Democrat Stacey Evans’ speech to a conference of progressive activists descended into chaos on Saturday, as protesters interrupted her repeatedly and she struggled to make herself heard over chants of “support black women.”
Evans, a Smyrna state legislator who is white, expected a tough audience at the Netroots Nation event, where her rival Stacey Abrams was treated like royalty. But she said she at least expected to be able to make it through her remarks.
That didn’t happen.
Almost as soon as she took the stage, a ring of demonstrators – some holding stark signs criticizing her – fanned out in front of Evans. The chanting soon followed. Pleading repeatedly for the room to speaks – “let’s talk through it,” she implored – the demonstrators at times drowned her out.
It underscored the intense vitriol already rocking the race for governor.
Abrams, seeking to be the nation’s first black female governor, has embraced a staunchly progressive platform and has pledged to mobilize a legion of minority voters who rarely cast ballots. Evans wants to rebuild a tattered coalition of liberals, working-class voters and suburbanites who have steadily spurned the party for the GOP.
The two have divided the state’s party, each divvying up endorsements from high-profile politicians and support from key advocacy groups that doesn’t cleave to racial lines. Evans enjoys backing from prominent black politicians, while Abrams has a core of white progressive support.
She aimed to deliver a mostly biographical speech about her troubled childhood and her plan to bolster the state’s popular HOPE scholarship, but instead spent much of her time on the podium feuding with protesters. At one point, she tried unsuccessfully to start a dueling chant of “HOPE, HOPE, HOPE.”
“Oh, y’all, let’s just talk for a second. Georgia is my home,” she said.
She eventually tried to plow through her speech, emphasizing left-leaning values that Democrats share.
“As we built resistance to President Trump – not me, to Trump – we must unite over these ideals,” she said.
Monica Simpson, one of the few demonstrators wielding signs who would speak publicly, said she made her stand because she wanted to show she was “true to progressive values.”
Asked why Evans hasn’t met that standard, Simpson couldn’t point to any votes or policy stances. But she said she wants “a candidate that truly speaks to my community.”
“This is our opportunity, especially as black women, to make it known or clear that this is standing on true progressive values,” said Simpson, who lives in Atlanta. “And if you’re not, we’re going to make that clear.”
Abrams said in a statement that she would not “condemn peaceful protest” and that the demonstrators were voicing their concern with Evans’ support for a Republican-led effort to give the state new powers over struggling schools.
“From what I observed from Savannah, activists in Atlanta peacefully protested this morning on the critical issue of preserving public education for every family in our state,” she said. “The mantra of ‘trust black women’ is an historic endorsement of the value of bringing marginalized voices to the forefront, not a rebuke to my opponent’s race.”
That didn’t go far enough for fellow Democrats who called on her to rebuke the demonstration.
“It’s very disappointing and uncalled for. If Rep. Abrams does not rebuke what happened, she will lose a lot of support,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, who is neutral in the race. “This isn’t how Democrats want this primary race to be conducted.”
Evans joins the ranks of other Democrats who have been booed or heckled at Netroots events: Nancy Pelosi was booed and heckled in 2013, Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley’s speech in 2015.
After the din died down, Evans criticized the protesters for refusing to “take the time to look at either one of our records.”
“I bet if they did, they’d be really upset to know that Abrams teamed up with Republicans to cut HOPE scholarships,” she said, referring to a 2011 deal Abrams struck with Gov. Nathan Deal aimed at preventing the lottery-funded program from going broke that slashed awards.
“They have a right to be heard, but so do I,” she said. “We can’t move forward in Georgia or the country if we don’t have productive dialogue.”
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