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Georgia Democrat Challenges Racial Barrier in Governor Race

Georgia Democrats gave Atlanta lawyer Stacey Abrams a chance to become the first black female governor in American history on a primary night that ended well for several women seeking office.

Abrams set new historical marks with a primary victory Tuesday that made her the first black nominee and first female nominee for governor of either majority party in Georgia.

Voters also picked nominees in Kentucky, Arkansas and Texas ahead of the November midterms. A closer look at key story lines:

Georgia governor’s race

Democrats were set to nominate a woman for governor either way, with Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans battling it out in a pitched primary fight.

But the 44-year-old Abrams stood out in her bid to be the nation’s first African-American woman to lead a state. The former state General Assembly leader was insistent that the way to dent Republican domination in Georgia wasn’t by cautiously pursuing the older white voters who had abandoned Democrats over recent decades. Rather, she wanted to widen the electorate by attracting young voters and nonwhites who hadn’t been casting ballots.

She will test her theory as the underdog against either Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle or Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who will meet in Republican runoff in July. Cagle led a five-man Republican field, with Kemp qualifying for the second spot after a campaign that was a sprint to the right on everything from immigration to support for President Donald Trump.

Kemp promised to keep pulling in that direction, with Cagle trying to balance the demands of a conservative primary electorate with his support from the business establishment. The scenario worried some Georgia Republicans who were accustomed to centrist, business-aligned governors who rarely flouted Atlanta-based behemoths like Delta and Coca-Cola.

Some GOP figures worried the GOP gamesmanship on immigration and gay rights, in particular, already had ensured Georgia wouldn’t land Amazon’s second headquarters.

Texas congressional runoffs

Texas had three House runoffs that will be key to whether Democrats can flip the minimum 24 GOP-held seats they would need for a majority in next year’s Congress. All three were among 25 districts nationally where Trump ran behind Hillary Clinton in 2016. Democrats nominated women in two of the districts and a black man in the third.

Attorney Lizzie Fletcher far outpaced activist Laura Moser in a metro-Houston congressional contest that became a proxy for Democrats’ fight between liberals and moderates. National Democrats’ campaign committee never endorsed Fletcher, but released opposition research against Moser amid fears that she was too liberal to knock off vulnerable Republican Rep. John Culberson in the fall.

In a San Antonio-Mexican border district, Gina Ortiz Jones, an Air Force veteran and former intelligence officer, got Democrats’ nod to face Republican Rep. Will Hurd in November. Jones would be the first openly lesbian congresswoman from her state. Hurd is black.

Former NFL player Colin Allred won a battle of two attorneys and former Obama administration officials in a metro-Dallas House district. Allred, who is black, topped Lillian Salerno and will face Republican Rep. Pete Sessions in November. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee lined up behind Allred after the group’s initial favorite failed to make the runoff.

Among Republicans, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz showed off his endorsement muscle, with his former chief of staff, Chip Roy, winning a competitive runoff for a San Antonio-area congressional seat opened by the retirement of Rep. Lamar Smith.

In the governor’s race, Democrats tapped former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez to take on Republican incumbent Greg Abbott in November. Valdez is Texas’ first openly gay and first Latina nominee for governor.

Democrats battle in Kentucky

Voters in a central Kentucky congressional district opted for retired Marine officer and fighter pilot Amy McGrath over Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to advance to a fall campaign against Republican Rep. Andy Barr.

National Democrats once touted Gray as one of their best recruits in their efforts for a House majority. They said in recent weeks they’d be happy with McGrath, but the race still shaped up as a battle between rank-and-file activists and the party establishment.

McGrath was making her first bid for public office, among a handful of female Naval Academy graduates running for Congress this year.

Gray also lost a 2016 Senate race.

In eastern Kentucky’s Rowan County, voters denied the Democratic nomination to a gay candidate who wanted to challenge the local clerk who denied him and others same-sex marriage licenses.

