Anti-BDS legislation enacted by the Georgia General Assembly in 2016 was one of the biggest divisions between gubernatorial candidates Stacey Evans and Stacey Abrams during a forum held by the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon on Thursday night, Feb. 22, at Heritage Sandy Springs.

Both Democratic candidates for governor were state representatives when Georgia barred its vendors and contractors from politically boycotting Israel in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Evans joined the 96-70 majority; Abrams, the House minority leader, voted against the bill.

Evans said the legislation was a chance to show that Georgia and Israel are friends and allies. Abrams said that although she supports Israel’s right to exist and condemns BDS, she did not want to undermine the ability of others to use boycotts for political expression.

Related: Watch the candidates answer the BDS question

Stacey Abrams

Abrams said she told Democrats to vote their conscience on the matter, but Evans noted that Abrams, who rarely spoke on the House floor as minority leader, did so to fight the anti-BDS bill.

“You can that say you are against the BDS movement. When you have a chance to say it, you should do it,” Evans said.

The BDS issue, raised in a question by Lois Frank, was the only matter of special Jewish interest during the 70-minute discussion, although Abrams did express opposition to student scholarship organizations.

The SSO program grants $58 million a year in income tax credits to people who donate scholarship funds to private schools. Jewish day schools and some preschools rely on the program to help hundreds of students a year pay tuition. The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta advocates for the program each legislative session and created a separate nonprofit, the ALEF Fund, to facilitate the donations.

But in answering a question from Steve Labovitz about paying for her proposals, Abrams said the money lost to the state treasury through the SSO program could instead pay for 1 percent pay raises for public school teachers.

Stacey Evans

In speaking broadly about the need to fund public education from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, Evans did not address SSOs. She instead focused on auditing out unnecessary expenditures and using excessive state reserves to pay for education and other proposals, including a restoration of free technical college for all under the HOPE Scholarship program.

Although the two Democratic former state representatives named Stacey, both of whom rose from impoverished childhoods to become lawyers and politicians, joked about their surface similarities and emphasized that either of them would be a better successor to Gov. Nathan Deal than any of the Republican candidates, they tried to cite points of difference throughout the forum.

The HOPE Scholarship was one of those areas. Evans, who said HOPE enabled her to become the first person in her family to attend college, repeatedly criticized Abrams’ support for the legislation in 2011 that ended free technical college for all. Abrams said she showed leadership by helping craft a compromise that saved the program instead of standing on principle and letting it run out of money.

The candidates also disagreed on the best strategy for the first Democratic victory in a Georgia governor’s race since Roy Barnes was elected in 1998.

Abrams said Georgia has enough Democrats to win the election, so the party needs to focus on inspiring them to vote instead of trying to win over Republican women in the suburbs.

Evans said it’s a mistake not to show independents and moderate Republicans why they should back a progressive agenda. She cited Jon Ossoff’s near-miss in the 6th Congressional District special election last year: “We weren’t afraid to persuade.”

Still, in the context of potentially the first Democratic administration in Georgia in 20 years and the likelihood of having to work with Republican majorities in both chambers of the legislature, the candidates were in broad agreement on a progressive agenda. They tried to distinguish themselves through their personal stories: Evans as the daughter of a single teenage mother in rural Georgia who now is a wife and the mother of a 6-year-old daughter, Abrams as a Mississippi native and daughter of two Methodist ministers who has owned small businesses and faced racial discrimination and hopes to become the nation’s first black female governor.

Sheri Labovitz

The policy differences addressed through a series of questions from moderator Sheri Labovitz and the audience were matters of nuance open to audience interpretation — to the extent that Abrams defended her HOPE record only after saying “ditto” to Evans’ comments about the importance of vocational education and Georgia’s excellence at aligning industry needs with training programs.

For example, Abrams and Evans both oppose legislation that would use religious liberty to protect businesses and nonprofit groups from discrimination claims.

Evans blamed election-year politics rather than true belief for the latest recurrence of those proposals. She said she expects them to fade away in the next legislature; just to be sure, she said, she would walk around the Capitol with a veto pen tucked behind her ear.

Abrams said it’s important to recognize that religious liberty bills represent the real beliefs of many Georgians and that veto threats aren’t enough. “We will never get away from people who have bigotry and discrimination and hate in their hearts,” she said. “Our responsibility is to always lift up a louder voice to demand that good people say what must be done and that there’s never a question of where the governor stands when it comes to protecting our people.”

The candidates agreed on the need to spend an expected $3.6 billion state windfall from the federal tax reform law on health care and education. Both called for the state to accept the Medicaid expansion offered under the federal Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) to improve access to health care, support rural hospitals, create jobs and boost economic development.

The Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon, which says it has more than 1,000 members, packed Heritage Sandy Springs for the Democratic gubernatorial forum Feb. 22.

Both endorsed regional public transit cooperation and the expansion of rail and other transit solutions around the state. Both called for updating and fully funding the state’s formula for public schools. Both said that landing Amazon’s HQ2 would be great but that Georgia needs to do just as much to support small-business development.

Both said they’re eager to sign a repeal of Georgia’s campus-carry law, and both took shots at the National Rifle Association without offering specific responses to the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. Abrams said she’s proud to be the only candidate who has received a failing grade from the NRA every year, while Evans said she’s sure the NRA will spend millions to try to defeat whichever Stacey is on the Democratic side of the ballot.

Valerie Habif

Both envisioned better times for Democrats under fairer, post-2020 legislative redistricting. Both called for lifting up all parts of Georgia, not just metro Atlanta, where they live, and both pledged Democratic unity in the general election.

“We’re emboldened by the strength of your collective visions,” one of the salon’s leaders, Valerie Habif, told the candidates. “Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon does not endorse primary candidates, but know this: You are both in a room full of friends. You have inspired all of us.”