More than 300 people made the trip to Hamilton Crossing Park in Cartersville Friday afternoon to hear a speech from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who discussed her statewide plans for health care, education and business.
"I'm going to work tooth and nail, day and night until we expand Medicaid in the state of Georgia," she said. "It's about half a million Georgians, a lot of them working poor folks who work two jobs, just enough that they can't get insurance from either job, but too many jobs so they can't afford health insurance."
Expanding Medicaid in Georgia, she continued, wasn't just about improving health care access. She said it also had a major impact on local economics.
"That's one of the best ways to save rural hospitals," she said. "It's also the only way to create access to the health care necessary to be able to attract new companies to come back to rural Georgia."
Furthermore, she said Medicaid expansion would create 56,000 new jobs in Georgia — an estimated 60 percent, she said, that would be outside of the metro Atlanta area.
"It's about creating opportunity, it's about senior citizens being allowed to age in place instead of being shuffled off to a nursing home because they can't afford in-home health care," Abrams added. "That's what Medicaid expansion does."
Expanding the joint federal and state health care program, Abrams said, is also needed to improve mental health care in Georgia.
"The problem is in the South, if you don't have Medicaid expansion, you don't get mental health care unless you're in prison," she said. "In the state of Georgia, the No. 1 provider for mental health support is not our hospitals, it's law enforcement, and our sheriffs didn't sign up to be doctors and our police chiefs didn't sign up to be jailers of the sick."
Abrams also touted an initiative to bring 22,000 skilled apprenticeships — which she said would be in careers averaging $60,000 in annual salaries — to Georgia by 2022.
"We are spending $1 billion a year on transportation projects, and yet we're bringing in labor from around the country because we don't have the skilled labor force we need here at home," she said. "That's a solvable problem."
Abrams said she believes technical colleges in Georgia should be free to attend.
"In 2011, we had to make some adjustments because of the Great Recession," she said. "But the Great Recession is gone and opportunity is here and we need to take advantage of it ... it's not just about those who are graduating from our high schools, it's about those who've seen their jobs leave them behind, who need to be able to go back to school and get a new skill and don't have to take out loans to learn how to take care of their families."
She also said she would like to see changes to how — and to whom — the HOPE Scholarship is administered.
"I fought hard to protect the HOPE Scholarship in 2011, when it nearly became a scholarship only for the elite in Georgia, I made certain that the Republicans worked with me to keep in place the B average, because it was important that we keep a threshold, but HOPE has always had a little bit of a flaw," she said. "I don't know about you, but I come from a family with some strong Cs and some Ds doing the best they can, and they deserve a chance to go to college, too ... that C average in organic chemistry might lead to someone who believes he can be a doctor, a woman who knows she can be an engineer if she's willing to take that tough calculus class."
Abrams also proposed the creation of a statewide $10 million small business financing fund.
"I'm just as excited as anyone else about the possibility of Amazon bringing 50,000 jobs to Georgia, but I will be the governor who invests in 5,000 small businesses to help them create 10 jobs each," she said. "The taxpayers of Georgia might want to invest in each other, that we might want to create this pool of money that will help the private sector do its job and get access to capital."
Another campaign promise, Abrams said, is increasing internet access in Georgia's more rural regions.
"We have to expand access to rural broadband, we have to treat it the same way we treated rural electrification in the 1920s," she said. "That has to be a state responsibility, working in cooperation with the public and private sectors on the local level to make sure we do expansion."
The devastation wrought by Hurricane Michael, she said, emphasizes a need for the state to reassess its emergency response protocols.
"We are going to continue to talk about plans for how we think about recovery, not just in the immediate aftermath, but long-term," she said. "We've lost generational crops, like pecan trees, and we need to make certain we are thinking about rural Georgia long-term, especially our agricultural sector."
Less than three weeks away from the Nov. 6 election to determine Georgia's next governor, Abrams touched upon allegations that Republican gubernatorial challenger Brian Kemp has intentionally stalled the registration status of approximately 53,000 voters throughout the state.
"Voter suppression only works when we let it work," she said. "Because there are enough of us that we can give them a permanent retirement so they have time to think about their decisions. That's what I would like to do."