David Ermold had wanted to face Republican Kim Davis, who went to jail three years ago for denying marriage licenses in the aftermath of an historic U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

Arkansas health care preview

While Washington fixates on the daily developments in the Russia election meddling investigation, Democratic congressional candidates insist they’ll win in November arguing about bread-and-butter issues like health care.

Arkansas state Rep. Clarke Tucker captured Democrats’ congressional nomination in a Little Rock-based district by telling his story as a cancer survivor. Though he faced a crowded primary field, his real target all along has been Republican Rep. French Hill, who voted many times to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

The Arkansas district may not be at the top of Democrats’ national target list, but it’s the kind of district the party might have to win to be assured of regaining House control in November.

The state’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, dispatched primary opposition as he sought another term. Democrats nominated former Teach for America executive Jared Henderson.

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Georgia Democrat Challenges Racial Barrier in Governor Race

Georgia Democrats gave Atlanta lawyer Stacey Abrams a chance to become the first black female governor in American history on a primary night that ended well for several women seeking office.

Abrams set new historical marks with a primary victory Tuesday that made her the first black nominee and first female nominee for governor of either majority party in Georgia.

Voters also picked nominees in Kentucky, Arkansas and Texas ahead of the November midterms. A closer look at key story lines:

Georgia governor’s race

Democrats were set to nominate a woman for governor either way, with Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans battling it out in a pitched primary fight.

But the 44-year-old Abrams stood out in her bid to be the nation’s first African-American woman to lead a state. The former state General Assembly leader was insistent that the way to dent Republican domination in Georgia wasn’t by cautiously pursuing the older white voters who had abandoned Democrats over recent decades. Rather, she wanted to widen the electorate by attracting young voters and nonwhites who hadn’t been casting ballots.

She will test her theory as the underdog against either Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle or Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who will meet in Republican runoff in July. Cagle led a five-man Republican field, with Kemp qualifying for the second spot after a campaign that was a sprint to the right on everything from immigration to support for President Donald Trump.

Kemp promised to keep pulling in that direction, with Cagle trying to balance the demands of a conservative primary electorate with his support from the business establishment. The scenario worried some Georgia Republicans who were accustomed to centrist, business-aligned governors who rarely flouted Atlanta-based behemoths like Delta and Coca-Cola.

Some GOP figures worried the GOP gamesmanship on immigration and gay rights, in particular, already had ensured Georgia wouldn’t land Amazon’s second headquarters.

Texas congressional runoffs

Texas had three House runoffs that will be key to whether Democrats can flip the minimum 24 GOP-held seats they would need for a majority in next year’s Congress. All three were among 25 districts nationally where Trump ran behind Hillary Clinton in 2016. Democrats nominated women in two of the districts and a black man in the third.

Attorney Lizzie Fletcher far outpaced activist Laura Moser in a metro-Houston congressional contest that became a proxy for Democrats’ fight between liberals and moderates. National Democrats’ campaign committee never endorsed Fletcher, but released opposition research against Moser amid fears that she was too liberal to knock off vulnerable Republican Rep. John Culberson in the fall.

In a San Antonio-Mexican border district, Gina Ortiz Jones, an Air Force veteran and former intelligence officer, got Democrats’ nod to face Republican Rep. Will Hurd in November. Jones would be the first openly lesbian congresswoman from her state. Hurd is black.

Former NFL player Colin Allred won a battle of two attorneys and former Obama administration officials in a metro-Dallas House district. Allred, who is black, topped Lillian Salerno and will face Republican Rep. Pete Sessions in November. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee lined up behind Allred after the group’s initial favorite failed to make the runoff.

Among Republicans, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz showed off his endorsement muscle, with his former chief of staff, Chip Roy, winning a competitive runoff for a San Antonio-area congressional seat opened by the retirement of Rep. Lamar Smith.

In the governor’s race, Democrats tapped former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez to take on Republican incumbent Greg Abbott in November. Valdez is Texas’ first openly gay and first Latina nominee for governor.

