OPINION: So far, Jon Ossoff prefers cold calls with constituents to Twitter wars and headlines

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

When Jon Ossoff was elected to the United States Senate in 2021 at the age of 33, no one seemed to know exactly what to expect of the Atlanta Democrat, who defeated U.S. Sen. David Perdue in a runoff by about 55,000 votes.

Would the young Ossoff be a social media headline hog? A quiet backbencher? A progressive bomb thrower?

A year and a half later, none of those labels have proven to fit, based on interviews with Ossoff and multiple people he’s worked with in Georgia since then.

Those interviews painted a picture of a new dad and freshman senator who is more interested in passing bills than getting “likes.”

He considered the late John Lewis a mentor and points to the late Sen. Johnny Isakson as a senator he’d like to emulate. He calls today’s bitter partisanship “profoundly unhealthy” and worries that the divisions, name calling and short-term thinking are a “threat to America’s future.”

And he seems to be trying to change it, one cold call at a time.

Since he took office, Ossoff has saved time each week to dial up Georgians, everyone from farmers to faith leaders to business leaders, activists to local mayors.

The calls go to both Democrats and Republicans to ask what their communities need, even if the Republicans are unlikely to ever vote for him.

“One of the things I said in my victory speech was whether you were for me, or you were against me, I’ll be for you in the Senate,” he said.

Many are shocked to hear from him.

When I asked how he finds the farmers to talk to, especially, Ossoff said he usually asks the farmer he’s talking to which one he should call next.

“I almost always ask people when I talk to them, who else should I call? Would you be willing to make an introduction?”

His cold calling is unusual for a senator, to say the least. So is Ossoff’s approach to constituent services, which is the least glamorous, but often most important work members of Congress are tasked with.

To get his staff up to speed, Ossoff called in help from an outside-of-the-box source — the Delta customer service desk.

“I brought in a senior Delta executive who specializes in customer service to help my leadership team understand some of the best practices from the private sector,” he said.

The goal, he said, is to be data-driven, to treat constituents “like the VIPs they are,” and to “go the extra mile to help solve problems.”

As he goes through his days on Capitol Hill or in Georgia, he said he largely avoids two of the mainstays of modern politics — social media and national cable news interviews — except when it serves his purposes.

For example, a Tik Tok video of the senator on a park bench, with a message about climate change, recently got 1.7 million views.

But he has also deleted the Twitter app from his phone and said he only reinstalls it when he needs to post, and then deletes it again.

“I don’t want to be consuming that steady diet of poison,” he said. “I want to be carefully studying the challenges facing our state and our country.”

While other members have made their names through retweets and Twitter fights, he has deliberately avoided it.

“The endless distraction and antagonism of those social media platforms, and the way they deplete our attention spans, I think are all hostile to good work.”

For the same reason, he’s also far more likely to be on local news than national cable channels — even conservative talk radio in Georgia.

Ossoff has been a guest on Martha Zoller’s radio show several times and he went into her Gainesville studio just after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning abortion rights.

“I’m really worried about the level of polarization in our country,” he said. “And I think at a moment like this one, it’s even more important to try to…transcend the partisan warfare.”

The results of his outreach have yielded bills, often passed with the help of Republicans, that aim to provide protections for watersheds in the state, solar industry expansion, and civil rights protections for people incarcerated in federal prisons.

And it’s produced people on the other end of his calls, who appreciate hearing from him, regardless of whether they like his politics or not.

To see how his cold calls had gone, I made a few of my own, reaching out to mayors, civic leaders and others who might have heard from him. Not all had, but many did.

Julie Smith, the mayor of Tifton in GOP-heavy Tift County, said she’s been “pleasantly surprised” working with Ossoff and his staff.

“He has called out of blue,” she said. “I’ll look down and see it’s him and he’ll say, “Hey, Mayor, I’m just calling to check on you. How’s everything in Tifton? What can I help you with?”

Mayor Kelly Girtz, the mayor of famously progressive Athens-Clarke County, said he’s gotten the calls, too.

“Ossoff has been helpful with specific needs,” he said.

Dr. Kevin James, the president of Morris Brown College, has known Ossoff since the 2020 campaign.

He said Ossoff and his office helped get approval to have veterans’ loans applied for students at the college after it received accreditation recently.

“He’s doing what he said he was going to do,” James said. “He’s been an advocate for black colleges in the state.”

Zoller said she still doesn’t like Ossoff’s mostly liberal voting record, but she said he’s set up a responsive office, especially for the constituent work she has sent his way. She says he’s handled it “very well.”

“I think that he is making an effort to do things that are important to get the work done, instead of just being involved in the shiny ball that is whatever’s happening that particular day.”

The good tidings may not last. Ossoff is more than four years away from reelection, a luxury that gives him the time and space to work and make mistakes, away from the heat of partisan warfare.

He also said more than once that having his daughter, Eva, eight months ago has made him more aware of the need to solve long-term problems. But she’s also shown him that some things, actually many things, are more important than politics.

At the end of the day, he said, “I’m here to solve problems for all of my constituents, no matter where they live, how they look, where they came from, how much money they have, or what they do for a living.”