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For Georgia Democrats, the Governor’s Mansion Is in Reach. But Are They Selling the Platform Voters Want?

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Stacey Abrams is a progressive: just ask her. “I believe in shared power. I believe in a sacred power. I believe in a people power — the willpower of progressives to put real progressives in the every seat. Especially in the South,” the Atlanta gubernatorial candidate said in August, giving the keynote address at the left-leaning NetRoots Nation conference in Atlanta. She further burnished her progressive credentials by naming virtually every national progressive cause.

Black Lives Matter? Check.

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The Dreamers? Check.

Medicare for All? Check.

If endorsements are any measure of success, her rhetoric seems to have worked. Abrams has stacked up endorsements from NetRoots organizer Daily Kos, the Working Families Party, MoveOn, Democracy for America, and Our Revolution President Nina Turner. And it’s not just the progressives — EMILY’s List, a powerful player in establishment Democratic Party circles, has also endorsed Abrams.

Her Democratic competitor, Stacey Evans, is a mainstream Democrat and not a self-defined populist, though she has made free college education — a progressive policy proposal — a cornerstone of her campaign. She has won the support of more than a dozen current and former state lawmakers. She, too, spoke at the NetRoots conference, but her speech was drowned out by protesters.

Abrams and Evans, both former state representatives, are heading into the Democratic primary in a state where the GOP is notoriously far-right, even among other Republicans in the country. Georgia Republicans, who have held a governing trifecta since 2005, have refused to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicaid, or invest in decent transit infrastructure (Atlanta consistently makes the rankings for worst traffic in the country).

But the Republican Party’s days of an iron grip on the state may be numbered. Democrats performed well in special elections for state legislative seats last year, and the combination of an unpopular GOP president and an energized Democratic electorate is making it increasingly likely that a Democrat will move into the governor’s mansion next year.

The incoming governor has a chance to embrace the wave of populism sweeping the country and get the ball rolling on policies that would alleviate the problems, such as income inequality, troubling many Georgia voters. But so far, neither Abrams nor Evans has developed a platform that would do much to move the needle on these issues.

“I find both of them to be broadly disappointing,” said Mark Paul, a postdoctoral associate at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, who studies wealth and racial inequality. “Even if Stacey Abrams or her opponent Stacey Evans, for that matter, passed everything they talked about in their platform, I don’t see that leading to a fundamental shift in the fact that the economy chooses to leave millions of workers behind.”

Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams speaks at EMILY’s List 30th Anniversary Gala at Washington Hilton on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC.

A Progressive Candidate With No Minimum Wage Proposal

Abrams, if elected, would be the first African-American woman to be governor in the history of the United States. From her perch in the Georgia state House, she founded a group that registered more than 200,000 voters of color between 2014 and 2016, a move that was instrumental to helping Democrats flip six seats in the state legislature. She has carried that history with her into the gubernatorial race, seeking to activate a new coalition of millennials and minority voters in the state, rather than persuade Republicans to cross over. But observers are skeptical that her platform will speak to the Georgians whose votes she is trying to get.

In early January, Abrams released an economic mobility plan that includes some long-term staples of anti-poverty policy, such as establishing a state-level Earned Income Tax Credit to pad the wallets of poorer Georgians (29 states plus D.C. currently have such a policy). That proposal, Paul said, is a “very modest step to improve the living standards of those that are able to obtain a job.”

The plan also includes proposals to promote college education by establishing savings accounts for children and better enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the workplace.

What the plan lacks, however, is a specific proposal to raise Georgia’s minimum wage, which currently sits at $5.15, one of the lowest in the country. In her plan, Abrams notes that she supported minimum wage legislation (she co-sponsored a 2012 bill to raise it to $8.25) as a state legislator, but she does not offer a proposal she would pursue as governor.

And it’s not that pushing for a living wage is a radical idea in Georgia. In 2014, Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter backed concrete increases in the minimum wage as part of their campaigns. During that race, Abrams, who was House minority leader, chided the state’s Republicans for opposing an increase in the wage. “You cannot claim to believe in economic security but refuse to raise the minimum wage in the state of Georgia,” she said.

It’s not that pushing for a living wage is a radical idea in Georgia.

That year, when Republicans won statewide by almost 8 points, 57 percent of voters said they supported increasing the minimum wage, according to exit polls. One August 2016 poll found that 55 percent of likely Georgia voters supported gradually raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Given the national political climate and demographic shifts in Georgia, it is likely that the electorate this year will favor a hike even more.