Democrats battle in Kentucky

Voters in a central Kentucky congressional district opted for retired Marine officer and fighter pilot Amy McGrath over Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to advance to a fall campaign against Republican Rep. Andy Barr.

National Democrats once touted Gray as one of their best recruits in their efforts for a House majority. They said in recent weeks they’d be happy with McGrath, but the race still shaped up as a battle between rank-and-file activists and the party establishment.

McGrath was making her first bid for public office, among a handful of female Naval Academy graduates running for Congress this year.

Gray also lost a 2016 Senate race.

In eastern Kentucky’s Rowan County, voters denied the Democratic nomination to a gay candidate who wanted to challenge the local clerk who denied him and others same-sex marriage licenses.

David Ermold had wanted to face Republican Kim Davis, who went to jail three years ago for denying marriage licenses in the aftermath of an historic U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

Arkansas health care preview

While Washington fixates on the daily developments in the Russia election meddling investigation, Democratic congressional candidates insist they’ll win in November arguing about bread-and-butter issues like health care.

Arkansas state Rep. Clarke Tucker captured Democrats’ congressional nomination in a Little Rock-based district by telling his story as a cancer survivor. Though he faced a crowded primary field, his real target all along has been Republican Rep. French Hill, who voted many times to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

The Arkansas district may not be at the top of Democrats’ national target list, but it’s the kind of district the party might have to win to be assured of regaining House control in November.

The state’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, dispatched primary opposition as he sought another term. Democrats nominated former Teach for America executive Jared Henderson.

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US House Bill Targets Recidivism with Enhanced Prison Job Training

The rate of incarceration in the U.S. is the world’s highest, leading to what many lawmakers and policy analysts say is a nationwide imprisonment epidemic. But the beginning of the end of that epidemic started Tuesday, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, told VOA.

A bipartisan prison reform bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a 360-59 vote “strikes an opening blow against the overcriminalization of the nation,” Jeffries, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said.

U.S. President Donald Trump said “the strong bipartisan vote paces the way for action by the Senate.” Last week, Trump endorsed the bill at a White House summit on prison reform, saying, “Our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens.”

If the bill reaches the president’s desk for a signature, it would provide $50 million in funding for five years to provide job training, education and substance abuse treatment for prisoners as well as a number of quality-of-life measures aimed at reducing chronically high rates of recidivism among former inmates.

Contentious issue

But the contentious issue of criminal justice reform has split Democrats and Republicans within their own parties, possibly jeopardizing the bill’s chances of passage as it heads to the U.S. Senate.

In a letter to colleagues last week, Democratic Senators Kamala Harris, Dick Durbin and Cory Booker joined two House Democratic colleagues, Representatives John Lewis and Sheila Jackson Lee, in saying the bill could not be implemented effectively and could possibly lead to prison privatization.

Jeffries told VOA many of the arguments against the First Step Act “were anchored in falsehoods.”

He added the legislation passed today “is a first step towards eradicating the cancer of mass incarceration”  a move also welcomed by many House Republicans.

“Rather than allowing the cycle of crime to continue, this legislation takes a practical, intelligent approach to rehabilitation,” House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, said, speaking of the bill’s reform measures on the House floor Tuesday.

The bill represents the first significant criminal justice reform effort since the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a measure that reduced the disparity in the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine required to trigger mandatory sentences for drug offenders.

But the First Step Act faces tough odds in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of senators is pushing for more comprehensive criminal justice reform.

The rival Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, championed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican, promises lower sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders and gives judges greater discretion at sentencing, among other provisions.

Nearly two dozen senators have signed on to the bill, but the White House opposes the measure.   

“We need a more strategic approach to drug sentencing that focuses law enforcement resources on violent career criminals and drug kingpins instead of nonviolent, lower-level offenders,” Grassley wrote in a recent op-ed for Fox News.

Sentencing laws

Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, instituted in the 1970s and 1980s, are widely blamed for a sharp rise in the number of U.S. prisoners in recent decades.

