In their second Sandy Springs forum in as many days, the two Democrats vying to challenge Republican Karen Handel for the 6th Congressional District seat competed in a political balancing act: bashing the GOP while calling for civility and compromise, and taking shots at each other while pledging party unity.

Kevin Abel, a South African immigrant and businessman, and Lucy McBath, a national gun control advocate, squared off at the June 27 forum at the Weber School, with Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter Greg Bluestein as moderator, in advance of their July 24 primary runoff election. Organized by the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon, the forum drew at least 250 people to hear their pitches on how to win a Republican-majority district where Democrat Jon Ossoff ran a close-but-no-cigar campaign just a year ago.

From left, moderator Greg Bluestein of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and candidates Kevin Abel and Lucy McBath prepare for the forum before a full house at the Weber School June 27. (John Ruch)

“I’m the candidate who can win the votes that can flip this district,” said Abel, a Sandy Springs resident who touted his local ties and a center-left approach that he claims will attract independents and disaffected Republicans. The district includes parts of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs as well as parts of Cobb and north Fulton counties.

“I have credibility and life experience beyond the policy positions…,” said McBath, a Delta flight attendant turned gun control advocate who cited her personal struggles as making her relatable to voters. She said she’s a two-time cancer survivor and, most notably, lost her son Jordan Davis in an infamous 2012 murder by a gunman outraged by loud music from a car stereo.

The forum came on a day Democrats were reeling from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement announcement, leaving President Trump poised to set a presumptively solid conservative court majority. The candidates only mentioned it in passing, but it was the mood in the room, as described in an introduction by Valerie Habif, co-founder of the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon.

After describing the term “woke,” meaning a radical type of political awareness, she said, “Today was a tough day. Today was a day to be woke.”

It was also a day for Democrats to be together, she added, and two other Democratic candidates who have already won their nominations – lieutenant governor candidate Sarah Riggs Amico and attorney general candidate Charlie Bailey – delivered audience-rousing speeches as a forum warm-up.

GOP relations

In the forum, Abel and McBath both criticized Trump and the Republican Party, while also saying compromise is important.

Focusing on his key issue of immigration, Abel blasted the GOP as “dredging up hate.” Likewise, McBath said she “knew in the pit of my soul” that Trump and Republican legislators would do nothing new on gun control in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting earlier this year despite the president’s claims of action.

Kevin Abel speaks during the June 27 forum. (John Ruch)

Yet Abel also said he is good at compromise. “Republicans aren’t bad people. They just see policy from a different angle,” he said. And McBath claimed that some unnamed Republican legislators “work with us behind closed doors” on gun control policy.

Both candidates also opposed public shaming of Republican leaders – a “civility” issue recently raised by a Virginia restaurant refusing to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders due to the administrations LGBT rights and immigration policies.

McBath said that shaming opponents won’t change minds. “When they go low, we go high,” she said, quoting former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Abel said he understood a restaurant not serving the president’s “mouthpiece” — “I would have, too” — but “civil discourse must not be lost in this country… We lose if we start playing the game on their own terms.”

On Handel and each other

Then again, the candidates had harsh criticisms of Handel when asked about policy differences and what they “admire” about her.

Abel blasted Handel as “condoning” Trump’s recently rescinded policy of separating and confining children from parents accused of illegally entering the country at the Mexican border and “nailing every nail into her political coffin” by silencing U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu’s (D-Calif.) broadcasting of a recording of screaming immigrant children from Congressional floor discussion. Abel gave Handel “credit” – he held his fingers up in mock quotes – for criticizing Trump’s tariffs, but claimed she did so out of fear of his business-minded candidacy.

McBath – who referred to Abel as “Mr. Handel” in an apparently accidental slip of the tongue – said she agreed with him. While Handel aligns with Trump, McBath said, “I’m sorry, I can’t give her much credit for anything.”

The candidates also targeted each other, with McBath questioning Abel’s Democratic loyalty and Abel questioning McBath’s commitment as a latecomer to the race.

Lucy McBath speaks during the June 27 forum. (John Ruch)

McBath repeated her claims that Abel in unspecified writings once called for raising the eligibility age for Social Security benefits and for creating a third political party. Abel flatly denied the Social Security position, but did not directly address the third-party claim, saying only that he has thought for a long time about politics, while making his current Democratic allegiance clear.

Abel asked McBath why she had not attended the pre-primary round of local candidate forums. That included a previous one also hosted by the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon, where organizers at the time said she had reported a death in her family. McBath acknowledged that she skipped those forums because she was not ready after switching from a run for a state legislature seat. “I had to figure out where I was going and how I was going to get there,” she said.

Questioned by Dunwoody activist Jill Vogin, the candidates pledged to support each other in the general election, whoever prevails in the runoff.

Healthcare and other issues

On several major issues, the candidates largely agreed, though Abel generally provided more detailed policy ideas and McBath spoke more generally of acting as a deal-broker.

Both said they are cancer survivors who agreed healthcare is a right. Both said they would not call for impeaching Trump unless there was a bad report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible Russian influence on the 2016 presidential campaigns.

Both criticized the administration’s immigration policies and planned wall along the Mexican border, and both spoke in visceral terms based on their own experiences. Abel called the wall “a symbol of the nativism and hate of the Trump administration.” McBath likened the recently highlighted separation of children from families in immigration detention to her son’s murder.

“I know what it’s like to have your family torn apart. I know what it’s like to have your child torn from you,” she said.

One policy difference related to Israel. Abel supports Trump’s controversial decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, while McBath opposes it until a peace deal based on a two-state, Israel-Palestine concept is brokered.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.