Abstention on antisemitism measure spurs primary challenge for Atlanta Dem

State Sen. Sally Harrell is being challenged by David Lubin in the May 21 Democratic primary. Courtesy photos.

Credit: Maya Prabhu

Credit: Maya Prabhu

State Sen. Sally Harrell is being challenged by David Lubin in the May 21 Democratic primary. Courtesy photos.

When state Sen. Sally Harrell spoke on the floor earlier this year about her conflicted feelings about adding a definition of antisemitism to Georgia’s hate crimes law, it appeared as though she were poised to vote against the measure.

Instead, Harrell left the floor, not pushing the red or green button on her desk to cast her vote one way or the other — a practice known under the Gold Dome as “taking a walk.”

That upset David Lubin, who Harrell had invited to the Capitol earlier in the year to honor his 20-year-old daughter, Sgt. Rose Ida Lubin. The younger Lubin was killed in a knife attack near the Old City of Jerusalem while on duty as a police officer with the Israeli Defense Forces shortly after the Israel-Hamas war erupted.

Lubin, who is Jewish, became deeply involved in urging lawmakers to pass the antisemitism bill. Gov. Brian Kemp signed the measure into law earlier this year.

“After the way the vote went down, it made me realize that in my district we needed another voice and that I could be that voice,” Lubin said.

The measure faced criticism last year and this year from opponents who worried it would curtail free speech rights or censor criticism of Israel.

Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat whose district includes a significant Jewish community, said those freedom of speech concerns are why she was conflicted about what was the right thing to do. She said the legislation has come up some on the campaign trail and that the Jewish voters she speaks with are also mixed in how they feel.

“The ones who really looked at it understand there are possibly some free speech issues,” she said. “Other people, they just want antisemitism to go away. It hurts. And I understand that. I always have been and always will be committed to exploring creative and effective ways to reduce antisemitism.”

Rachel Binstock, an immigration attorney who lives in Dunwoody, said she planned to support Lubin in the primary because she was disappointed in Harrell skipping the vote on the antisemitism bill. She said she’s voted for Harrell in previous elections.

“I am a progressive person, and I like her progressiveness and have been excited to have a woman’s representation in Georgia politics,” she said. “But I’m also a Jewish woman, and that is part of my identity that I just can’t look past.”

Elliott Server, a retired securities expert who lives in Dunwoody, said he understood why Harrell struggled with the legislation. Server, whose son was injured while serving in the U.S. Army, said he and many other Jewish people he knows would have voted against it if he were in the Legislature.

“I really have a problem with single-issue voters,” he said. “But David Lubin’s daughter wasn’t killed by antisemitism; she was killed by a terrorist. My son wasn’t injured from antisemitism, either. He was injured from the work he did flying 250 combat missions as a Black Hawk pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan. ... They’re both heroes.”

Harrell’s nonvote on the antisemitism bill has not been the only talking point on the campaign trail, both candidates said. Harrell said most voters she’s spoken with are looking toward the presidential election in the fall, while the people Lubin has spoken with are concerned about issues such as gun safety and — in his district on the north side of I-285, specifically — transportation.

Harrell was elected in 2018 amid a wave of Democratic gains in the suburbs, ousting a Republican incumbent. She’s easily staved off challengers since then. Harrell enters the primary as an incumbent and with a financial edge. Campaign finance records show Harrell had about $275,000 in the bank as of May 1 — a considerable amount for a state legislator.

Lubin, a construction executive, enters what’s expected to be a low-turnout race with advantages of his own, including an endorsement from state Rep. Esther Panitch, the only Jewish member of the state Legislature. He had not yet filed his campaign contribution documents as of Friday, according to state records.

The winner of the May 21 primary will face Republican challenger Amelia K. Siamomua in November.

Early voting for the general primary has begun and will run through May 17. Primary election day for in-person voting is May 21. For more information, visit Georgia Decides, a project of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Atlanta Civic Circle.