The Intercept asked the Abrams campaign whether the candidate would put forth a specific minimum wage policy. The campaign repeatedly evaded our queries, instead pointing to other campaign proposals.

“I’ll point you to the three policies the campaign has rolled out thus far, our Advanced Energy Jobs Plan, our Bold Action for a Brighter Future Plan, and the Georgia Economic Mobility Plan, all of which help foster a living wage in every part of Georgia,” a campaign spokesperson said. “You will be seeing more policy proposals in the future that continue to build on Minority Leader Abrams’s efforts to create high-wage, long-term jobs in all 159 counties.” (The energy jobs plan aims to create 25,000 to 40,000 jobs in a state of 10 million people.)

The spokesperson also noted that Abrams, as Atlanta’s deputy city attorney, led the city’s effort to establish a city living wage in 2004. The proposal was crushed when the state legislature passed a law preempting municipalities from setting their own wages.

While many agree that Georgia needs a minimum wage hike, that alone would not be enough to address economic woes in the state, where black residents are more likely to live in poverty or be unemployed. In 2016, the state had a 5.3 percent unemployment rate, but 8.1 percent unemployment among black workers. “This is an economic catastrophe for [the black] community,” Paul said. “And something like an EITC or minimum wage isn’t going to help those workers that are desperately searching for jobs and are willing and able to work and simply can’t find employment due to a host of issues.”

The state chapter of Our Revolution, a Bernie Sanders-inspired group, is also critical of the proposal. “First, we are sincerely disappointed in Stacey Abrams economic Mobility platform. It features an Earned Income Tax Credit as the centerpiece, which is neither a panacea for poverty, nor a remotely progressive position,” a member of the group told The Intercept, speaking on condition of anonymity because the organization has yet to endorse a candidate in the race.

“That’s not to say it won’t do people good, but her plan for college savings accounts — is it going to do anyone good if they don’t have enough money to pay rent, much less save?” the Our Revolution activist continued, referring to Abrams’s proposed “Cradle to Career Savings Program,” which would encourage and support families to save toward college.

While many agree that Georgia needs a minimum wage hike, that alone would not be enough to address economic woes in the state.

The proposal does not take into account the element of racial disparity in economic inequality, Paul said. “This is the type of narrative that is really damaging to communities,” he added. “On average, black families in the U.S. have about 8 cents on the dollar of wealth to white families. No amount of small-scale savings plans can overcome these deeper structural inequalities that we have. I think boiling it down to, ‘A savings plan will vastly improve economic mobility’ … does a large injustice not only to the debate, but to people who are living in economic hardship.”

Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of Georgia who writes about banking and the racial wealth gap, disagrees. “Anything that builds wealth” is a step in the right direction, she told The Intercept.

She believes Abrams is the more progressive of the two candidates but would like her to “come out with a truly progressive platform.” “That’s not what I’m seeing right now,” she said. “It’s a really good start, but I think it could be much more bold and all-inclusive.”

Baradaran is critical, for instance, of Abrams’s proposal to teach financial literacy through public-private partnerships. “Financial education tends to not be the problem when we’re talking about poverty,” she said. “The assumption here is that people are poor because they’re making bad decisions. That’s just not the case; a lot of people are poor because they don’t have enough money.”

The webpage that details Abrams’s economic plan includes a biographical section that notes that “Stacey Abrams has a track record of leadership … minimum wage increases, sick leave, and parental leave,” yet it includes no forward-looking proposal on the minimum wage, paid leave, or parental leave.

“The [biographical] category was much more progressive [than her actual proposals],” Gordon Lafer, an economist affiliated with the Economic Policy Institute who has advised Congress on labor issues, noted. “That’s like dog whistling on the left of saying, ‘Hey, I’m really economically progressive, but not being out there so much about it.’”

Stacey Evans, candidate for governor of Georgia, is interviewed by CQ Roll Call at their D.C. office, November 30, 2017.

Photo: Photo by Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call/AP

Education Is Not an Anti-Poverty Policy

Stacey Evans entered the Georgia gubernatorial Democratic primary after six years as a state representative. In the state, she is perhaps best known for her advocacy for the HOPE Scholarship, which gave students access to free college education. (Republicans scaled back the program a few years ago.)

Evans’s campaign has not yet released a full economic platform. A spokesperson said the candidate will set a goal of a $15 minimum wage, but did not offer specifics on a timeline.