Though the number of U.S. prisoners has fallen in recent years, nearly half of the 184,000 inmates currently held in federal correction facilities are serving time for drug offenses, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

The divide in Congress over prison reform mirrors an unusual schism among longtime advocates of overhauling America’s criminal justice system.

At one end of the spectrum is a coalition of more than 100 advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who say the bill falls short of bringing about “meaningful” criminal justice reform.

In a letter on Monday, the group urged House members to vote down the bill, saying it fails to address “racial disparities, draconian mandatory sentences, persistent overcrowding, lack of rehabilitation, and the exorbitant costs of incarceration.”

At the other end of the divide is an unlikely grouping of more than 70 other organizations that support the legislation, ranging from Koch Industries, headed by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that opposes mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Kevin Ring, the group’s president, says the prospect of sentencing reform under the Trump administration is slim, leaving prison reform as the only viable alternative.

“What we don’t want to do is make the perfect the enemy of the good: kill a bill that has modest reforms that will help real people just because we’re waiting for something that’s not likely to happen in this administration,” Ring said.

Ring said he hopes negotiations in the Senate can lead to a compromise between the First Step Act and the bill advocated by Grassley.

At the White House summit last week, Trump urged lawmakers to “work out their differences” and send him a reform bill to sign.

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Trump Steps Up Attacks on Russia Probe

The U.S. Department of Justice is expanding an internal probe into whether there was any political motivation when the FBI first began investigating Russian meddling in 2016 during the presidential election. President Trump met with top Justice Department officials Monday following his claim via Twitter that the FBI used an informant to spy on his campaign. It was Trump’s latest in a series of escalating attacks on the Russia probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

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Trump Steps Up Attacks on Russia Probe

The U.S. Department of Justice is expanding an internal probe into whether there was any political motivation when the FBI first began investigating Russian meddling in 2016 during the presidential election. President Trump met with top Justice Department officials Monday following his claim via Twitter that the FBI used an informant to spy on his campaign. It was Trump’s latest in a series of escalating attacks on the Russia probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

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Trump Praises New, Berates Former CIA Director

Former CIA officer Gina Haspel has become the first woman to head the U.S. spy agency after a swearing-in ceremony Monday. Haspel has overcome the criticism by lawmakers of both parties for her involvement in the torture of terror suspects after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump praised her ability to overcome what he called “a lot of very negative politics” and said no one was more qualified the job. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Trump Praises New, Berates Former CIA Director

Former CIA officer Gina Haspel has become the first woman to head the U.S. spy agency after a swearing-in ceremony Monday. Haspel has overcome the criticism by lawmakers of both parties for her involvement in the torture of terror suspects after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump praised her ability to overcome what he called “a lot of very negative politics” and said no one was more qualified the job. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Commemorative Coin Struck for Trump-Kim Summit

A commemorative coin featuring U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has been struck by the White House Communications Agency ahead of their planned summit next month.

In a statement, deputy spokesman Raj Shah insisted that “the White House did not have any input into the design and manufacture of the coin.”

The coin depicts Trump and Kim, described as North Korea’s “Supreme Leader,” in profile facing each other in front of a background of U.S. and North Korean flags.

At the top of the front, the words “Peace Talks” are emblazoned, with the date “2018” beneath.

The back of the coin features a picture of the White House, Air Force One and the presidential seal.

Trump is scheduled to hold a landmark summit with the North Korean leader in Singapore on June 12, but Pyongyang has recently threatened to pull out over U.S. demands for “unilateral nuclear abandonment.”

The White House Communications Agency regularly issues commemorative or challenge coins to present to foreign guests, diplomats and members of the military.

A number of the coins are available for sale through the White House Gift Office.

“Since 2003, White House Communications Agency members have ordered a limited number of commercially designed and manufactured souvenir travel coins for purchase,” Shah explained.

“These coins are designed, manufactured and made by an American coin manufacturer. These souvenir coins are only ordered after a trip has been publicly announced.”

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