Jon Ossoff has heard the critiques from skeptics who doubt he can really win his runoff election against Sen. David Perdue: He’s too young. He lacks the political experience. He’s out of touch with real Georgians. But Ossoff insists he’s paid his dues and is poised for victory.
“I’m not just showing up with an election around the corner and asking for support,” Ossoff told Yahoo News in a phone interview on Monday. “I cut my teeth working for John Lewis. ... I’ve been working on criminal justice reform issues for a decade. I have a heart for justice and a heart for the people.”
Throughout the Senate campaign, Perdue, 70, has tried to paint Ossoff, 33, as “inexperienced.” While that claim may be true in the sense that Ossoff has yet to win statewide election and has never served in the U.S. Senate, the young Democrat says he’s proud of his experience to date.
Ossoff was born in Atlanta to Heather Fenton, an Australian immigrant, and Richard Ossoff, of Russian and Lithuanian descent. Ossoff was raised Jewish in Northlake, Ga., an unincorporated community of just over 2,000 residents. He got his first taste of politics while in high school, interning for Lewis, the late civil rights leader, after writing a letter to the Georgia congressman. As a sophomore at Georgetown University, Ossoff worked for Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., eventually serving as a national security staffer and aide for five years. He left this role in 2012 to earn his master’s degree from the London School of Economics, and later worked as a producer of film documentaries about corruption in foreign countries.
In 2017, Ossoff ran in the special election for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, a campaign that earned him national notoriety. An unabashed progressive, he garnered endorsements from Lewis, Johnson, former Democratic Georgia House Leader Stacey Abrams and Sen. Bernie Sanders. However, he eventually lost what had become an expensive runoff election to Republican Karen Handel.
“Ossoff and his allies might have scooped up nearly every Democrat vote there was to get — and it still wasn’t enough to overcome the GOP’s numerical advantage,” read an article in Atlanta magazine shortly after the race.
In 2020, however, President-elect Joe Biden showed that Democrats could win in Georgia, and Ossoff and Democrat Raphael Warnock both earned enough votes to force runoffs against Perdue and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
“Each of these huge battles in Georgia, whether won or lost, when well fought has been worth what we’ve built in the process,” Ossoff said. “This has been a decade of work registering, mobilizing and protecting voters in Georgia. This Senate runoff election is the culmination of that work.”
The stakes in this year’s Senate runoff race are as high as they have ever been. With Republicans currently holding the majority of seats 50-48, Ossoff and Warnock would both need to win to give Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tiebreaking vote. If either loses, Republicans would maintain control of the Senate and retain the ability to block Democratic initiatives and Biden appointments.
“If Mitch McConnell and the Republicans hold the Senate, they’re going to try to do to Joe [Biden] and Kamala [Harris] what they tried to do to President Obama,” Ossoff said. “They will block any and all legislation that will help working people because all they care about is partisan power. … There’s too much good work to do to allow our government to grind to a halt over years of partisan impasse.”
With early voting in the runoff elections ending on Thursday, more than 2.5 million Georgians have already cast their ballots, according to state election data.
In the latest poll from FiveThirtyEight, both Ossoff and Warnock lead their Republican opponents by slim margins. Ossoff leads Perdue 48.5 percent to 47.5 percent, while Warnock leads Loeffler by a slightly wider margin, 49.2 percent to 47.3 percent.
Ossoff has come out hard against Purdue, calling him a “coward” for not debating him in the most recent debates and slamming him as a “crook” for profiting from the pandemic as well as his time in the Senate. In his six years as a U.S. senator, Perdue made 2,596 stock trades, some of them suggesting conflicts of interest, the New York Times reported, including his purchase of medical equipment stock after he received a private Jan. 24 coronavirus briefing from senior federal health officials.
Perdue counters that if Ossoff is elected, Democrats will enact costly legislation to try to protect the environment and will do away with private health insurance. Underlying their ethical and philosophical debates, Ossoff said, is the issue of race.
“I am running against a man who sees Black Georgians as second-class citizens,” Ossoff said. “Mark my words that had David Perdue been in the Senate in the mid-1960s, he would have been filibustering the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. This is a man who is currently mounting a vicious attack on the voting rights of Black Georgians, trying to discard their ballots, to throw the election to Donald Trump.”
Yahoo News contacted Perdue for comment, but he did not respond.
Biden and Harris won Georgia by roughly 12,000 votes, thanks in large part to heavy turnout from the Black community. Because of the voter registration efforts of Abrams and others, that dynamic was in the making for years. In 2019, the Black voting population in Georgia reached a record high of 2.5 million eligible voters, roughly a third of the state’s total electorate. Ossoff said that Biden and Harris won despite voter suppression, not because of it. If he wins, he said, he plans to fight to do away with it altogether.
“Voter suppression remains a grave threat for Black Georgians,” Ossoff said. “We have to remain vigilant, and only by exercising the right to vote with the kind of commitment and tenacity and grit that Black voters in Georgia have shown all year can we win the U.S. Senate majority and enact voting rights legislation in John Lewis’s honor to end voter suppression once and for all.”
Ossoff acknowledged the challenges ahead. He wouldn’t just represent progressive Georgia, he said, he would represent all of Georgia, including the ultraconservative regions. Also, if he wins the Senate seat, he would be the youngest senator in 40 years. None of this fazes him. And even though Warnock is running his own race, Ossoff acknowledges that the two are in the fight together.
“I know that John Lewis is looking down and smiling on the fact that a young Jewish son of an immigrant he mentored is running alongside a Black Baptist pastor who holds Dr. King’s pulpit at Ebenezer church,” Ossoff said. “This is the New South. This is the manifestation of decades of work.”
Below are key dates for Georgians to remember ahead of the state’s Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, 2021:
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