“Representative Evans doesn’t just believe in raising the minimum wage to the federal level. Sure, that’s the first step, but we cannot stop here,” a campaign spokesperson said, referring to the $7.25 federal level. (In Georgia, only employees covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act earn that much; other employees may be paid the state minimum wage of $5.15.) “She absolutely believes in a $15 minimum wage if the local economy can support it and, as governor, will take steps to get Georgia families to the point of earning a decent, living wage.”

Evans is building her campaign around expanding access to college and is specifically campaigning on restoring the HOPE Scholarship. One of her campaign slogans is “Bringing hope back to Georgians,” in reference to the program, which, until 2011, gave students with a B average a free ride to college. Evans is setting herself apart by narrowing in on her opposition to the Republican cutbacks to the program, which Abrams supported.

The candidate credits HOPE with giving her a lifeline out of poverty — she grew up in the tiny town of Ringgold, Georgia, in a family that moved 16 times due to its failure to make ends meet. The HOPE Scholarship did indeed give her the chance to go to college, something many people of her socioeconomic status would never have had without the scholarship. “It was pretty heartbreaking to be there and see my lifeline — the HOPE Scholarship was my lifeline from poverty to a better life, and it was being shredded right before my eyes,” she said at a Women’s March event in Savannah in January.

But even though more affordable or even free college education would benefit many Georgians, it would not do much to address unemployment in the state.

“In terms of policy, education is not an anti-poverty policy,” Lafer, the economist from the Economic Policy Institute, told The Intercept.

“If everybody had college degrees, two-thirds of people would still be working jobs that don’t require them.”

“There’s many, many reasons to support education, including higher education. I’d be completely with Evans saying we should continue to fund higher education. There’s many, many things that are valuable about it. But it doesn’t restructure the economy,” he noted. “If everybody had college degrees, two-thirds of people would still be working jobs that don’t require them.”

And even as Evans promotes the scholarship program, she has not addressed the fact that it has always been funded by a state lottery. Poorer people are much more likely to participate in the lottery, and since HOPE’s means-testing was abolished in the 90s, much of what the scholarship does is transfer wealth from poorer Georgians to richer Georgians. The 2011 cuts to HOPE, which involved hiking the GPA threshold to receive a full scholarship, compounded the problem.

Richard Dien Winfield, a University of Georgia philosophy professor and Democrat who is running for Congress in Georgia’s 10th Congressional District, referred to that lottery as a sort of “poor man’s stock market.” Like many other progressives, he said he would prefer that Georgia move to progressively taxing income and wealth to finance the scholarship instead.

Not Rising to the Challenge of Addressing Georgia’s Inequality

Georgia’s economy is in need of a major boost, but economists and researchers who study social mobility and poverty say neither Abrams nor Evans has a financial plan that would effectively help the people who need it most — and activists are taking notice.

“Long and short of it is that no one is very enthused for either candidate, and the few that have made up their minds aren’t passionate enough to be very vocal about it,” the Our Revolution state committee member said.

A 2015 Brookings Institute report found that the capital Atlanta was the most unequal major city in the U.S., with the top income households in the city (those at the 95th income percentile) earning almost 20 times as much as those in the lowest income bracket (those in the 20th income percentile).

Georgia currently has a mild progressive income tax with brackets ranging from 1 percent to 6 percent. Abrams has mentioned closing some tax loopholes, but there is nothing in her platform about simply raising taxes on the rich. Paul said the candidates should seriously look at raising taxes on the wealthy to fund investment.

“The next administration could add three or four additional tax brackets on high-income earners to raise new revenue and mitigate the urban-rural divide that has been growing in Georgia,” Paul suggested. “An example of a truly progressive income tax structure can be seen in states like California, which has 10 different tax brackets, ranging from 1% to 13.3%, more than twice as high as the current top marginal rate in Georgia.”

Raising taxes on Georgia’s wealthiest would not only generate revenue, but also serve as a direct check on income inequality.

One way to address inequality that exists in the criminal justice system and in Georgia’s economy would be to legalize marijuana. Georgia’s Fulton County, for instance, has among the most racially biased weed arrests of any county in the country. The proposition was once considered controversial, but the tide in public opinion in the state is changing. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found 50 percent of Georgians now back legalization of marijuana, though the leaders of Georgia’s Democratic and Republican parties do not support legalization. Both Abrams and Evans have spoken in favor of decriminalizing small amounts of weed possession, but this is a markedly different policy from legalization.

