December 17, 2018

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‘This is Georgia’: hate, hope and history in election that shows the clash of two Americas | US news

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His thinning hair dusted with grey, his white shirt open at the collar, Barack Obama was met by a deafening roar and nostalgic chants of: “Yes, he can!” In front of thousands of people crammed into a college basketball arena, back on the campaign trail in a way he never expected, he sounded hoarse.

“My voice is starting to go,” he admitted. “So you just got to pay real close attention.”

It might have been a metaphor for Obama’s weakening legacy. But the 44th president’s words were as trenchant as ever.

“The consequences of any of us staying home really are profound because America’s at a crossroads,” he warned. “The healthcare of millions of people is on the ballot. Making sure working families get a fair shake is on the ballot. But maybe most of all, the character of our country is on the ballot.”

It was not meant to be like this. America’s first black president hoped to steer the nation on an upward trajectory. Then came Donald Trump, a man endorsed by white supremacists and the breathing embodiment of everything Obama is not. On Tuesday, these two radically opposing visions of “the character of our country” will collide at the ballot box. Georgia is ground zero.

The deep south, socially conservative state should be solid Republican territory, but the race for governor is anything but. Brian Kemp, a staunch conservative who has embraced Trump’s hard line on immigration and wields guns in his campaign ads, is neck and neck with Stacey Abrams, a progressive African American woman. Victory for a Democrat here, of all places, would deliver the most devastating rebuke to Trumpism.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “If Stacey Abrams wins, this is maybe going to be the most sharp message that the racial animus Donald Trump has called forth in America has limitations. The question for Republicans will be: is Trump a liability?”

The elemental clash of two Americas, played out between a black woman and white man, was laid bare during the final full week of campaigning. On one side: Obama, billionaire media star Oprah Winfrey and Abrams, bidding to become the first female African American governor in US history. On the other: Donald Trump (who holds a rally in Georgia on Sunday), his pious vice-president Mike Pence and Kemp, bidding to become the 83rd white man in a row to occupy the governor’s mansion.

At a Kemp rally with Pence in Savannah on Thursday, the crowd was exclusively white. At Abrams’ event with Obama 24 hours later, it was majority black and appreciably younger. In Savannah, the room was silent as a tomb as a lone violinist played a wordless version of The Star-Spangled Banner until someone began to spontaneously murmur the closing lines: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” and others joined in. In Atlanta, a bespectacled African American boy in a smart school blazer sang the anthem and was cheered rapturously.

‘A battle for the soul of our state’

Abrams and Kemp personify a year in which Democrats are fielding a record number of women and people of color while Republicans are ossifying, a party dominated by white men. Among voters, African American women, in particular, are likely to be the driving force if Democrats flip the 23 seats they need to secure a majority in the House of Representatives (the Senate is expected to remain in Republican hands).

The fact they are duelling in Georgia further raises the stakes. The state was a bulwark of the Confederacy – a role immortalised in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind – and carries the scars of slavery, segregation and hundreds of lynchings. It was also the birthplace of Martin Luther King and a crucible of the civil rights struggle. Like Obama’s win in the 2008 presidential election, Abrams would be writing a new page in history – perhaps all the more remarkable in the current climate.

Abrams speaks as Brian Kemp looks on during a debate in Atlanta in October.



Abrams speaks as Brian Kemp looks on during a debate in Atlanta in October. Photograph: POOL/Reuters

Winfrey, who like Abrams grew up in Mississippi, recalled this history on Thursday as she joined the campaign trail, knocking on doors and speaking at rallies.

“I’m here today because of the men and because of the women who were lynched, who were humiliated, who were discriminated against, who were suppressed, who were repressed and oppressed, for the right for the equality at the polls,” she told an ecstatic audience in Marietta. “And I want you to know that their blood has seeped into my DNA, and I refuse to let their sacrifices be in vain. I refuse.”

Kemp and Pence finished the day in Savannah, settled in 1733 by British colonists and spared from destruction during the civil war. The crowd of a few hundred, some sporting Make America Great Again hats, bowed their heads in a pre-rally prayer.

“That’s what I love about the south,” Deborah Stautberg said to her friend Kathleen Jakubowski. “You pray before football games and ceremonies. You don’t find that in the north.”

Stautberg, 57, holding a “Kemp/governor” sign, said Abrams would be wrong for the state. “She’s not my candidate. Too liberal: she wants expansion of Medicaid, free education, big government, open borders. Not a good idea.”

Jakubowski, 43, a vessel planner in the maritime industry, rejected the notion of backing Abrams because she is black or a woman. “That bugs the shit out of me,” she said. “I don’t care what your gender is. I don’t care what the colour of your skin is. I care about what kind of job you’re going to do.”

Jakubowski was also a fan of the president “He’s a New Yorker, I’m a New Yorker. I love him. Sometimes the way he says things is very New York but he’s doing pretty much everything he said he was going to do.”

Stautberg rejoined: “We haven’t had that in a politician for a long time.”

Kemp, 54, described the gubernatorial election as “a battle for the soul of our state”. He claimed Abrams was running a “dishonest” and “radical” campaign that would give public benefits to undocumented immigrants and lead to a government takeover of healthcare.

“With your vote and your support we can end this craziness,” he said.


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Pence heaped praise on the candidate as a backer of the Trump agenda. And he said: “I heard Oprah’s in town today. And I heard Will Ferrell was going door-to-door the other day. Well, I’d like to remind Stacey and Oprah and Will Ferrell, I’m kind of a big deal, too.”

The vice-president added “a message for all Stacey Abrams’ liberal Hollywood friends: this ain’t Hollywood. This is Georgia.”

