JOHNS CREEK, Ga. (JTA) — Clad in knee-length, loose fitting shorts, wicking T-shirts, baseball caps and sensible shoes, they cluster and clutch water bottles and exchange war stories awaiting the candidate’s arrival.
Some bring their daughters — almost always their daughters. Sons exist, if a reporter probes, but it seems they are best left at home. But campaigning for the Democrat Jon Ossoff in the tight 6th District special House election is a mother-daughter thing.
“I want a better future for her,” says Calanit Amir, 43, a lawyer, nodding at her 12-year-old daughter, Talia, at a meet and greet in the suburb of Roswell. “And for my son, too. He’s at home.”
A day spent trailing Ossoff around Atlanta’s suburbs makes clear that most of his campaigners are female. These supporters have found unexpected community in a district, which also covers parts of the city, that they believed unwelcoming to liberal concerns about expanding health care coverage and campaigning for women’s rights. Donald Trump’s election has shocked them into action.
At stop after stop on Thursday, the Ossoff army hoots in delight when the candidate steps out of his black SUV — slim, cool in his wrinkle-free black suit and black tie, a sartorial middle finger thrust at the sweltering Georgia heat.
“Thank you for being sane and moderate!” Sara Lichtenberg says, gripping the Democrat’s hand at campaign headquarters in Chamblee before joining other campaigners in canvassing the suburb. “Now win! For reals!”
The special election Tuesday between Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker, and Republican Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, already is said to be the most expensive in U.S. history. An estimated $40 million has been spent on relentless ads on radio and TV, but also in get-out-the-vote efforts such as this one, where canvassers plead with voters to meet last Friday’s early voting deadline or at least make sure they get to polling stations by Tuesday.
National Democrats sense the opportunity to further bloody Trump’s troubled presidency by turning a red district blue.
Ossoff, 30, flashes a gleaming grin and sports thick, carefully tousled black hair. He has the wholesome Beatlesque vibe of a mid-1960s rock star, too skinny for his own good, but unsavaged by foreign substances.
He almost irresistibly invites parenting.
“Are you chewing gum, Jon?” Sacha Haworth, his spokeswoman, says at a media opportunity before checking herself, shooting wary glances at surprised reporters. (He was not.)
There is the occasional aside about his preternatural cuteness, but Ossoff’s mostly female backers are here because of something quite unexpected and more substantial: the prospect of change.
Many are feminists coming out of a closet they were driven into by the deeply conservative culture once believed to be prevalent in the Atlanta suburbs that comprise Georgia’s 6th.
They speak of years of inaction and conceding the district to conservatives, and then of being galvanized to action before Ossoff announced in December — specifically on Nov. 9, the morning they woke up to a world that attached president-elect to Trump.
Jen Cox started a Facebook page the day after the election, and quickly the numbers grew. By March, there were enough followers to launch PaveItBlue, a group strictly for women (men are invited to attend events) that has as its goal “Flipping the Sixth.” Now it has 3,200 members.
Cox, 46, a realtor, describes moving to the district from Denver several years ago and learning soon enough to keep her thoughts to herself.
“I would throw out a line about Obama getting something passed or about reproductive rights and I would get the same smile and stare — into the distance,” she says at a drinks and munchies party held Thursday evening for PaveItBlue in Roswell, a suburb whose center is pocked with hip bars and eateries.
About 100 women and a few men, bearing blue-and-white Jon Ossoff gear, huddle under a tent braving gusts of warm winds and rain.
“If I was going to have friends for my kids at the pool, I had to keep quiet,” Cox says.
Andrea Capuano, awaiting Ossoff at his headquarters in this suburb with her 11-year-old daughter, Maia, had a similar trajectory.
As a liberal, as well as a Mexican and a Jew, Capuano, 49, a preschool teacher, says her reflex was to keep her head low in a district she had learned was “very red.”
After Trump’s election, she thought, “We’re done being Democrats in the closet in a conservative state.”
Trump nominated Tom Price, the longtime Republican incumbent, to be health secretary, and soon Ossoff emerged as the likeliest Democratic candidate in the special election to replace Price. He won an open primary on April 18, receiving nearly half the vote, leading to this week’s faceoff against Handel, his closest rival with about 20 percent of the vote.
Once it was clear Ossoff was the Democrat in the race, Capuano planted a yard sign on her lawn. A neighbor, Sheila Ford, texted her that she was about to put out an Ossoff sign as well — and Capuano realized she was not alone.
Soon she found a community.
“I made new friends,” she says, getting ready to spend a third day canvassing alongside Ford. “There’s a whole community behind you.”
The 6th District’s reputation as a conservative redoubt may be overstated. It’s true that Handel lawn signs are prevalent, for instance, in Tucker, a suburb lined with ranch houses, American flags and breakfast eateries.
