, Spencer, has struggled with opioid addiction but is doing much better, Godfrey reports with a grin. She’s an Uber driver in nearby Chattanooga, Tennessee, having left a job at a truck stop car wash. She says the carpet mill job that paid her $18 an hour in the early 1990s now pays just $9.50.
Godfrey blames the North American Free Trade Agreement for the economic erosion around her. Though she leans Democratic, she voted for Trump in November, giving him credit for “standing up for us.” Godfrey talks about her daughter as an old-style “Blue Dog” Democrat, even though the trial lawyer with a liberal voting record does not meet the usual centrist definition. But Evans is betting that the doors of broken homes from rural Georgia to Southwest Atlanta will open just enough to hear one hell of a story.