A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found 50 percent of Georgians now back legalization of marijuana.

Legalization would offer the dual benefit of deterring over-incarceration and acting as an economic engine for the state. In Colorado, legalization created tens of thousands of jobs and brought billions of dollars into the state’s economy. No state in the South currently allows recreational cannabis cultivation — meaning that Georgia could corner the market.

Democratic state Sen. Curt Thompson has sponsored a bill to put the issue of legalization directly to voters. He estimates that Georgia could bring in as much as $340 million in extra revenue every year from legalizing and taxing cannabis — even suggesting that it could become an alternate form of funding for the HOPE Scholarship.

Thompson’s pitch to Abrams and Evans to endorse his proposal is simple: It makes sense on the merits, and it makes sense politically. “You can run on a platform to fix the HOPE Scholarship,” he told The Intercept about the revenue legalization would generate. “You can run on a platform that it’s going to help get criminal justice reform in minority communities. Something we’ve got to do as Democrats, as honestly, [to boost] voter turnout.”

“Legalization of marijuana with a heavy sin tax would increase police officer pay, provide jobs for the retroactively released inmates, and expand the budget for our [historically black colleges and universities],” the Our Revolution state committee member noted.

Some candidates in similar territory are starting to recognize the benefits of this approach — a wave of red-state Democrats are campaigning for Congress on a platform of weed legalization.

Another area the state could stand to make progress in is public transportation, specifically by embracing high-speed rail. For years, some in Georgia have advocated for a “Brain Train” that would connect Atlanta’s universities to UGA in Athens — but arguments over revenue have derailed that plan for now.

“If we’re going to build the Georgia of the future, we need to think about trains, we need to build schools,” Baradaran said. She pointed out that it takes two hours to drive from Atlanta to Athens, where UGA is located.

Republican state Sen. Brandon Beach has proposed an expansion of public transportation in the Metro Atlanta area. The Our Revolution member said that could be a model for the Democrats. “We’d especially like to see a full-throated endorsement of expanded mass transit, especially considering how reasonable Brandon Beach’s proposal is as a starting point,” the activist said.

Georgia has “right-to-work” laws, which make it very difficult for workers in the state to join unions — just 3.9 percent of Georgia workers are currently in a union, and the state’s labor unions support overturning the laws. Georgia also specifically prohibits collective bargaining for some public workers, such as teachers. Still, neither candidate is campaigning on addressing the barriers to unionization. Their reticence here is hardly novel, however, as party leaders on both sides of the aisle have consistently refused to touch these laws.

The Campaign Creates a Candidate’s Mandate to Govern

It is impossible to address issues like taxes, the minimum wage, and unions in Georgia without the approval of the legislature and the governor. Unlike many other states, individual citizens are unable to take an issue to voters through a ballot drive. Any constitutional amendment placed on Georgia’s ballot needs the support of two-thirds of the legislature.

The state’s legislature is currently overwhelmingly controlled by the Republican Party — with nearly two-thirds of seats owned by the GOP. But there are signs that the Republican firewall is eroding. Democrats performed well in the 2017 special elections, picking up legislative seats that were in 2016 considered so noncompetitive that Republicans ran unopposed.

Still, it is unlikely that Democrats will control Georgia’s severely gerrymandered legislature in 2019, even if they win the governor’s mansion. That means a potential Democratic governor will be faced with a choice: mobilize public opinion to pressure Georgia’s obstinate Republicans to support policies like increasing the minimum wage and boosting taxes on the rich to directly hire persistently unemployed Georgians, or negotiate with the GOP in private for more conservative policies. By drafting an economic plan without a concrete minimum wage proposal, Abrams may be choosing the former option, at least for now.

If Abrams or Evans adopted a populist platform that focused on addressing wealth inequality, Baradaran said, Georgians would likely rally behind them. “This was one of the seats of the Populist Party … back in the day,” she noted.

“You govern based on the coalition that elected you,” Lafer said of the importance of candidates to develop populist platforms, “because that’s the base that you can rely on and who you’re indebted to. The way you campaign mobilizes a certain kind of base.”

He pointed out that state-level business lobbies are incredibly powerful and often effective at snuffing out populist laws. In order to challenge them, politicians have to build widespread public support through their campaigns.

