We’ll know more about the significance of the race for the 6th Congressional District in Georgia on Tuesday, April 18. There might be a run-off, but we’ll know whether Jon Ossoff is likely to become their new U.S. Representative or if voters stick with the values of Tom Price, the district’s former congressman now serving as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. Will they go with a cheery young progressive, or remain aligned with the anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-tobacco, anti-gay, pro-farmers, pro-Patriot Act program so steadfastly defined by Price?
Georgia has been reliably Republican since 1964, unless a southerner was on the top of the ticket. Normally, while all House races are of national importance, the news would not be so tightly focused on the candidates in one race. The reason it is comes down to one man, Jon Ossoff.
Jon Ossoff is a phenom. He’s not just a smiling face in a generally Republican district, he’s not just the guy we get two emails from a day, he’s part of a new wave of progressives: He’s someone who went home.
Born in Atlanta, Ossoff was raised in the district he seeks to represent. In that his mother is a founder of a PAC that works to elect women to political office in Georgia, I would say he probably learned his progressive values at the kitchen table. He surely found those values expanded and codified when, in high school, he interned for Congressman John Lewis, the Civil Rights activist, whom he considers his mentor. From this auspicious beginning, he went to Georgetown University, and then to the London School of Economics where he wrote his master’s thesis in relations between the United States and China. Most recently he has been making documentary films about political corruption.
Okay, perhaps you already read all this in the New Yorker or on Wikipedia, but the point is not so much to present a summary of his education and qualifications as to say that there were career paths he could have more easily taken in New York, Washington, D.C., or even Los Angeles. He might have become a cog in the mighty wheels of power in the nation’s capital, or run for some safe-ish seat in a blue state, or even have become the next Michael Moore. Instead, he did the more difficult thing: He went home.
He’s not the first to do so, but he’s the most noticeable. Pete Buttigieg, for example, spoke at the Arena Summit in North Carolina a couple of weeks ago. Progressive and openly gay, Buttigieg is five years older than Ossoff and has been on a similar trajectory, becoming mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in 2012 and holding onto his position even as his former governor, Mike Pence, became vice-president under Donald Trump. Harvard-educated, a Rhodes scholar, and a veteran, Buttigieg had options, but he too went home.
Buttigieg is not a household name, but Ossoff has made himself into one. Grabbing the opportunity that Tom Price’s vacated seat presented, Ossoff is a challenger in a district ostensibly sympathetic to Price’s tenets. He’s made the most of the race’s status as a symbol of the Resistance and cranked up the social media machine to make himself a national presence. The question is, not even 100 days into the Trump presidency, are some Georgians sufficiently dismayed, disgusted, or even frightened by what they’ve seen so far to vote for a Democrat? Ranging from the appalling domestic agenda to the most recent horror of dropping the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan, how are Trump’s policies working for voters?
Campaign supporters wear t-shirts with the slogan “Vote your Ossoff!” But really, why am I sending some young guy in Cobb County five dollars every five minutes when I live in another state and cannot possibly vote for him? Do we really think the Republican establishment will reel at the sight of his 30-year-old face in Congress? Surely not. It will be an irritation, but he’s only one guy.
I’m sending my mini-money because if he wins it means something really important for Democrats nationwide. It means that they can take their bright ideas and their coastal savvy and put it to work for their country right where it will mean the most. And that’s the heart of this thing: If we can’t get the rest of the country to move toward us politically on their own, we are going to have to go to them physically, add ourselves to the ballot and change people’s attitudes towards the principles we hold so dear, and we’ll have to do it one battleground at a time.
Finally, we all seem to have woken up and realized that the skewed congressional gerrymandering which increasingly stifles our democracy—combined with the power of the electoral college—is never going to give voters a fair shake. A candidate who lost the popular vote by a considerable margin is now president, and states with the lowest populations have come to dominate the Senate. Since our elections are structured largely around mapmaking rather than population, we have to stop hoping that red states turn blue of their own accord. My state, Florida, is red too, and we are hoping for some energetic candidates to emerge here, that some of our ambitious young people discover the disincentives of being small fish in big ponds and come home. Jon’s example, regardless of outcome, will help make that happen.
Al Gore “invented the Internet” going into Bill Clinton’s campaign, but it wasn’t advanced enough for him to make use of it when he ran for president. Howard Dean generated a great grassroots campaign on line when he ran for his party’s presidential nomination in 2004, and he almost succeeded. Jon Ossoff has made himself the man I hate to love with his incessant emails—his campaign has social media figured out.
I’m writing this piece purposely before we have the result and while there’s still time to look at this as part of a bigger picture. Ossoff’s achievement is less about winning or losing and more about showing up. We need to think about that—not that we won’t think about it afterwards, but I don’t want to find myself lulled into submission or complacency by a win or be overly upset by a loss.
It was a very close race in Kansas’ 4th Congressional District a few days ago in which, although there was no actual upset of the Republican chokehold, everyone was put on notice that a reversal is doable. Win or lose, Jon Ossoff’s campaign tells us that progressives can mobilize successfully. It tells us that someone can go from being an unknown to being a national figure. It tells us we can move fast. It can be done.