As he weighs a U.S. Senate run, Democrat Jon Ossoff is sharpening a populist message that echoes his party’s liberal wing: a pledge to stop “criminalizing poverty,” a promise of a debt-free higher education system, a vow to legalize recreational marijuana and a guarantee of health insurance for all Americans.
The former 6th District candidate’s remarks came at a student-organized town hall at a rec center in Atlanta on Saturday that also featured Staci Fox of Planned Parenthood, who said the group is developing a “worst-case scenario” plan that could involve bringing women seeking abortions to more liberal states if the “heartbeat” bill isn’t blocked in the courts.
For Ossoff, who lost the 2017 special election to Republican Karen Handel, the event was a chance to hone his policies before an audience of mostly younger people as he weighs whether to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue next year.
He emphasized the need for a “economic and technological mobilization” to fight climate change, criticized the anti-abortion House Bill 481 and earned the loudest ovation from the students for promising to “end the broken student debt system that traps millions in decades of anxiety.”
The Democrat is one of a half-dozen high-profile contenders eyeing a race for the seat if Stacey Abrams, who is set to decide this month, sets her sights elsewhere. Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson already filed the paperwork necessary to run, while other contenders could do so soon.
Democrats see Perdue as vulnerable after last year’s narrow statewide elections and aim to exploit his close ties with President Donald Trump. The first-term Republican, meanwhile, plans to leverage the powers of incumbency and his alliance with Trump to energize conservatives.
Ossoff spent a part of the address addressing criminal justice issues, including themes that Abrams struck during her 2018 gubernatorial run. He criticized policies that dole out “gratuitous and brutal punishment to people who need help” and pour money into prisons.
“It’s past time to end this war on drugs, which has destroyed millions of lives, which has disenfranchised millions of Americans, which has wasted billions of dollars, and which has enriched those who profit by keeping human beings in cages,” said Ossoff, who runs an investigative journalism firm.
“It’s past time to legalize, regulate and tax cannabis – whose prohibition only enriches cartels, bail bondsman and the owners of private prisons. And we should be enlightened enough now to treat addiction and mental illness with healthcare, not with prison.”
Under Gov. Nathan Deal, the state embarked on an extensive overhaul of criminal justice policies that sent more non-violent offenders away from costly prison cells and toward treatment programs, preventing the need for new corrections facilities.
His successor, Gov. Brian Kemp, has praised Deal's initiative but shifted his criminal justice priorities to new crackdowns on sex traffickers and an effort to target gang violence.
Also on the panel was Gwinnett County Board of Education member Everton Blair, who told the crowd how he was motivated by two starkly different politicians: Barack Obama triggered his passion for politics, and Trump helped drive him to run for office.
Another theme of Saturday's town hall, attended by about 250 students, was the "heartbeat" bill that would outlaw most abortions as soon as six weeks. The measure's Republican supporters see it as a way to preserve the sanctity of life, and Kemp has vowed to sign it within weeks.
Fox echoed other abortion rights supporters with a promise to challenge the measure in court as soon as it becomes law, and pointed to similar measures that were blocked.
But she also said Planned Parenthood and its allies are developing a backup plan if the law, which takes effect in 2020, survives legal scrutiny.
“This is emotional and hard to talk about for a lot of us,” she said. “But we are planning for where we know abortion will remain safe and legal, how we increase access in those places and building the transportation networks – whether it’s taking a woman from Georgia to New York or getting a woman in Georgia out into international waters in the coast of Savannah.”
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