Democratic incumbents vie for redrawn House district seat

Reps. Saira Draper and Becky Evans who are competing for the new House District 90 seat in DeKalb County at a debate held on April 17, 2024 in Atlanta. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

ATLANTA — Democratic incumbents running in south DeKalb County’s newly drawn District 90 are in a political predicament: Longtime comrades, they now find themselves pitted against each other.

Reps. Saira Draper and Becky Evans met Wednesday on the debate stage at St. John’s Lutheran Church to make the case for why voters should choose them for the newly drawn district in the upcoming May primary. 

Mike St. Louis, chair of the Druid Hills Civic Association and moderator of the hourlong debate, lamented the“gratuitous” pairing of two Democratic incumbents in the same district drawn by Republicans who controlled the special legislative session on redistricting last year. The process was an effort to comply with a judge’s order to add more majority-Black districts. 

House District 90, which Draper represents, will still include the part of Atlanta that is in DeKalb County, as well as six new precincts in southwest DeKalb that were in District 89, where Evans serves. Each was elected in districts that were and remain majority-Black, solid-blue districts. 

No Republican or independent candidates qualified for the 2024 election for the new District 90. 

Draper and Evans began and ended Wednesday’s debate acknowledging their respect for each other, and their chagrin over their political predicament, while trying to draw distinctions on their legislative records and strengths. 

“This was not something that either of us asked for. It’s not something that either of us wanted,” Draper said. “And to me, it really underscores the fact that we have to get the majority in Georgia.” 

Draper, a civil rights attorney serving in the House since 2023, said what makes her “the best person for the job … really boils down to democracy and diversity.” She described herself as an elections and voting rights expert who helped to “flip Georgia blue for the first time in 30 years” during the 2020 presidential election and the 2022 midterms, when she said she “led the voting rights efforts” in Georgia for President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, for whom she oversaw campaign staff and thousands of volunteers. 

Draper said she’s now fighting to bring Democratic majorities back to the state House and Senate, which she estimated will likely take four to six years. 

In the meantime, she said she has worked to push through what legislation she can in the Republican-controlled House and cited as a small victory House Bill 1207, a bill she crafted that requires advanced proofing of ballots by candidates and election supervisors. Draper sought out five Republicans as co-signers to gain majority support for the bill, which passed in both chambers and awaits Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature. 

Democratic Reps. Becky Evans and Saira Draper vying for the newly drawn House District 90 seat in DeKalb County debated on April 17, 2024 at the St. John's Lutheran church in Atlanta. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

Noting that “diversity is a central tenet to the Democratic Party,” Draper said, “as a woman of color and as an immigrant, I bring perspectives to the table that are underrepresented at the Capitol.” 

Draper immigrated to the U.S. when she was 6 years old from England, where her Spanish mother and Pakistani father met. “That makes me Spakistani,” she said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “But it also makes me the only member of the Georgia General Assembly who is a member of the Hispanic caucus and the Asian American Pacific [Islander] caucus.”

Evans, a community organizer and political operative who has served in the House since 2019, emphasized her six years of experience building relationships with fellow legislators and delivering on measures to support education, the environment, gun safety and housing. 

“And I’m 100% pro-choice, 100% pro-LGBTQ and 100% pro-health care expansion,” Evans said, adding she is proud of her work developing legislation to promote literacy among school children over the past two years, including writing a bill last year to create the Georgia Council on Literacy and another bill to ensure that children are screened for dyslexia and other reading challenges and that teachers are trained in evidence-based reading and writing instruction. 

When her bills didn’t pass from the House to the Senate by the Crossover Day deadline in 2023, Evans said she persuaded Republican lawmakers in the Senate to adopt her legislation, which then passed. She now serves on the 30-member literacy council, which she said is working “to make sure that all of our children will have the broadest possible futures and that they can all learn how to read.”

Evans also said she was “proud to deliver this session $7.4 million in [federal] gun violence prevention awareness funds that will go out to community groups” and to support the passage of a bipartisan Senate bill that will give “[sales] tax breaks [on gun safety devices] where people are using their guns responsibly.” She said she also advocated for adding new funding for school security grants to the education budget, which was approved.

The candidates took similar positions on many issues, both decrying the private school voucher bill they said would drain funds from public schools, and the need for the state to better fund impoverished school districts. They described their individual efforts to curtail gun violence and promote voting rights, as well as detailed their years of experience in ground-level get-out-the-vote efforts in DeKalb County and metro Atlanta. Draper and Evans also expressed measured support of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, which they said is needed to train police and first responders. 

Among the 40 or so people in the audience, Lora Wuennenberg, 68, a Kirkwood resident and program manager at the humanitarian nonprofit CARE, said she emerged from the debate torn between the two candidates. Noting they have similar positions on the major issues she cares about, including public education, she said Draper, her current representative, impressed her as an “an activist who can mobilize people and is willing to stand up and stand out on some of the issues that may not be getting enough attention.” 

“Becky seemed more of a practical, behind-the-scenes organizer, someone who understands the bureaucracy of government and has a lot of established contacts,” Wuennenberg said, noting Evans has worked across the aisle and “found entry points” to get legislation passed. “In the Republican-controlled House, maybe she can be more effective than Saira.” 

Wuennenberg said over the next few weeks she’ll follow the candidates and look to see “how Saira thinks she can mobilize support for the bread-and-butter issues that have an impact on people’s lives” in the next legislative session. 

Arica Schuett, 36, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Emory who lives in Druid Hills, said she also needs to spend more time studying the candidates. 

Arica Schuett, a DeKalb County resident who attended the District 90 debate. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

She said Draper’s focus “on mobilizing voters and removing barriers to election participation resonated” with her, while Evans’ “experience and her ability to to work with constituencies that include Republicans is important. So getting a better understanding of how each candidate would manage their position in a really Republican Legislature is what’s important to me.”

Schuett said she plans to dive deeper into their proposed legislation and voting records. “I kind of want to look a little bit more at what they’ve done, right?”

The primary election will take place May 21. 

Have questions or comments? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on X @journalistajill or at [email protected]

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