Amico enters Georgia race for Senate after her company’s bankruptcy

‘It’s the reason I’m running.’

Sarah Riggs Amico, last year’s Democratic nominee to be Georgia’s Lieutenant Governor, spoke during a rally for gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in 2018. A North American truck hauling company where Amico serves as executive chairperson has filed for bankruptcy court protection. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Sarah Riggs Amico entered the race for U.S. Senate on Tuesday, making her the third Democrat to challenge Republican David Perdue in a contest that could help determine control of the chamber.

Amico is launching her run less than a year after she lost the race for Georgia lieutenant governor, and weeks after the car-hauling business she led filed for bankruptcy protection.

In an hour-long interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Amico said her company’s financial struggles clinched her decision to challenge Perdue, a first-term incumbent and ally of President Donald Trump.

“The reality is what I’ve gone through with that business this year has profoundly shaped how I see the stakes in the election, and the urgency that I feel to fix some of these issues,” said Amico. “I no longer want to wait on the sidelines and wait for somebody else to fix it.”

Amico, 40, rolled out her campaign with a debut video that focused on her Christian faith, her executive background and her 2018 bid for office, when she campaigned with Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

Her first campaign event was held a few hours later at a picket line with a few dozen AT&T workers who are on strike to protest what they say are unfair labor practices and bargaining in bad faith.

Like Abrams, Amico has been critical of lengthy lines at polling sites, 'use-it-or-lose-it' registration laws and uneven standards for counting absentee ballots. Her loss to Republican Geoff Duncan, though, triggered a different sort of voting rights challenge.

An election integrity advocacy group filed a lawsuit that claimed thousands of votes appeared to go missing, blaming the state's electronic voting machine system. Duncan's attorneys said there was nothing unusual about the dropoff, which they partly attributed to voters intentionally skipping the contest. A judge dismissed the case, and an appeal is now pending in the state's top court.

Democrats consider Georgia crucial to regain control of the U.S. Senate, though they’ve lacked a big-name candidate since Abrams decided against a run.

Instead, two lower-profile Democrats have announced challenges: Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson. Jon Ossoff, who raised $30 million for his unsuccessful run in the 2017 special election for the 6th District, is also considering a bid.

Hours after she announced her bid, Terry offered a glimpse of the bruising campaign ahead by posting a picture of Amico's $973 in contributions to Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. (Amico has said she's a "recovering Republican.")

“I was proud to support Barack Obama when he ran for re-election, it's unfortunate that not all of my opponents feel the same way,” Terry wrote.

Stacey Abrams and Sarah Riggs Amico. AJC file

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‘The reason I’m running’

Amico's decision was long expected by Georgia Democrats, and she has prepared for months. She lined up staffers over the summer and filed paperwork so she could start raising campaign cash in July.

But her company’s bankruptcy filing, which cited steep labor costs and $2 billion in potential pension liabilities, added a complicated wrinkle to her decision.

Amico is the executive chairwoman of Jack Cooper Ventures, a family-run company that is one of the nation’s biggest auto haulers. The company struck a deal this month with a New York-based firm that slashes more than $300 million in debt.

The agreement, Amico said, preserves the jobs and health benefits of the firm’s roughly 3,000 employees, most of whom are union members. It also limits the company’s obligations to the Central States Pension fund, a teetering program that has become a prime example of overextended U.S. retirement systems.

Perdue’s allies immediately drew a line between the bankruptcy and Amico’s candidacy. John Burke, head of the pro-Perdue Georgia Action Fund, said Amico “ran her company into the ground but now she’s asking Georgia families for a new job.”

“Amico mismanaged her family business into bankruptcy and legal jeopardy, she can't be trusted to be an advocate for the people of this state in the nation's most important deliberative body,” he said.

Amico said she expects Perdue and other opponents to try to turn her main strength in the 2018 race - her private-sector experience - into a glaring weakness in the 2020 contest.

“I understand people will ask about it, but that does not in any way, shape or form deter me,” Amico said. “It’s the reason I’m running.”

She plans to frame her company’s path to bankruptcy as a symptom of the GOP’s failure to help U.S. companies meet their pension obligations.

Senate Republicans, she said, picked "winners and losers" by passing a $1.5 trillion tax cut but refused to back a $48.5 billion plan approved by the Democratic-controlled House to shore up troubled pension funds with low-interest loans.

