When Michelle Nunn started her career, she was the only paid staffer of a nonprofit operating out of a closet-sized office at a Days Inn that sought to inspire members of the 1980s “me” generation to serve others.
She carved out an image separate from that of her famous father — then-U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn — by helping to form an influential charity now called the Points of Light Foundation. In 2011, it brought in $55 million in revenue and mobilized 4.3 million volunteers worldwide for a range of causes. Now Nunn appears to have another leap in her mind: the United States Senate.
As the daughter of the former senator, a four-term moderate Democrat, Michelle Nunn has a powerful political pedigree and a national fundraising base. While she’s not declared her candidacy, and wouldn’t comment for this story, she’s been quietly building support among prominent Democrats for a bid, and supporters say she’ll likely announce her decision by the end of June, once she determines who will succeed her.
“She has been doing public service in the private sector, and she has, as a result, I think she’s got that public service gene in her of her father’s,” said Gordon Giffin, a former Sam Nunn aide and U.S. ambassador to Canada who now is a partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge and has been involved in discussions about the younger Nunn’s entry into politics.
The 46-year-old became the most coveted Democratic candidate in the race to replace Sen. Saxby Chambliss after U.S. Rep. John Barrow of Augusta decided not to run. The latest sign of her interest came May 19 when she appeared at a fundraiser in Atlanta with President Barack Obama.
The race is an uphill battle for any Democrat in Republican-leaning Georgia, but particularly for a newcomer to Georgia politics like Nunn. Yet even as Republicans seek to paint her as too liberal for Georgia, allies say Nunn is a non-ideological pragmatist whose lack of a political record is one of her greatest strengths.
“With the logjam in Washington, one of her best assets is she doesn’t carry that baggage,” said Mike Berlon, head of the state Democratic Party. “In this race, we think not having political experience is a good thing. She’ll match up extremely well with any of the Republicans coming out of the primary.”
If she announces, she may have to first repair divisions within her own party. Several top Democrats, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, were said to be behind Barrow. The specter of a primary may have swayed Barrow against a run, though he downplayed it by saying: “I actually like the job that I’ve got.”
Republicans are eager to define Nunn before she can do it herself. Joel McElhannon, a GOP strategist, said Nunn’s nonprofit service can’t hide the fact that she’s “another Atlanta liberal advocating the Obama agenda.”
“She has no track record of political achievements or business success,” he said, adding: “That’s not the resume of a crossover candidate who can turn a red state blue.”
Nunn’s interest in volunteering dates back to her days as a junior high student in Maryland when she delivered toys to needy children and read books to the elderly — and then sought to return again and again, her father said. When she moved to Atlanta after graduating with a history degree from the University of Virginia in 1989, Sam Nunn said she was set on the notion of making “volunteering more efficient and more effective.”
“I say my main role in her success is to listen to her goals, tell her why it’s impossible and then watch her make it happen,” the elder Nunn said. “She has consistently proved me wrong.”
She applied to be the first executive director of Hands On Atlanta, the brainchild of a dozen young professionals who wanted to connect people like themselves with community service opportunities that met their busy schedules.
Elise Eplan, a founder of Hands On Atlanta who is now a nonprofit consultant, said Nunn was “responsible for taking it from this seed of an idea, this kind of initial very small startup into the powerhouse our organization is today.”
One bold move, recalled another Hands On Atlanta founder, Kent Alexander, was Nunn’s decision to seek corporate backing “before the term ‘corporate engagement’ was a term.”
“Michelle was always our main asset, but having Sen. Nunn somewhere in the picture never hurt,” Alexander said.
Hands On Atlanta expanded in the early 2000s, as many nonprofit groups struggled to raise money, and Nunn stunned many supporters when she announced a multimillion-dollar capital campaign for a new building for the organization, which had been housed in temporary space. It succeeded, and the group’s headquarters now sits in a sleek building on Atlanta’s westside.
Despite her Democratic lineage, Nunn has ties to the country’s pre-eminent Republican political dynasty, the Bushes. Points of Light, which merged with Hands On Atlanta, was inspired by President George H.W. Bush, and his son Neil is now its chairman of the board while Nunn serves as CEO. Tax forms show Nunn was paid about $322,000 in 2011, a salary that is not unusual for the head of a nonprofit that size.
In 2007, she guided the group’s merger with Bush’s Washington-based Points of Light Foundation and made sure the new organization was headquartered in Atlanta. She sealed the deal, according to Points of Light board member Michael Kay, by visiting George H.W. Bush in Texas and selling herself as the leader of the merged nonprofit.
In blog posts and columns, Nunn talks of her friendship with the Bush family — George H.W. Bush is quick to order dessert at lunches, she notes — and ways the government can encourage more volunteerism. Neil Bush called Nunn “a fabulous leader” who guided the landmark merger, then added with a chuckle, “That’s not an endorsement” for Senate.
“I really don’t know where she stands politically, and I don’t even want to make assumptions about it,” he said.
One idea she put forward recently involved requiring recipients of Georgia’s popular HOPE scholarship program to volunteer in high school to qualify for the lottery-funded program, which is based on academic performance. The proposal wasn’t seriously debated in the Legislature but won favor in Atlanta’s nonprofit community.
A Washington Post column she wrote asserted that private companies and government should take notice of the ideals driving the Occupy Wall Street movement. Her praise of the protesters, though, was fodder to conservatives who view her as out-of-touch.
“Sam Nunn would be called a conservative extremist by Barack Obama and Democrats in Washington today, but his daughter Michelle is more in the political mold of John Kerry and Barack Obama,” Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in an email.
She’s flirted with the idea of running before but stayed out for family reasons. Now, those close to her say she’s discussing the prospect with her husband, Ron Martin, who is in the real estate business, and her 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. Her political backers, including former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, say beneath her calm demeanor bubbles a competitive streak.
“I’ve met few people who have as powerful a presence when you engage them,” said Abrams, who has known Nunn since 2000. “There’s not going to be a question that when she engages the issue, she’s passionate about it. She’s deliberative, but when she’s in, she’s in. And she’s relentless.”
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