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 has had rockstar status. But she didn’t seem prepared for the outraged welcome she received.
Almost as soon as she took the stage, a ring of demonstrators – some holding stark signs criticizing her – fanned out in front of Evans. Pleading repeatedly for the chanting to stop – “let’s talk through it,” she implored – the demonstrators at times overwhelmed her speech.
It underscored the intense level of 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 several 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 later 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, she couldn’t point to any votes or policy stances, but 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’ campaign had no immediate comment on the protests. Fellow Democrats quickly 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.”