“When you move heaven and earth to get your tax cut through that predominantly benefits wealthy folks and corporations, but you won’t help the little guy – the Georgia farmer on the brink, somebody who stocked a shelf or drove a truck for four decades – it says a lot about where your priorities really are,” she said.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue

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‘See the world differently’

Amico’s allies point to other Georgia politicians who waged impressive campaigns despite financial questions.

Republican Nathan Deal won the race for governor in 2010 while his personal finances were teetering. Stacey Abrams came close to pulling off an upset in last year’s contest despite her roughly $50,000 debt to the Internal Revenue Service.

Amico prefers to focus on Perdue, who started a trucking company with his cousin, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, that went belly up in 2015 and left behind millions of dollars in debts to unsecured creditors.

“Do you want the woman who acknowledged we’ve got to fix this, stayed and steered the ship through stormy seas?” she said. “Or do you want the guy who sneaks out the back door with his bag of coins and pretends like he has nothing to do with it.”

Amico’s campaign will likely surface many of the same issues she pressed as a nominee for lieutenant governor, such as a call to expand Medicaid, pass gun restrictions and expand voting rights. She will also highlight Trump’s trade war with China, and its financial toll on farmers.

“None of the issues I worked on last year are fixed,” said Amico. “Right now, the U.S. Senate is broken. It’s supposed to be the grown-ups in the room, to make sure the grand bargains in the room are done – or at least a budget. It’s the perfect place to work on issues.”

But she made clear her company’s bankruptcy will be a running theme of her Senate bid.

“If I learned anything this summer, it’s that everybody can be a good winner. When everything is going well, it’s really easy to wax poetic about your values,” said Amico.

“But some of us are lucky enough to get a moment – a really difficult moment – when you get to show people that their commitment to those values supersedes your self-interest. That’s where I am right now. And I see the world differently because of it.”

Here’s Amico’s answers to some key questions about the race:

On how she labels herself: 

“A progressive on questions of equity and justice. I suffer from true-believer-sim. I really think there’s a right and a wrong. And if you only do right when it’s convenient, you lack character. For me, progressive is saying I’m paying for everybody’s health insurance, not because it’s the most profitable thing to do but because it’s the most ethical. It’s understanding that labor unions play a critical role for access to the middle class for millions of people.”

On running for Senate less than a year after losing her LG bid:

“All the stuff I was animated about last year isn’t fixed. But what I saw sitting in peoples’ living rooms is that there are a lot of people who feel like they’ve done everything the right way -- and still feel like they can’t get ahead or, worse, feel like they’re falling behind.”

On whether Stacey Abrams, who is neutral in the contest, will support her: 

“I hope this campaign builds on the success we had last year on engaging a lot more of the electorate, bringing in new voters, not by baiting them with fear or other-ing of other people, but because we gave them something to vote for – and not something to vote against ... I hope she’s proud that we continue to talk about voting rights, and how essential that is in the democracy we live in.”

On her response to GOP attacks casting Democrats as socialists: 

“Smile. Are you kidding? They wouldn’t waste their time if they didn’t have something to be afraid of. The reality is that nobody’s going to think I’m a socialist ... I’ve heard David Perdue say socialism a lot. How they say that about a 16-year business executive and a Harvard MBA, I think, is going to be super-funny – even for a GOP that’s not a real fan of facts.”

On the legal challenge over last year’s election: 

“We didn’t get the outcome we hoped for. But this was not a loss. This was a win for voters coming to the polls ... It’s not just that they showed up but it’s why. We tried to center their stories and the campaign more than our own egos. This was about the kind of values we share as a state.”

On her fundraising plan: 

“The reality is we’re going to need help from national organizations to invest in Georgia – the presidential nominee, the national party – and I can’t wait until the election to get it started. I’m not planning on waiting for the general election to start courting national money. This is one of a small handful of Senate races that can determine control of the U.S. Senate and we’re going to find friends in every one of the 159 counties and every one of these states.”

On her Democratic rivals:

“Look, there’s no question they have been in office. But they’ve also never run statewide. They’ve never had to weather a private company and protect thousands of jobs through turbulent economic times. As far as I know, neither one of them has managed a business that’s dealing with the fallout of the trade wars or the pension crisis. I’m in a unique position not only to be able to speak to economic opportunity and how we build something that works for everybody, but to talk specifically about the failures of the GOP-led Senate on issues like trade and pension reform.”