A Democratic governor would have to be prepared to fight a right-wing legislature by mobilizing the public and forcing lawmakers to take votes they current don’t want to take.

“To say we want to do something that [the American Legislative Exchange Council] and the Chamber of Commerce and the [National Federation of Independent Business] and everybody else really hates takes so much that you have to actually build some kind of popular demand for it through your campaign, otherwise you’ve got nothing,” he said. “OK you have a smart idea and a nice whatever, a nice policy paper, but you don’t have an actual political coalition that is a political counterweight that could make it safe for you to do that.”

Winfield, the congressional candidate, told The Intercept that state elected officials by their nature can’t be as ambitious as the federal government. “Statewide elections operate, with some respect, a much more confined context than someone running for national office,” he told us. “But especially in a state like Georgia, where you have almost a Republican supermajority in the state legislature, what a Democratic governor will be able to do will be largely constrained unless there’s a political upheaval in the composition of the legislature.”

If Abrams and Evans are shying away from populist policy proposals to court Republican lawmakers they would have to negotiate with in 2019, this strategy may even frustrate some of the policy they are campaigning on. For instance, both candidates support Georgia expanding the Medicaid program. Medicaid expansion is popular among the public: 75 percent of Georgians, including a majority of self-identified Republicans, told pollsters in early 2017 that they back it. But Georgia’s legislature voted in 2014 to require the governor to seek legislative approval before any Medicaid expansion. There is only a single Republican senator on record in favor of that approval.

That means a Democratic governor would have to be prepared to fight a right-wing legislature by mobilizing the public and forcing lawmakers to take votes they current don’t want to take.

U.S. Senator Zell Miller (D-GA) speaks to supporters of U.S. President George W. Bush during a rally at the Escambia County Republican Headquarters November 1, 2004 in Pensacola, Florida.

Photo: Stephen Morton/Getty Images

A Lesson from Zell Miller

Abrams and Evans need to look back only 20-odd years to find a successful model of a candidate mobilizing public support in favor of a controversial proposal. “I would give them the Zell Miller and lottery example,” said Thompson, the progressive Democratic state senator, referring to the process that gave Georgia its HOPE Scholarship. “That is how Zell Miller won election. The people didn’t think it would pass, but you have to remember it polled incredibly well.”  

For all its warts — most notably the regressive nature of its funding —  it was one of the Democrats’ great achievements in Georgia, as it was the most far-reaching free college program of its time when Miller established it in the early 1990s.

The legislative environment today is different, but not so different as to make a repeat impossible. Moderate to conservative Democrats dominated the legislature in the ’90s, as opposed to the conservative Republicans now in power. But Miller faced opposition from his own party and the state’s press, and winning them over was no small feat.

He won HOPE’s passage by aggressively taking the issue to the public — a model a future governor could use to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicaid, or legalize marijuana.

Miller had to overcome long-held Southern opposition to state lotteries, and he had powerful opponents in the legislature. Then-House Majority Leader Tom Murphy, a fellow Democrat, blocked then-Lieutenant Gov. Miller’s proposal. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the state’s major newspaper, derided the lottery as “public policy Hula-Hoop” and told him to “shut up, please, and talk about something that matters.”

Miller faced opposition from his own party and the state’s press, and winning them over was no small feat.

But Miller stood alone in the Democratic primary for governor as a candidate who made establishing a lottery a campaign issue. He won both the primary and the general election.

The Journal-Constitution polled the legislature after Miller’s election and found that while the majority of senators supported creating a lottery, just 44 percent of House members backed it.

Miller could have interpreted this as the death of his marquee policy idea: a state lottery to fund education.

Instead, he used his inaugural address to push for the lottery, the only campaign idea that found its way into his speech. He aggressively courted dissenting lawmakers and eventually persuaded two-thirds of the legislature to send the issue to the public through a constitutional referendum. Voters approved the lottery 52 to 48 percent.

Political scientists Michael Nelson and John Lyman Mason later wrote, “Zell Miller’s efforts as the policy entrepreneur for the Georgia lottery succeed to an extent matched by few other policy entrepreneurs at any level of government. He placed the lottery at the top of the political agenda at a time when no other prominent political leader in his state was willing to do so.”

When Miller retired from the governor’s mansion in 1999, he had an 85 percent approval rating, making him Georgia’s most popular governor in history.

Top photo: Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, and Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, confer in the floor of House on Monday, March 6, 2017, in Atlanta.

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