When Jon Ossoff saw the results of the 2016 presidential election unfold, his outlook on the political landscape changed for good.
Ossoff, an Atlanta native, saw more than just Donald Trump winning the electoral college and becoming the 45th president of the United States. The national election helped the 30-year old further realize that more than ever, Americans are frustrated with some of the candidates they vote into office, he said.
“The result of the presidential election demonstrated an extent to which Americans have lost faith in Washington,” Ossoff told Heavy. “I think that Washington now is at its most divisive and dangerous place in modern American history.”
Three weeks later, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia’s 6th congressional district was nominated by Trump to head the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Price held the seat in the House of Representatives since 2004 and represented the area in which Ossoff grew up.
Then, Ossoff saw opportunity.
Price was confirmed for the HHS role in Washington D.C. on February 10, putting his 6th district congressional seat up for grabs in a special election. Having a background in government and national security, Ossoff figured he’d eventually find his way into politics, but it was never really on the horizon.
“(Running for office is) always something I thought one day I might pursue,” Ossoff said. “But I had no plans at all to do it anytime soon.”
Ossoff, a progressive Democrat, announced his intentions to run for the seat January 5.
The special election is set for April 18, and if none of the 18 candidates can get 50 percent of the vote, then it goes to a runoff election that would take place June 20. With an enormous field and a short campaign season, the race will almost definitely go to a runoff.
Here’s what you need to know about Ossoff:
1. National Democrats Are Eyeing Ossoff’s Race as a Referendum on Donald Trump
The race is seen by many on the national level as a referendum on the Trump administration and its policies, and as an early test of whether Democrats can harness enough anti-Trump sentiment and grassroots enthusiasm to take back the House in 2018.
Georgia’s 6th congressional district, which covers much of Atlanta’s northern suburbs, including parts of Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties, is exactly the type of district Democrats will be eyeing as they seek to take back the lower chamber: An affluent district in a Sunbelt suburb that has backed Republicans for decades but where Trump significantly underperformed Mitt Romney in November.
In addition to Price, the seat is one that was previously held by Republicans like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Sen. Johnny Isakson. It hasn’t had a Democrat voted in since 1965 (Jon J. Flynt Jr.), and Georgia hasn’t gone blue in a presidential election since Bill Clinton carried it in 1992.
So why is the special election garnering so much attention from Democrats? It’s because they anticipate a real chance to make the most of the opportunity.
In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney dominated Barack Obama by a 24-point margin in the district. Four years later, Trump got past Hillary Clinton in the 6th by just one point (48 percent to 47 percent), setting the stage for Ossoff to put his name into the race.
The belief that he can flip the seat has resonated with Democrats across the country, and they have responded by investing a large amount of resources into the race.
According to a report by NPR, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is paying nine staffers to assist in Ossoff’s campaign. It’s also sponsored three focus groups within the 6th that will further study how to reach young voters, African-American voters and swing voters.
DCCC spokesman Tyler Law told NPR that making a strong effort in the 6th for the special election will go a long way in future elections, too.
Understanding that people are more than numbers, we have made a strategic decision to invest in qualitative research that will not only help up us in Georgia’s 6th District, but also inform our message to key groups of voters ahead of 2018. In order to learn lessons from last cycle and maximize our gains on an expanded battlefield, we must listen to real people and see what drives them to vote, and these focus groups are an important early step towards achieving that goal.
It’s that same type of goal that’s motivated Daily Kos, a progressive online community, has been raising funds to help elect Ossoff. The platform has found huge success in doing so thus far with small donations, paired with over $250,000 in financial commitments from when he announced his bid.
David Nir, the political director of Daily Kos, said that his platform picked Ossoff as the guy to back in the race partly because of Lewis’ endorsement. He told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that the endorsement was a big signal in the “winnable race.” He added that if Ossoff were to win, it would “send shockwaves” through the GOP.
In less than two months, Ossoff’s campaign raised more than $2 million in donations, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.
Demographic make-up of the 6th
Ossoff described the district as an area where voters remain well-informed and tend to look at individual candidates rather than political parties.
“This is a very moderate district where there’s a real chance for a Democrat with the right message to win,” Ossoff said. “I grew up in this district, I grew up in this community. Folks here are not partisan, folks here want effective, decent representation with integrity that’s responsive and principled.”
The median age of the district is under 38, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, and it’s loaded with college graduates.
In addition, demographics in the 6th are largely different from the rest of the state. Data provided by the Atlanta Journal Constitution shows that about 60 percent of those residing in the district hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, while only 30 percent do the same throughout the rest of the state. In addition, about 70 percent of the district is white, and about 15 percent of it is black. In comparison, the rest of Georgia is about 60 percent white and 30 percent black.
Finally, Georgia’s poverty rate of about 18 percent is nowhere near the 4-percent rate reported in the 6th.
Early Polls Show Ossoff Leading
A poll of 694 likely voters taken February 17-18 by zPolitics and Clout Research found that Ossoff led all candidates with 32 percent support. Former Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel got 25 percent support in the poll and Republican councilman Bob Gray garnered 11 percent.
Another poll of likely voters from March 2-3 showed that Ossoff’s lead over Handel and Gray may be slimming. He led the poll with 18.31 percent support closely followed by Handel (17.98 percent) and Gray (13.42).
With the special election approaching, the race is starting to heat up. Sensing the importance of the seat, money continues to pour into advertising efforts in the 6th. Most recently, the Congressional Leadership Fund Super PAC released an advertisement that questions Ossoff’s experience. The 1-minute spot shows Ossoff dressed as Han Solo of the Star Wars series in his college days.
