Tuesday night was supposed to be fire. In the 24 hours before the first Georgia governor’s debate between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp the national press started dropping bombs like Outkast. First, Richard Fausset of the New York Times posted a story about Stacey Abrams attending the burning of the old Confederate Georgia flag when she was a freshman at Spelman college in 1992. Fausset has a moist spot in his heart for white nationalists and Nazis, so it’s no surprise he wrote the story and there’s a certain segment of Georgia voters who might care about a decommissioned flag being burned. Just hours before the debate Jamil Smith dropped an exclusive in Rolling Stone magazine, featuring leaked audio of Brian Kemp, actively complaining about Democrats exercising their right to vote. Kemp is still serving as Georgia Secretary of State while running for governor, a huge conflict of interest since he’s essentially refereeing his own fight.
I expected the debate would be an MMA melee of race, voting rights and activism. Instead it was absolute trash. It was an embarrassment to local journalism, and a wasted opportunity. A group of 4 year olds trying to explain the plot of Hamilton; a house cat pouncing at its own reflection in the mirror; or a Ted Talk by Kanye West would all have been more effective, compelling and challenging than the dreck that the moderator and panelists put forward for the people of Georgia to watch for 60 minutes. Yes, Stacey Abrams won hands down, but the people of Georgia truly lost.
Why was the debate so bad? Format and questions. The format of short rounds established by the Atlanta Press Club for the debate was fine, and Lisa Rayam of Georgia Public Broadcasting did an above average job of keeping the candidates within their allotted time. Unfortunately neither she, nor anybody else tasked with asking candidates questions asked about the biggest story of the campaign.
For weeks, CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post and half a dozen other news outlets have been focusing on Brian Kemp’s track record of voter suppression, and the inherent conflict of interest of him continuing to serve as secretary of state while running for governor. Just hours before the debate actual audio of the man talking about voter suppression dropped and not one person asked him about it. That would be like having the Access Hollywood tape drop in the 2016 election, but Anderson Cooper chooses not to ask Trump about it in the next debate. I asked two of the panelists directly, “Why did you not ask a question about the Rolling Stone story with the leaked audio of Brian Kemp? Why didn’t you just play the tape and ask him to respond?” They sheepishly said that they assumed Stacey Abrams or some other panelist would bring up the question. It was a total abdication of journalistic responsibility. Imagine going to the movies, nothing shows up on screen and the usher announces, “Hey we thought one of you would like, y’know bring an Amazon fire stick or something.” That was the debate. Yet despite overlooking the single biggest story that could impact the outcome of the election Stacey Abrams was still asked about burning an old flag almost 30 years ago. I guess the panelists thought burning an old racist flag was more relevant today than over 1 million people being purged from voter rolls without their knowledge.
Mind you that wasn’t the only strange thing about the Georgia governor’s debate. About 5 minutes into the debate a fire alarm went off. Literally in the middle of a question by Greg Bluestein from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to Libertarian candidate Ted Metz klaxons start going and we’re all looking around the room wondering what’s going on. The candidates were rattled. The reporters were rattled nobody knew what was happening.
After a few minutes of confusion we were told we had to leave the building, then as everyone was walking out a representative from Georgia Broadcasting claimed it was “just a faulty wire” and that the debate would resume. I’m not conspiracy theorist, nor an election official, nor did I stay in a Holiday Inn Express but that sounded like absolute garbage. For whatever reason I believe someone pulled that fire alarm, and the way that the whole instance was just swept under the rug left me even more skeptical. It’s not like cheating is unheard of in debates.
Once you got past the milquetoast questions, the mysterious fire alarm and the overall strange energy in the press room that night, an actual debate did take place. On the merits, Stacey Abrams won. She effectively answered questions about her finances, the history of her voter registration organizations and laid out a few plans for criminal justice reform and tackling drug addiction in Georgia. When asked about her years of debt and deferred taxes she gave perhaps her best answer of the night. Abrams has been candid about the fact that she was financially responsible for her parents and other relatives for years when they fell upon hard times. “You can defer your tax payments,” she said. “You can’t defer cancer treatment.”
Just as important Abrams, who came across a bit nervous at first, began to warm up at the debate went on, smiled more and got animated as the questions continued. Brian Kemp by contrast seemed calm from the beginning but almost, detached, maybe even a little grumpy. I can scarcely remember him smiling once during the debate even when he was attempting to make a joke. He had no answer about why he is in so much debt, he lied about expanding voting rights in Georgia, and generally didn’t seem all that happy to be there. While I doubt the debate changed anyone’s mind I don’t think Republicans could have been enthused with such a lukewarm performance from their standard bearer. Ted Metz, the Libertarian candidate, was an odd mixture of spoiler and unintentional comedy relief during the debate. Just about every one of his answers was about legalizing weed, which he believes, helps the economy, solves environmental issues and cures bad breath. At best he might have just ensured that there’s a runoff.
Tonight was just another reminder that the Atlanta press is ambivalent if not outright hostile towards Stacey Abrams while giving Brian Kemp a free pass, something that was crystalized in my mind at the end of the night. The two major party candidates left the debate immediately afterwards, offering no comments or statements. Kemp claimed he had a flight to catch which seemed unlikely since his campaign is primarily a bus tour. As I walked out of Georgia Public Broadcasting I asked a middle-aged white woman who helped organize the debates for directions out of the building. She pointed toward a side stair and sneered “That’s the Stacey Abrams escape route!” I asked her how did Brian Kemp leave the building and she smiled and said he left through the front door. As if that was some great accomplishment for a white man to walk out a front door with half a dozen staff. I’m convinced if I hadn’t just left the press area she’d have pulled a Public Radio Patty move on me and called the cops.
Stacey Abrams equipped herself well in a debate that was hampered by poor organization, mysterious malfunctions, some biased organizers and a local press that veers from feckless to hostile. Her campaign will be fine, she’ll soldier on, but the engaged voters of Georgia deserve much better.