Stacey Evans, Democratic primary candidate for governor, made hope, both in a general sense and HOPE in all-capital letters, the theme of her remarks Saturday evening at the annual Democratic Party of Bulloch County gala.
Evans, born Ringgold in northwestern Georgia, grew up very poor. Her mother was just 17 when Evans was born, and she never really knew her biological father. By the time she was 18, she had lived in about 16 different homes, most of them trailers. When one of her stepfathers dragged her mother through the yard beating her, Evans called the police, but they wouldn’t respond, telling her they knew the man and he wouldn’t hurt a fly, she said.
“It’s then that I realized how much it matters who’s in power,” Evans said. “It means everything.”
One of her favorite teachers told Evans the governor was coming to her school to talk about a new program called HOPE. This was the lottery-funded Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally scholarship and grant program, created in 1993.
“HOPE saved me,” Evans said. “HOPE took me from that moment as a powerless child sitting outside of my trailer wondering how I was going to make a better life for myself and not live this way forever to the campus of the University of Georgia.”
Originally HOPE grants made technical college tuition-free to Georgia residents regardless of grades, while HOPE scholarships covered undergraduate tuition at the state’s colleges and universities for students who maintained at least a “B” average from high school forward.
After completing her bachelor’s degree, Evans remained in Athens to also attain her law degree from the University of Georgia’s law school.
Of course, law school led to Evans’ career as an attorney, and she said her education also gave her a starting point for serving in the state Legislature. First elected in 2010 as representative from the 42nd District, around Smyrna and Marietta, she was re-elected in 2012, 2014 and 2016, but resigned after the 2017 session to run for governor.
‘Because of HOPE’
It was also at the university that Evans met her husband, Andrew, and they now have a young daughter, Ashley.
“All of that was because of HOPE, and so for seven years I’ve been able to fight down at the Capitol for Georgians who, just like me, needed a little help to help themselves,” Evans said.
She called the HOPE program “the crowning achievement of another North Georgia Democrat,” meaning former Gov. Zell Miller, later a U.S. senator. As governor, he led in creating both HOPE and Georgia’s lottery-funded prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds.
The HOPE programs show that “Georgia is a place where progressive policies have won out and changed lives” when people work together instead of emphasizing differences, Evans said.
“That’s why I believe that it is hope, not just the scholarship, but hope in the larger sense that is the Democratic Party’s way forward, and that’s why I’m running for governor,” she said. “I’m running to bring hope and opportunity back to all Georgia families.”
Referring to the grant program, she expressed “hope that technical college will be tuition-free once again in this state.”
In 2011, addressing a shortfall in lottery revenue, the Legislature changed HOPE to require a “B” average for technical college grants as had previously been required only for the scholarships at academic colleges. The grant amounts were also curtailed so that they no longer cover full tuition, but a portion adjusted to lottery revenue.
Lottery proceeds have since rebounded and set new records.
Evans pushed for legislation, which passed, to remove the grade requirement for technical college grants. She seeks a further restoration so that they cover 100 percent of tuition again.
“It was wrongfully ripped away in 2011, and we will bring it back,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do for families, and it’s the right thing to do for our economy.”
Evans also called for “hope that we’re all going to be able to see a doctor when we’re sick.
“It’s 2017. This shouldn’t be hard, right?” she said. “We’re going to expand Medicaid in this state. It’s long past time to do so.”
After calling the current $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage “pitiful” and noting that Georgia’s state minimum wages is just $5.15, she said Georgians need the opportunity for “a fair, living and meaningful wage.”
She expressed support for statewide expansion of mass transit, including bus and commuter rail systems.
Evans called for making prekindergarten “universal,” and expanding it to include children as young as age 2. The lottery-funded program has never been guaranteed even to all 4-year-olds. Sites are funded for certain numbers of classrooms, with a limit on the number of children per classroom.
But children who complete prekindergarten advance to kindergarten knowing their numbers and alphabet and how to follow directions, Evans said.
“We put that teacher in a position to succeed when we make sure the students come to class ready to learn, and pre-K makes that happen, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be universal in this state,” she said.
Saturday’s event, which included dinner and a live band, was sold out, with 160 seats. Bulloch County Democrats and guests from several counties filled the room, almost as long as the football field is wide, in the Gene Bishop Field House at Paulson Stadium.
Organizers had scheduled “the two Staceys,” both women announced as Democratic primary candidates for governor, to speak at the Seventh Annual Independence Gala. Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader, cancelled Friday citing an unspecified emergency.
“But she said that she will definitely make it a point to come back down here for something else, she definitely hasn’t forgot about Bulloch County and she regrets that she couldn’t come,” said Bulloch County Democratic Party Chair Ivory Watts. “So she will join us at a later event.”
“Women in Politics” was the theme for the gala, which also featured speeches by state Democratic Party First Vice Chair Nkema Williams, Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, Watts and others.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.