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Jon Ossoff, an unexpected hero, steps out into the American sun

Dan Coleman
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Published: 11 January 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

The Jewish journalist’s victory in the Georgia Senate run-off gave Democrats the balance of power. DAN COLEMAN looks at the prospects of a southern-style progressive

ON JUNE 9 of last year, Jon Ossoff garnered 53% of the vote to win the Democratic primary in Georgia, earning the opportunity to face incumbent Republican David Perdue for election to the US Senate. Ossoff became one of 23 Democratic challengers for Republican held seats.

Although far from the most prominent contest, his was one of ten senate contests identified by The Guardian as “races to watch”. Ossoff was a decided underdog. Early polling showed Perdue with a five-point lead.

Thus, few would have expected that, in the early morning hours of January 6, the eyes of the world would be on Ossoff. Having forced a run-off, his close victory would tip the balance of power to the Democrats and open the door to President Biden pursuing his legislative agenda largely free of Republican obstruction.

As it gained international prominence, last week’s Senate run-off was cast as a Manichaean battle between the dark forces of the Trump-dominated Republican Party and a Democratic Party that might actually want to help people. It did not matter who Ossoff was, so long as he would help take control of the Senate from Mitch McConnell.

Now that the race is won, it is worth stepping back to look at what Ossoff has stood for and what might be expected from him in the years to come.

For many outside Georgia, little was known about Ossoff. He is liberal. He is Jewish. He is young. Professionally, Ossoff runs a media company focused on documenting war crimes and corporate abuse. Some may have heard that he once interned for the late civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis, a powerful endorsement by association.
As news of his unexpected victory filtered through, it emerged that Ossoff’s mother was born in Australia. He has travelled here several times and had an Australian passport, which has now lapsed.

As news of his unexpected victory filtered through, it emerged that Ossoff’s mother was born in Australia. He has travelled here several times and had an Australian passport, which has now lapsed.

Although Democrats rallied around Ossoff this year, he has not always been favoured by the left. In June 2017, The Nation labelled him “a pragmatic centrist,” insisting that “a winning smile and the ability to avoid controversy will never be enough to turn this country around.”

In the same issue, Robert Borosage concluded that “for party pros, Jon Ossoff was close to an ideal candidate. Young, well educated, attractive, and articulate… He presented himself as a centrist… talking, as his opponent put it, ‘like a Republican.’”

Stacey Abrams, whose electoral activism is largely credited with turning Georgia blue, disagreed, insisting that Ossoff’s approach is appropriate for her state. “What Jon understands,” Abrams told The Nation last year, “is that being progressive in the South looks different than it does in other states. We have to work with, not just against.”

Ossoff himself has pushed back on the “cautious centrist” label. He announced his Senate candidacy in an interview with Ryan Grim of the left-wing Intercept. “Do you think that the fossil fuel and private prison industries and the US Chamber of Commerce and every corporate-funded Republican Super PAC in the country spent tens of millions of dollars attacking me [in 2017] because they believed I was going to support their agenda?" he asked Grim. “They recognised I was a threat to their stranglehold on the legislative process.”

Nonetheless, the likelihood is that, in terms of policy, Ossoff will fall somewhere toward the middle of the Democratic Senate caucus. He opposes Medicare For All, a key issue for progressive senators like Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey. Like Biden, he supports a public option while retaining the current private health insurance system.
The likelihood is that in terms of policy, Ossoff will fall somewhere toward the middle of the Democratic Senate caucus. He opposes Medicare For All, a key issue for progressive senators. Ossoff also opposes the other marquee progressive initiative, the Green New Deal.

Ossoff also opposes the other marquee progressive initiative, the Green New Deal. Yet, he is adamant in his recognition of the climate crisis and supports the US re-entering the Paris Climate Accords, reversing a range of Trump policies, and “rapidly transitioning to clean energy sources.” Ossoff stops short of advocating bold targets for emissions reduction or looking beyond the already out-dated stipulations of the Paris Accord.

Candidate Ossoff did not offer an explicit foreign affairs policy. There is no reference to Iran, Syria, Israel, Europe, or Russia on his policy website. China is mentioned only in the context of trade. In interviews, he has stated strong support for Israel, opposition to BDS, and support for a two-state solution.

Over the next two years, some in Congress, particularly members of the Progressive Caucus, will push for ambitious initiatives and reforms. Few, however, expect President Biden to go beyond the tepid policies on which he campaigned. In that context, Jon Ossoff shows all the earmarks of a loyal foot soldier.

What will the future bring as Ossoff matures in his role as senator? Will his professional work documenting some of the world’s worst injustices lead him to become outspoken on international affairs? Will his close association with fellow Senator-elect Raphael Warnock forge a common agenda for racial justice and economic reform?

As America still reels from the turmoil of the last days of Trump, Democrat supporters will hope that, over the years, Jon Ossoff will emerge as a senator who steps up and speaks out, one who embodies the best American ideals that have been trampled on by Donald Trump and the self-seeking, anti-democratic forces that surround him.

READ MORE
How Georgia’s glorious Black-Jewish alliance triumphed over the pro-Trump mob (Haaretz)
The hypocrisy and mayhem of the mob invasion of the Capitol is the critical issue of the moment. The historic Georgia run-off results should be the more lasting monument to American democracy

Jon Ossoff: Everything you need to know about the new Jewish Democratic senator (Times of Israel)
One of the first Members of the Tribe to be elected to the position by a Southern state, the newest legislator from Georgia had a bar mitzvah and is married to a doctor

Photo: Jon Ossoff (John Bazemore/AP)

About the author

Dan Coleman

Dan Coleman is a former member of the Carrboro, North Carolina Town Council, and a former political columnist for the Durham (NC) Morning Herald. He is the author of Ecopolitics: Building A Green Society. He lives in Melbourne.

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