Long before a clash over the HOPE scholarship helped shape the Democratic primary for governor, the two future rivals traded updates and insights as they tried to devise the party’s strategy around Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to overhaul the lottery-funded program.
In more than a dozen emails sent during the 2011 negotiations over the scholarship, state Rep. Stacey Evans and state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams shared tips on the changes, details about the “Saving HOPE” committee that Evans helped lead as co-chairwoman, and advice on how to approach Deal.
The correspondence shows a flurry of activity as Democrats grappled with the Republican plan to reshape the scholarships, which were facing a fiscal crunch amid rising tuition costs. Abrams and Evans worked together to set up public hearings with students and Democratic counterproposals.
The documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also show hints of the break that would eventually divide the two candidates.
After negotiations with Republicans, Abrams supported the legislation that called for cuts to the program, writing to fellow Democrats that “if we do nothing, HOPE goes away.”
Evans backed Abrams’s decision to sit down with the governor, but she ultimately voted against the bill because she said it cut the program too deeply. Before the vote, she asked that her name be stripped from a press release trumpeting the agreement and worried the changes would hurt poorer families.
“I know we can’t get a means testing component in the bill,” Evans wrote, referring to an income cap that would restrict students from wealthier families from receiving the HOPE scholarship, “but I don’t want us to be the ones giving republicans an excuse for not doing it.”
Still, the tension over the disagreement didn’t boil over at the time. Even after a fiery speech against the HOPE plan, Evans got an email from Abrams: “I disagree with you, but nicely done.”
A few weeks later, Evans offered Abrams her own kind words: “I appreciate your guidance,” she wrote after the legislative session ended, “but also your understanding when we sometimes have to go another way.”
The HOPE fallout has since mushroomed into one of the bigger policy debates in the race for governor.
Evans said the bill that Deal signed with Abrams’ support “gutted” the HOPE scholarship and that the “most devastating day” of her political career propelled her to enter the race for governor. Abrams said her role at the negotiating table helped blunt sharper cuts that Republicans would have embraced otherwise.
The correspondence offers a unique window into the lawmaking process. The legislative branch exempted itself from the state’s sunshine laws. But the Abrams’ campaign released the emails to the AJC in an effort to show that she did not act unilaterally and worked with Evans throughout the process.
And they offer a glimpse at the pressure facing Abrams and other legislative leaders as the measure was being hashed out. In one email, days before the plan was unveiled, Abrams asked then-Deal aide Michael Shaffer how quickly the measure would be introduced.
“I’ve held back on discussions with my caucus, but the questions are piling up,” she wrote.
In an interview, Evans said the documents show that Abrams was working behind the scenes with the governor “and pretty clearly keeping things” from House Democrats.
“There was never blind support for this deal. Once we saw how devastating this bill was for families, I was totally against it,” Evans said. “The notion that we were equals in this is simply not true.”
Abrams declined to comment. State Rep. Carolyn Hugley, who was Abrams’ top deputy during the negotiations, said the emails prove Evans was “at the table and part of the process” throughout the negotiations.
“We may not have achieved a perfect outcome being in the minority, but we did a lot of good to preserve the program for as many people as possible,” said Hugley, who is still the No. 2 Democrat in the House.
The emails also include exchanges over legislation Evans pushed that restored lower grade requirements for tech school students receiving HOPE grants, expanding the pool of students eligible to receive financial aid.
In one January 2012 email, Abrams helped arrange a meeting between Deal and Evans on the legislative proposal, writing that she would “like to try and move this legislation forward, given that it is a simple fix and the funds should not break the bank.”
Three days later, Evans wrote that Deal’s office called to set up a meeting. “Do we need to engage in any ‘strategery’ before?” she asked. “I’ve never gone in to meet with the governor.”
The two later consulted over Evans’ plan to expand HOPE scholarship awards — she wrote she veered from imposing an income cap because it likely wouldn’t pass — and shared ideas about how to get media coverage for the proposals.
“I’d certainly rather get something done than not, even if it has to be a republican bill,” Evans wrote Abrams in an October 2012 note, asking whether she wanted to be involved. “I don’t suspect he’ll want to play on this though. I hope I’m wrong.”
Worried that it would be lost in the election cycle, Abrams urged her to wait until after the November vote “simply because we can own the space then — but I can be convinced otherwise.”
