Ossoff aims to connect John Lewis legacy with a new generation

Georgia Blue, a high school student in Americus, came with a friend to see Democrat Jon Ossoff speak during a campaign stop in her hometown.
Georgia Blue, a high school student in Americus, came with a friend to see Democrat Jon Ossoff speak during a campaign stop in her hometown. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

AMERICUS — When 15-year-old Georgia Blue found out Democrat Jon Ossoff would be in Americus, she and a friend decided to shiver together at an outside campaign event to see someone they have come to know through social media.

“I stalk his account,” Blue said, referring to Ossoff’s presence on the video-sharing network TikTok. She said she and her friend, 16-year-old Brooklyn Hinton, immediately started “fangirl-ing” when they learned the 33-year-old aspiring U.S. senator would be in their hometown. Both said they are drawn to Ossoff’s views on climate change and other environmental issues.

Blue may be too young to vote in Georgia’s high-stakes Senate runoffs set for Jan. 5, but her slightly older peers are being closely watched as a voting demographic that could help shape the outcome of an election that will decide which party controls the chamber.

 

JON OSSOFF

Party Affiliation: Democrat

Age: 33

Hometown: Atlanta

Occupation: Investigative journalist, documentarian

Education: Bachelor of science from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a master’s of science from the London School of Economics.

Background: Former national security aide for 4th District U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. In 2017, lost a special election in the 6th Congressional District to Republican Karen Handel.

 

Democrats see Ossoff as someone who can drive up turnout among young voters as they try to build a multi-racial, multi-generational coalition that can prove President-elect Joe Biden’s win in once reliably conservative Georgia was more than a fluke.

Ossoff fared better than Sen. David Perdue with young voters in the general election, according to an exit poll from CNN. But on the whole, Ossoff trailed the incumbent Republican senator by about 88,000 votes last month.

The youth vote represented one-fifth of Georgia’s electorate last month, and 58% of those young voters backed Biden, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning Engagement (CIRCLE). And of the 76,000 people who have registered to vote since the Nov. 3 election, more than half of them are under the age of 35, according to an analysis from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

With two weeks left of voting, Ossoff is fresh off a swing through south Georgia, where he took his health care message to rural communities. He told dozens of people gathered on a cold Thursday afternoon in Americus that he would work to reopen nearby Stewart-Webster Hospital, which closed in 2013. Before that, he was in Cuthbert, where Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center closed this year after 70 years.

“Where’s David Perdue been while nine rural hospitals have closed,” Ossoff said in an interview. “David Perdue doesn’t care about rural Georgia. David Perdue lives behind three gates on Sea Island.”

Ossoff said he would push to reopen shuttered rural hospitals through a direct federal appropriation while also opening new clinics in unserved areas.

“It means the world to people outside of Atlanta and the big eight for state candidates to come and see us,” said Bobby Fuse, an Americus resident who is active in the Democratic Party of Georgia and who recently served as one of the state’s 16 electors for Biden.

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Ossoff also spent some of last week on GOP-friendly turf where Perdue held a comfortable lead last month, like Lowndes and Thomas counties along the Florida line.

In Thomasville, Ossoff’s debut appearance in the “city of roses” Friday afternoon was a welcome sight for Sue McFadden, who is the vice chair of the Thomas County Democratic Party.

“He comes down, his short sleeves are rolled up. He has a very similar countenance – his phrasing, his scripting – to Obama. It is oddly similar. He’s comfortable to those people who are Obama supporters,” McFadden said after Ossoff’s visit.

‘A John Lewis Democrat’

Ossoff, who is an investigative journalist and CEO of London-based Insight TWI, first landed in the national spotlight in 2017 when he launched a bid to fill former GOP Congressman Tom Price’s seat shortly after President Donald Trump’s election upset. Ossoff narrowly lost the chance to represent the north Atlanta suburb, but that district and the neighboring suburban congressional district are now represented by Democrats.

If elected to the U.S. Senate, Ossoff would become the country’s youngest sitting senator. He would also be only the second Jewish candidate to win a statewide election in modern history in Georgia, and he has paired his campaign with the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who would become the first Black senator elected to represent Georgia.

On the campaign trail, Ossoff often evokes the historic ties between the Jewish and Black communities in Georgia – an important alliance that he has said his mentor, the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, emphasized to him.

An Atlanta native, Ossoff interned with Lewis before working as a congressional aide for Congressman Hank Johnson for about five years, although Ossoff says he turned to journalism after becoming disillusioned with politics.

The Democrat, who lives in Atlanta’s Grant Park, has called for a “massive investment” in clean energy, energy efficiency and environmental protection as part more than a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, and he has called for expanding the federal Pell Grant program, which awards college aid based on financial need.

“The question about how we pay for it – no one ever asked that question when it’s time to bail out Wall Street banks or tax giveaways for well-connected political donors or to make war,” Ossoff said in an interview. “But for folks like David Perdue, when you want to talk about college affordability or investing in health care, suddenly he pretends that the country is broke.

“We don’t have limitless resources. We have to set priorities, and health and education should be among our highest priorities,” he added.

Ossoff has also run an anti-corruption campaign highlighting Perdue’s stock-trading and painting the incumbent as a self-dealing Trump ally who is out of touch with the needs of everyday Georgians and who downplayed the pandemic.

Perdue, a former Fortune 500 CEO who is running for a second term, has repeatedly slammed what he calls Ossoff’s “radical, socialist agenda” and says the Democrat would be a “rubber stamp” for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

And Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler have framed the runoffs as a fight to defend the Senate’s GOP majority and block Democratic initiatives coming from the White House and Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.

Ossoff shrugged off the oft-repeated claims that he is a radical socialist as boilerplate GOP attacks, calling it “standard issue, garden variety, paint by numbers, the same stuff that they run everywhere.”

“I consider myself a John Lewis Democrat. I consider myself a civil rights Democrat,” he said. Lewis endorsed Ossoff early in his Senate campaign.

“I don’t affiliate myself with any particular figure or faction within the party. I speak for myself. My views are mine. But I’ve been heavily influenced by Congressman Lewis, who was my mentor for many years.”

Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.