Originally updated: Oct. 29, 2018, 8:36 a.m.
Speaking to a crowd at Brenau University’, Stacey Abrams said “Georgia has to prove we have a soul.”
Abrams and Sarah Riggs Amico, Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, stopped at the university Pearce Auditorium in Gainesville on Friday as part of a statewide bus tour.
On Nov. 6, Abrams will compete against Republican Brian Kemp and Libertarian Ted Metz for the position of governor. Riggs Amico faces Republican Geoff Duncan.
Some ways to show the state has a soul, Abrams said, are programs like wraparound services in Georgia schools, adequate health care and access to mental health treatment — and protecting civil rights.
Abrams told of being invited to the Governor’s Mansion after becoming valedictorian of her DeKalb County high school, but when she arrived after taking public transit with her parents, a staff member at the gate assumed she was not on the guest list.
“The only thing I remember about that event is a man standing in front of the most powerful place in Georgia, looking at me and telling me I don’t belong,” Abrams said. “With your help, on Nov. 6, we’re going to open those gates wide.”
Abrams vowed to be “the public education governor,” saying that fully funding Georgia’s schools for just one year was not enough. The state’s Quality Basic Education formula, which determines state funding for public schools, was fully funded for the first time this year since its inception in 1985.
What happens in a student’s life outside the classroom determines how successful they can be in school, she said, so wraparound services are needed to help Georgia students.
“The children who come to school hungry on Monday because they last ate Friday at lunch cannot learn with even the best teacher,” Abrams said. “A child who saw someone get hit in his household but does not have the language to describe it needs a counselor.”
Abrams also said she hopes to create jobs, but she also wants those jobs to provide living wages.
“You shouldn’t have to move to make a living. … The current governor has done a good job of bringing jobs to Georgia,” Abrams said. “The problem is too many of us have too many of those jobs. You should only have to have one job to make a living in the state of Georgia.”
Abrams said she hopes to create a $10 million small business financing fund because the state has attracted large businesses, but she also wants to support “Main Street businesses.”
Renewable energy can also be a job creator, she said.
But at the root of the other issues is health care, Abrams said, so she vowed to improve health care access for Georgians. Abrams said her first priority as governor would be Medicaid expansion.
Abrams stressed the importance of not just physical health but mental health, noting that the state’s prison system is a major provider of mental health services.
“We ask our law enforcement to act as doctors,” she said. “They arrest folks not because they’re dangerous, because they’re sick. We know that a lot of folks who have substance abuse issues have them because they’re self-medicating mental health challenges.”
Abrams said her brother, Walter, has been in and out of prison and rehab due to a heroin addiction. Walter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was able to get the medication he needed while he was in prison. He became stable and sober when he was able to get medication, Abrams said, but lost that health care access when he left prison.
He struggled to find employment or housing because of his criminal record, she said.
Riggs Amico, the lieutenant governor candidate and a business owner from Marietta, who spoke before Abrams at the event at Brenau, said she had many of the same priorities, including school funding and Medicaid expansion.
Riggs Amico told supporters to encourage people they know to vote.
“I need you to talk to every friend, family member, neighbor, colleague. ... You tell them their vote matters,” she said.
Myrtle Figueras, a former Gainesville mayor and councilwoman, said people in Hall County are excited about the Abrams campaign. Figueras said she has followed Abrams’ career in the state legislature and trusts her leadership.
“She is invested in human beings. She believes in service to all,” Figueras said. “She feels the pulse of the nation and of this state.”
Sisters Audrey Simmons of Gainesville and Val Coley of Flowery Branch also attended Friday’s rally to show their support.
“She’s verbal, she’s sincere. It’s not just politics with her. She cares,” Simmons said.
Abrams is honest, Simmons said, and has been forthcoming in explaining controversies such as her involvement in the burning of a state flag that featured a Confederate symbol while she was in college.
Simmons said she likes how Abrams has reached across the aisle to work with Republicans.
Coley said she appreciates that Abrams is family-oriented.
“When someone cares about their family, they care about everyone,” Coley said.
Democratic Attorney General candidate Charlie Bailey and Josh McCall, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives District 9, also spoke at Friday’s rally.
Kyle Leineweber, president of Brenau College Democrats, which organized the event, also addressed the crowd before Abrams spoke. Abrams was introduced by Margie Gill, assistant director of Brenau’s counseling center and founder of Tabitha’s House, an organization for trafficking victims.