The Audacity of a HOPE Scholar
Stacey Evans is still looking for ways to lower the ladder
Published in 2020 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on March 1, 2020
Updated on March 4, 2020
As a freshman in the Georgia House of Representatives in 2011, Stacey Evans was anticipating the good she could do. Yet no sooner had she walked through the doors of the capitol than Gov. Nathan Deal and his allies announced deep cuts to the HOPE Scholarship.
That felt personal.
It wasn’t just that she ran on a campaign highlighting education; Evans wouldn’t have been a lawmaker, a lawyer, or even a college graduate, if it hadn’t been for the HOPE Scholarship.
“I spoke against [the cuts],” says Evans, who also ran for governor in 2018. “But I was a freshman in a minority party, so you can imagine how well that went.” Even so, she says, “I felt it incumbent upon me to share my story.”
Born in Ringgold to a teenage mom, Evans lived in 16 houses by the time she was 18. Electricity wasn’t a sure bet; neither was a phone. Her mother, a carpet mill worker, had a string of bad relationships after she divorced the man who had adopted Evans, and Evans sometimes witnessed domestic abuse and drug abuse. “It pushed me toward a better life,” she says. “I knew I needed to go to college; I just didn’t know how I would pay for it.”
Then she heard about the HOPE Scholarship, a program created in 1993, which guaranteed a higher education to Georgia students with at least a B average. As a result, she became the first in her family to attend college.
“Until I got to campus, I didn’t really realize how unusual that was,” she recalls. “Everybody seemed to have parents, and even grandparents and great-grandparents, who had not only gone to college but gone to the University of Georgia. … I was interested in figuring out why there were so few of me, and then working to fix the problem.”
After law school, she joined Powell Goldstein, where she worked with famed litigator L. Lin Wood. She also joined the board of Georgia’s WIN (Women in Numbers) List, which supports Democratic women running for office. After several years, she decided to run for office herself.
2011 was a momentous year: She and Wood opened Wood, Hernacki & Evans to handle a huge whistleblower case involving allegations of Medicare fraud against DaVita HealthCare Partners; and she began her first term as a state representative.
That’s when the HOPE Scholarship fell under the axe. Republicans ended up raising the required GPA for full tuition to 3.7 and adding a minimum SAT score of 1200. “So what you have now,” Evans says, “is what a lot of people refer to as HOPE Light. It covers a percentage of tuition, just depending on how lottery revenues are doing, but it’s not a predictable amount; it doesn’t cover fees. It really puts college out of reach.”
Evans focused on restoring the HOPE Scholarship for students at technical colleges. “After the cuts, a quarter of the tech college student body was gone,” she recalls. By 2013, the tech GPA requirement was back to 2.0, and in 2014 a subgrant was created for full tuition for tech college students with a 3.5 GPA.
But as far as the main HOPE Scholarship, there seemed little hope in dialing back the cuts.
That’s why, in 2017, she left the House to run for governor. “I felt like I had reached the wall of what I could do in the minority party of the Legislature for higher education,” she says. She got her mother’s OK to tell their personal story; in fact, her mom and adoptive dad worked together on her gubernatorial campaign and started dating again. “So it really brought people together,” Evans says with a smile.
On the campaign trail, she says, “The problems that I heard were not surprising, and even the depth of the problems was not necessarily surprising. What was surprising to me was hearing the depth of the problems and knowing that they’ve been going on forever. And people have been running for office forever: running for governor and sitting down with maybe not the same people but folks who were having similar problems.”
Her opponent in the Democratic primary was Stacey Abrams, and the media had a field day pitting the two Staceys against each other. (The New York Daily Intelligencer assembled a composite photo, featuring half of each Stacey’s face.) But what disappointed Evans more was how some national organizations she’d always supported endorsed her opponent in the primary. “You should let the candidates fight it out and save your money for the general election—to fight the other party,” she says. “Why would organizations committed to our shared goals pick one over the other?”
After Abrams won the primary, Evans took a much-needed vacation with husband Andrew and daughter Ashley (they now have a second child, Jack), then worked to support Abrams and other Democratic candidates.
In 2014, Evans had opened her own firm while continuing to work with Wood on the whistleblower case, which settled in 2015 for $450 million. Evans used $500,000 of her fee to create the Stacey Godfrey Evans Scholarship at UGA School of Law for first-generation college graduates. She calls it “the favorite thing I’ve ever been able to do.”
After the general election, she moved on to Wargo French, worked on another whistleblower case, intending to return to politics someday. The retirement of state Rep. Pat Gardner, announced in early December, pushed that day up significantly. Evans quickly announced she would run for Gardner’s seat.
“As I see what’s happening at the state and national level,” she says, “I can’t sit by and keep my experience on the sidelines.”