It’s one of the first of many ads that the Republican super PAC has planned against Ossoff. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, its put $1.1 million into the race specifically targeting Ossoff. He responded to the Washington D.C.-based super PAC’s ad bluntly: “Han Solo is my favorite Star Wars character,” he said.
2. Ossoff’s Investigative Film Company Brought Corruption Charges on Foreign Officials
Ossoff, a former congressional aide, is the managing director and CEO of Insight TWI (The World Investigates). The small business specializes in creating investigative films that look to expose corruption and organized crime around the world, and it’s won two Emmy awards, an award from the British Academy of Film and Television and the Peabody Award.
Insight TWI led a past investigation that exposed 34 judges taking bribes in Ghana, and another one embedded female journalists on the frontline in northern Iraq with a group of all-female infantry.
“The investigation that I’m the most proud of is when we exposed foreign officials who were stealing U.S. taxpayer-funded aid and selling it on the black market,” Ossoff said. “We helped send them to jail, and they now face criminal charges.”
In one film, Zimbabwean journalist Cassim John went undercover to expose how some of the country’s doctors were selling HIV/AIDs drugs on the black market. In Ghana, undercover journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas exposed the theft of World Food Program aid to the country by nutrition officers, who later sold the aid on the black market. Anas gave the evidence he found to police in Ghana and two arrests of government officials were made.
Ossoff said part of what he likes the most about running the business is how hard-hitting and rewarding it can be.
“Our mantra is name, shame and jail,” Ossoff said. “We seek not merely to report what’s happening, but we try to generate the evidence necessary to prosecute criminals and corrupted officials.”
3. Ossoff Idolized Rep. John Lewis & Later Interned in His Office
Ossoff was born in Atlanta in 1987 and grew up 20 miles northeast of the city in Northlake. When he attended Paideia School, a private school in Atlanta, his interest in politics started to soar.
One of the things that sparked his interest in government was congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis’ memoir, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. The book spoke about Lewis’ experience as one of the leaders of the civil rights movement.
“I was so inspired by his story,” Ossoff said. “He’s someone that I had been aware of because he was a member of Congress in metro Atlanta. I wrote him a letter and asked if I could learn about him.”
Lewis accepted Ossoff’s request and offered him an internship in his Washington D.C. office for a summer during high school. When Price’s seat opened up in November, it was Lewis who helped make Ossoff’s decision to run even easier.
“Congressman Lewis has remained one of my mentors, so I sat down with him and he encouraged me to run,” Ossoff said. “He said that he would endorse me if I ran, and that was really all I needed to throw my hat in the ring.”
Lewis said in a statement when Ossoff announced his bid that he thinks his former intern brings a strong message.
“Jon is committed to progress and justice and he knows how to fight the good fight,” Lewis said. “We should unite behind Jon and send a clear message that Donald Trump doesn’t represent our values.”
Recently, Lewis said Trump is an illegitimate president, and he responded by saying Lewis is “all talk.”
Continuing His Education
Following high school and the internship, Ossoff returned to the D.C. area, enrolling at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He studied there under former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and spent time as the deputy communications director in Hank Johnson’s campaign for Georgia’s 4th congressional district seat, a race Johnson defeated incumbent Cynthia McKinney in.
After that election, Ossoff took a paid position on Johnson’s legislative staff and worked as an aide in his last three years at Georgetown.
Once he earned his degree, Ossoff remained on Capitol Hill and specialized in national security issues. He held a top-secret security clearance before leaving Washington in 2012 to earn his Master of Science degree from the London School of Economics. His thesis was on trade relations between the U.S. and China.
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4. His Vision Centers Around Making Atlanta an ‘Economic Powerhouse’
Although to some the special election for the 6th district has a national feel to it, Ossoff said he understands that voters care far more about the important local issues before national politics. One of the most important things to Ossoff, he said, is retaining the talent that’s in the district’s backyard.
“Metro Atlanta can become a high tech, economic powerhouse,” Ossoff said. “We have young people here that are getting great educations from the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and local community colleges with qualifications in science, technology, engineering and math. We should attract investment in opportunities for them to stay here and grow our local economy.”
According to the City Journal, from 1980-2013, the Atlanta area was the fastest-growing metro area in America. The data, provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, showed that Atlanta has grown 136 percent during that span. However, the change in employment from 2007-2013 — during the Great Recession — was -4.4 percent for the area, and it has yet to fully recover.
In addition to placing an emphasis on improving the economy in the district, Ossoff added that schools in the Atlanta area need to “get the resources and flexibility that they need to meet the needs of all students.” He said said the area’s lackluster transportation is also at the forefront of his initiatives.
“Atlanta has some serious transportation and transit challenges that need to be addressed,” Ossoff said. “Folks see this as an opportunity for Georgia to stand up for those core American values. They want to keep metro Atlanta’s economy growing, they want access to more affordable health care choices.”
5. Ossoff Played Organized Baseball in London
Ossoff says he’s always been a big baseball fan, and played in many youth leagues as a kid. When he was in high school and for some time at Georgetown, he played Ultimate Frisbee. Then when he went to school in London, his love for baseball led to him playing for the British Baseball Federation. He was a third baseman and pitched for the South London Pirates of the National Baseball League in 2013.
“That was an awesome experience,” Ossoff said. “After growing up playing little league baseball in DeKalb County, it was awesome to play at a high level in the UK after growing up immersed in baseball here at home.”
The Pirates were founded in 1981 and the club consists of two teams, according to its website. The Pirates I compete in the National Baseball League, widely considered the most competitive league in the UK and is the one that Ossoff played in. There’s also Pirates II, who compete at the AA level.
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