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On primary day in Georgia, a chance to pick up where MLK left off

Coronavirus and protests against racial injustice throw elections into unprecedented territory

On the night of May 29 in Atlanta, when protesters smashed windows at CNN Center, looted businesses and set fire to a city police cruiser, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms sent a message to the protesters, like the one she had given her own 18- year-old son earlier: “If you love this city, go home.”

Bottoms was angry and worried and heartbroken, all at once, which is how most Atlantans felt too as they watched their city burn, understanding too well what drove protesters from anger to violence.  

As devastating as COVID-19 has been for Georgia, it’s been worse for African Americans in the state, who make up 31 percent of the population but have accounted for 80 percent of the people hospitalized for the deadly virus. Black Georgians have also been more likely than whites to live in poverty, go to prison and drop out of high school, almost entirely due to circumstances created because of the color of their skin.  

By nearly every measure, for as long as history can remember, it’s been more dangerous, more difficult and more damning to be black in Georgia and America than white. After generations of hoping for more, who could blame anyone for crying out in grief when they’ve nearly always gotten less?

Along with Bottoms’ admonition for people to go home that night, she also gave anyone watching her press conference a history lesson in the kind of activism in America that was led by Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Andrew Young and so many others.   

“This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. This is chaos,” she said. “If you want change in America, go and register to vote. Show up at the polls on June 9. Do it in November. That is the change we need in this country.”

A new urgency

This is the context where Georgians now find themselves voting Tuesday, three months after the original presidential primary was delayed over fears of spreading COVID-19. The virus and now the global protests against racial injustice have thrown the election into territory so unprecedented, there’s no way to predict what will happen, other than to say that voting — either to keep President Donald Trump in office or to turn the page entirely — now feels to many as urgent as water to drink or air to breathe.

The top race on the ballot, after the presidential primary contests that Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have already locked up, is the Democratic primary to challenge GOP Sen. David Perdue in November.  Thanks to an early endorsement from his former boss Lewis and a high-profile, $30 million failed run for Congress in 2017, Jon Ossoff has led the field of seven Democrats since he got into the race. 

A recent WSB-TV/Landmark Communications poll showed Ossoff dominating the field with 42 percent of the vote, followed by former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson with 14 percent and 2018 lieutenant governor nominee Sarah Riggs Amico at 9 percent. Ossoff would need to clear 50 percent to avoid a runoff.

Of the state’s three open House races, the 7th District is by far the most competitive with seven Republicans and six Democrats looking to replace GOP Rep. Rob Woodall, who won by fewer than 500 votes in 2018 and has decided to retire.  

If any primaries could be influenced by the events of the spring, it could be these in the 7th District, where Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, who almost beat Woodall in 2018, faces a diverse field in a rapidly diversifying portion of suburban Atlanta. On the Republican side, state Sen. Renee Unterman, who sponsored the state’s six-week abortion ban bill last year, also faces a tough fight with Rich McCormick, a white emergency room doctor who went to Atlanta’s famed Morehouse School of Medicine for his medical degree.  

That the 7th District is even competitive for Democrats is a sign of how quickly times are changing in the booming Atlanta suburbs — just two years ago, Democrats flipped the neighboring 6th District, a seat once held by Newt Gingrich.

Purple or still red?

But the race to the right for Trump voters in the state’s other two open seats is a reminder that Georgia itself still looks like GOP territory for now.   

The 14th, for example, which Trump carried by 53 points in 2016, has nine Republicans running to succeed retiring GOP Rep Tom Graves, including neurosurgeon John Cowan, who calls himself “Pro-Trump. Pro-Life. Pro-gun” and businesswoman Marjorie Greene, whose campaign slogan is “Save America, Stop Socialism!” 

The marquee race in the state really won’t be on the ballot until November. Twenty candidates, including GOP Rep. Doug Collins, have qualified for the jungle primary for the Senate seat now held by appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Among them is Democrat Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King grew up, pastored and presided as the civil rights era began to change the nation.

Eleven years before he was assassinated and six years before his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King gave another speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial titled, “Give Us the Ballot,” which called for full access to voting for African Americans.

The Voting Rights Act did eventually pass, years later, although much of the progress that King predicted would spring from full voting rights, including freedom, goodwill, and even a federal anti-lynching law, has not yet come to pass. 

For King, the answer to that injustice was always at the ballot box, no matter how much change might cost or how long it could take to arrive. That is what voting in Georgia is really about Tuesday for the Democrats, and even some of the Republicans, pushing to see the job complete. What result these historic times will yield is up to the voters, as it should be.

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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