The cute remark inadvertently revealed Pence to be out of touch with the state’s booming film and TV production industry, which has made hits such as Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Walking Dead and been dubbed “the Hollywood of the south” – a measure of the state’s cultural, economic and social transformation.

But it went down well with this audience. Michael Sheppard, 36, who described himself as “old-school white” and claimed direct descent from Confederate general Robert E Lee and Robert the Bruce, said he would vote for Kemp.

“The other option is slavery,” he said. “We can’t go around passing laws that would keep 65%, 70%, 75% of your income. That’s literally worse than slavery.”

Asked if his slavery analogy might be regarded as unfortunate in the context of Abrams’ historic candidacy, Sheppard, 36, a small business owner, insisted: “It’s unfortunate for her advocating slavery because she doesn’t understand the policies she promotes.”

He also questioned the symbolism of Abrams’ candidacy. “If you’re going to pick people on race and gender, why would I, as a white man, pick a black woman? She’s got the same ideas that make Obama a joke, the same ideas that make Hillary Clinton a joke, the same ideas that make CNN a joke.”

‘Some Africa-level shit’

The race between Abrams, a Yale law graduate and former Democratic leader in the state house whom Trump has branded “not qualified”, and Kemp has become a flashpoint in the nationwide fight over voting rights. Georgia has one of the country’s strictest voter ID laws, which Republicans claim are needed to ensure no one votes illegally.

Curiously, as Georgia’s secretary of state, Kemp oversees its elections. Activists sued to block him from throwing out more than 50,000 voter registration applications put on hold under the state’s “exact match” law, requiring personal information to perfectly match state databases (a spelling mistake or misplaced hyphen can be pounced on). Jimmy Carter, a former US president and Georgia governor, called on Kemp to resign his post. South African comedian Trevor Noah observed: “That is some Africa-level shit right there!”

Abrams watches as her nephew receives a sticker after she voted early at the South DeKalb Mall in Decatur, Georgia.



Abrams watches as her nephew receives a sticker after she voted early at the South DeKalb mall in Decatur, Georgia. Photograph: Tami Chappell/EPA

Larry Jacobs said: “You’ve got a candidate in Stacey Abrams who’s an African American woman but has built a reputation for working across the aisle with Republicans. She’s not running as a fiery civil rights leader; she’s running as someone who will make Georgia work.

“The response has been a blatant effort at old-school tampering with the election and stopping the African American vote. This is not theoretical; we’re seeing it play out in real time. It’s like the 1950s all over again but what’s different about 2018 is the attention it’s receiving and how it’s become a political liability.”

The tactic looks set to backfire, he added: “The old south is changing and the old tactics of racism are no longer acceptable. Georgia is putting on display the costs of playing the old political games. Independent suburban voters are rejecting that. While Donald Trump’s racial approach in the closing days of the campaign clearly excites some voters, there are large parts of the country that have no interest.”

On Friday, a bus rolled into the historically black Savannah State University, bearing branding that said “Black voters matter”, “Voting power” and “The south is rising”. About a dozen volunteers boarded, ready to tour black neighbourhoods in a last-ditch voter awareness effort. Local organiser Amanda Hollowell, 39, warned that suppression could cost Abrams the election. Door-to-door leafleting, she said, can only do so much to combat widespread misinformation.

If it does not, and if Abrams prevails, “the emotion would be hope”, she added. “I wouldn’t be elated, I wouldn’t be dancing and screaming for joy because, as we’ve seen with President Obama, you can have a great thing and then ruin it. But I would see it as a step forward for the diverse leadership we need.”

‘Stacey is giving us our voices back’

Later, at the Abrams rally in Atlanta, the mood was upbeat as the crowd listened to My Shot from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton and danced to hip-hop. One supporter wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Obama’s face and defiant words: “Still my president.” Speakers included former attorney general Eric Holder, who declared: “The system is rigged. The system is rigged. The system is rigged! There has been a systematic effort to cripple our democracy and disenfranchise those who do not subscribe to certain political views.”

Local congressman John Lewis told how he endured beatings and imprisonment during the civil rights struggle to win the right to vote. When Georgia turns blue, he said, “they will not be able to hold us down”. Fired up as he moved about the stage, the 78-year-old led the crowd in a chorus of “Vote! Vote! Vote!”, exhorting: “I’m asking you to go and vote like you’ve never voted before. We have to vote.”

Abrams, 44, smiling and waving, emerged to cheers and chants of “Stacey! Stacey!” She said: “We are in this together. Our shared story as Georgians is stronger than any fears that may seek to divide us.” She recalled founding an organisation to register votes and defend voting rights.

“We must be the change we want to see,” she said.

Her supporters are ready. Karen Wood, who stands on busy street corners with a sign urging people to vote, said: “It’s all about women right now. To be frank, I think white conservative men are getting scared so they’re trying to apply fear to us and suppress our voices and suppress our votes. Stacey is giving us our voices back.”

Asked what an Abrams victory would mean to her, Wood, 57, co-founder of a not-for-profit organisation, replied: “Representation. It means a girl like myself or my daughter, any girl of any creed, colour or religion, can achieve that type of office. Representation means, ‘Hey, there’s a chance for me!’”

On Friday night, Obama struggled at times to make his own voice heard. But his message could not have been clearer as America, having lurched from Obamaism to Trumpism, gets its first opportunity for a course correction. Railing against elected leaders who constantly divide and lie, he said: “For every two steps of progressive change that we make, we usually add a step back in conservative retrenchment.

“Every time we pull ourselves closer to that founding ideal, that all of us are created equal, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, whenever we try to make that real, the status quo has pushed back …

“Making this country live up to its creed has never been easy.”



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