After a version of the proposal became law in 2013, Abrams praised Evans’ “relentless commitment” to the issue in an email to all House Democrats. Evans later offered her thanks to Abrams, writing that it was “an amazing session given what we are up against.”
Hugley said the documents show that “Evans has Abrams to thank for her only notable legislative accomplishment.” Evans told the AJC she was “trying to have a working relationship” with a powerful Democrat in order to advance her legislative proposals.
“This was my lifeline, ripped apart,” said Evans, a recipient of the scholarship. “I tried to stop it and I couldn’t. I knew I was going to need her help and Governor Deal’s help, and I tried to have a cordial relationship to reverse the damage she was responsible for.”
Among the highlights of the emails:
- In early 2011, state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and state Rep. Stacey Evans traded emails mapping out the Democratic caucus response to the HOPE changes. Abrams tapped Evans as a co-chairwoman for a “Saving HOPE” subcommittee, and the two lawmakers tried to boost student input with listening tours, plan media outreach and shared talking points.
In a Feb. 16 email, Abrams told Evans and others she was meeting with Gov. Nathan Deal. Before the measure was unveiled, Abrams sent then-Deal aide Michael Shaffer several notes to discuss it. In one, she cited press reports that a proposal would soon be introduced.
“I’ve held back on discussions with my caucus, but the questions are piling up,” she wrote.
- After Deal unveiled his plan on Feb. 22, 2011, with Abrams’ support, Shaffer sent an email to Abrams thanking her for working with Deal on the compromise.
“As you and I have said we will not always agree but we will always be willing to talk and work together for solutions. I do not believe most Georgians can fully appreciate how big a day today really is. We look forward to continuing to work together!”
That same day, Abrams sent House Democrats talking points on the legislation with a stark takeaway. “Bottom line: If we do nothing, HOPE goes away,” it read.
- Two days later, Evans pushed back on a quote attributed to her in a caucus press release about the measure. That quote was later taken out of another release sent to media outlets.
“You know I support you and was in favor of the idea to go to the table,” she wrote. “This press release made it sound like we co-sponsored the bill though and were at the table in crafting it in the first place.”
Abrams wrote back that Democrats got “several key provisions” in the bill that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
“Members must vote their conscience on the final bill, which will allow members to meet their local constituent needs,” Abrams wrote. “I understand that and will not question your personal and political support.”
- Evans sent Abrams another email Feb. 25 outlining her issues with the HOPE overhaul, including concerns it could hurt families with income levels less than $100,000.
“Although it’s unlikely Democrats can win an income cap restricting wealthier families from getting the scholarship,” she wrote, “I don’t want us to be the ones giving republicans an excuse for not doing it.”
- On March 1, shortly after Evans broke with Abrams and gave a floor speech, Abrams sent her an email with the subject line: “Nice job.”
“I disagree with you, but nicely done,” Abrams wrote.
“thank you. :),” Evans responded two minutes later.
- On March 17, after a key legislative deadline, Evans responded to a wrap-up email with a personal note for Abrams.
“Thank you for your leadership. There are so many things at the Legislature that are exactly as I was told, but so many things that are not at all like I was told,” Evans wrote to Abrams. “I mean that in a good way. No one is trying to shake me down. No one is screaming at me for votes.”
She added: “I think you are a huge part of why that is true. Thank you for being such a great leader. I appreciate your guidance, but also your understanding when we sometimes have to go another way.”
- In January 2012, Abrams helped Evans and state Rep. Craig Gordon set up a meeting with Deal to discuss changes to the HOPE grant program for tech students.
“Do we need to engage in any ‘strategery’ before? I’ve never gone in to meet with the governor,” Evans emailed Abrams, who said they’d talk about it later that day. She also sent several other emails giving Abrams’ details about meetings and her proposals.
- Abrams sent a congratulatory email to House Democrats after the November 2012 election.
Evans responded to Abrams that “this victory belongs to you for all the hard work and vision” and she apologized for not being more involved.
“I’m literally up to my eyeballs at work in a way that I never have been before. Hopefully this case will pay off so I can be of REALLY big help (cough, cough $$) in the not so distant future.”
- After Deal signed legislation in February 2013 pushed by Evans to expand the HOPE grant program, Abrams sent an email thanking her for her “relentless commitment” to the issue. A few weeks later, at the April end of the session, Evans returned the praise.
“I thought it was an amazing session given what we are up against. I can’t imagine us doing better.”