The two Democrats on the July 24 runoff ballot seeking the chance to unseat U.S. Rep. Karen Handel in the 6th Congressional District faced off at a Sandy Springs forum June 25, each trying to set themselves apart among party voters eager to turn the Republican-leaning district blue.

Lucy McBath, standing, and Kevin Abel, seated at left, participated in a Democratic forum at Sandy Springs United Methodist Church. At the far left is moderator Steven Griffin. (Dyana Bagby)

Lucy McBath, a national gun control advocate, and Kevin Abel, a South African immigrant and businessman, participated in a public forum at Sandy Springs United Methodist Church that attracted more than 200 people. The forum was sponsored by Indivisible Georgia Sixth District, a group founded last year to help Democrats win office.

Steven Griffin, who also ran for the 6th Congressional District Democratic nomination, was the moderator.

The two were the top vote-getters in the May primary election. While there were a few testy exchanges between the two at the June 25 forum, each promised to support each other in the November election if they lost in the runoff.

Both candidates also took the opportunity to slam President Donald Trump and Handel on numerous issues, including immigration reform and gun control, while also tying Handel to the dysfunction and antagonism of Trump’s administration.

In his opening statement, Abel criticized Handel for recently silencing an audio played by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) of children crying in a detention center while Handel took her turn presiding over the House.

“What we are seeing harkens back to the darkest days of our American history,” Abel said of the GOP’s hardline immigration stance, denouncing the “nativist” policies supported by a “complicit Congress.”

In some of her remarks, McBath shared her story of becoming a national gun control activist after her son was shot and killed in 2012 in Florida over a dispute about loud music. Her work has taken her to state capitals and the U.S. Capital to lobby and testify for gun reform.

She said she spent a great deal of time working with legislators across the country but now wants to serve the 6th District. “I’m not a politician … but I have the ability to serve you,” she said. She said she has experience as a “bridge builder.”

“I’m a problem solver. I’m a woman. That’s what we do,” she said.

Some of the topics discussed included:

More than 200 people attended a forum for Democratic candidates Lucy McBath and Kevin Abel at Sandy Springs United Methodist Church and sponsored by Indivisible Georgia Sixth District. (Dyana Bagby)

Abel on being labeled a centrist: Abel said as a 26-year resident of the 6th District he knows a Democratic candidate has to appeal to independent Republicans to win. He said the “flip the 6th” motto in last year’s special election between Handel and Jon Ossoff was likely a turnoff with those specific voters. And with $20 million spent on Ossoff and still no victory, a Democratic candidate must acknowledge the district’s right-leaning voter base, he said.

When asked by an attendee during a Q&A portion of the forum how, if he were to win the runoff, his campaign would stack up along Stacey Abrams, the progressive Democratic candidate for governor, Abel said that Abrams is running a statewide campaign with a different electorate than the 6th District.

He added he found it upsetting to be labeled “not progressive” and said he hoped his stances on on women’s rights, gun control and LGBTQ rights gave him “progressive cred.” But he added he believed there was room for compromise on such issues as immigration and health care and it was important to have “reasonable” people on both sides of the aisle willing to work together to find common ground but not compromise their values.

McBath asked Abel about his past support for a centrist third party, noting, “I’ve always been a Democrat.”

Abel said he took great offense to the suggestion he was not a true Democrat, saying all his positions on major issues uphold Democratic values.

On funding their campaigns: Everytown for Gun Safety, largely funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spent $830,000 on digital and direct mail ads and TV ads on McBath’s primary campaign. Abel accused McBath of accepting Super PAC “dark money” through Everytown for Gun Safety, saying there was a disconnect because she has also been endorsed by End Citizens United, a PAC that champions campaign finance reform. He also noted his donor base consists of some 1,300 people, with some 1,200 being from metro Atlanta. He did say he supported the missions of Everytown for Gun Safety and End Citizens United and apologized for seemingly attacking what Evertytown for Gun Safety stands for.

McBath argued back her campaign funding is all above board and not considered “dark money.” She also said she has not self-funded her campaign, saying Abel has donated more than $100,000 of his own money to his campaign.

However moderator Steven Griffin pointed out that as a 501(c)4, Everytown for Gun Safety is considered dark money.

Both candidates promised to not compromise on issues such as equality for LGBT people and said they oppose “religious freedom” bills and opposed Trump’s transgender military ban.

Correction and update: This story has been updated to clarify that Abel said Everytown for Gun Safety is a super PAC and is able to contribute dark money to campaigns, not End Citizens United, which is a grassroots organization and publicly discloses all money it receives.

End Citizens United’s Deputy Communications Director Bawadden Sayed issued a statement on its support of McBath:

“We endorsed Lucy McBath because she is the strongest candidate to take on the rigged system and fight to end the outsized and undue influence of big money special interest groups — like the NRA. She’ll help put an end to super PACs and dark money in elections on both sides by helping to pass reforms that eliminate unlimited and undisclosed spending. She understands that in Washington today, politicians are not serving the people, they serve their donors. The only way to change that is to throw out members of Congress, like Karen Handel, who are stacking the deck for their donors, and elect candidates who will pass real reforms.”

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.