But there has been an influx of immigrants into Chamblee in recent years, and wholly Latino or East Asian strip malls vie for space with stately manses. In this suburb, Ossoff signs edge out Handel’s. Ossoff canvasser T-shirts are often specialized: “Latinos for Ossoff” or “Asians for Ossoff” or “African Americans for Ossoff.” And millennials, who trend liberal, have been attracted in recent years to Roswell and its easygoing community.
Ossoff, who is Jewish, has cultivated Jewish voters: Leah Fuhr, the campaign’s political affairs manager, has organized a number of outings for Jews for Ossoff. On the afternoon of June 9, she says, they filled a busy intersection in the suburb of Dunwoody.
Fuhr says she is surprised at the strength of Jewish support.
“Jews here tend to lean more Republican than nationally,” she says. “But in this election, he’s getting more Jewish support.”
Polls show the contenders running neck and neck.
Still, liberal voters in the 6th had written off the likelihood of electing someone who reflected their politics.
“I wasn’t engaged in local politics before the presidential election in November,” says Rebecca Sandberg, 43, a CPA and a precinct captain for the campaign. “I didn’t think I could get my views across.”
Zoe Weissman, 20, hanging out with Sandburg outside Brilliant Story, a sleek bar in Roswell (Ossoff is inside posing for selfies), is still registered to vote in the 6th District after leaving to study at Vassar two years ago. She wanted to make a difference in a purple state but didn’t imagine it would happen in her district.
“I never thought I’d see the day I could get behind someone like Jon,” she says.
Ellen Sichel, 62, says she now feels guilty about having once believed that the district was a hopeless cause and avoiding campaigns. Her inaction, she says glancing at a newfound friend, Callie Dill, a freshman at the University of Georgia in Athens, was a betrayal of her two daughters and the next generation.
“I’m never going to sleep again,” Sichel, a stress reduction consultant, says at Ossoff headquarters in Chamblee. “If anything good has come out of the Trump presidency, it’s getting people off their asses.”
Arlene Meyer and Cathy Karell work the ranch houses and stately homes along Cameron Forest Parkway in Johns Creek. Meyer has campaigned for statewide Democrats before, but never in her district. For Karell, an independent, this is a first.
“The stakes are super high right now,” Karell says. “I do not like the tone of the country.”
Meyer chimes in, reassuringly: “Now we have thousands of volunteers coming out.
Meyer, who is not Jewish, identifies one address as “strong Ossoff” and examines the token on its doorpost, then asks a reporter, “What’s that? It begins with an ‘m.’”
“Mezuzah,” she repeats upon being told. “I see lots of those around here.”
A dedicated page on Ossoff’s campaign website addresses U.S.-Israel relations.
“Iran is a major state sponsor of terrorism and an avowed enemy of Israel that must not acquire nuclear weapons,” it says.
Handel, 55, has tried to cut at Ossoff for supporting the Iran deal and accepting the liberal Israel lobby J Street’s endorsement, but he handily deflects a question from a JTA reporter about whether he supports the 2015 agreement.
“I’m a supporter of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability,” he says. “I don’t think that shredding the deal and putting Iran back on the path to a nuclear weapons capability is responsible policy.”
Fuhr tries to jam some Jewish meaning into why Ossoff is picking up Jewish support.
“Helping our neighbors is what being Jewish is all about,” she says.
But talk to his Jewish backers and the first issues they mention are universal: women’s rights and Trump’s pledge to roll back the health care reforms of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
“A lot of it has to do with being disenchanted with Trump,” Calanit Amir says.
Capuano says she worries for an older daughter, not present, who has had open heart surgery.
“Ten years from now, if this keeps on going, she won’t have insurance because of a preexisting condition,” Capuano says, “and then who will care for her parents?”
The fraught national rhetoric has infected this campaign: Handel calls Ossoff “dangerously liberal” on a dedicated “our opponent” page on her website and accuses him of “lying his Ossoff” about his national security credentials, which Ossoff says he accumulated as a congressional aide.
Ossoff never loses an opportunity to remind voters that Handel, who is anti-abortion, helped make the decision to split Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the the fundraiser for breast cancer research she served as an executive, from Planned Parenthood. (Komen for the Cure reversed its decision and Handel quit.)
“I think that cutting funding for lifesaving breast cancer screenings is unforgivable,” Ossoff says at a media availability.
Both campaigns have reported receiving death threats.
But Ossoff mostly speaks in soothing, general terms, using phrases like “local accountability,” “fresh leadership” and “balanced budget.”
At his pep talks for canvassers, his overarching message is one of civility.
“Rather than focusing on what drives us apart, let’s continue to make sure that respect and civility and decency are at the core of our message,” he says in Johns Creek, to cheers. “Show that kindness and compassion.”
An hour or so later, Meyer and Karell scoot away from a voter shouting “no soliciting!” through a closed door.
“What Jon said, kindness and compassion!” Meyer says.
Karell repeats, “Kindness and compassion.”