Stormwater management legislation designed to prevent flooding was spurred by a volunteer stint in 2021 to clean up pollution with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance.
And additional funding for specialized body armor came out of sit-downs with the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart where two young women told him others were suffering from training accidents because their gear didn’t fit properly.
Ossoff’s upset 2021 victory over Republican David Perdue made him the youngest member of the U.S. Senate. Ossoff, 36, also knows he’s likely one of the most politically vulnerable senators when he’s on the ballot again in 2026.
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com
And just as U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock won his reelection last year by highlighting his bipartisan work, Ossoff is intent on framing himself as a resourceful dealmaker who is adept at working across party lines.
A review of legislative records showed that Ossoff introduced four stand-alone bills that became law in his first session in Congress, each passing with bipartisan support. That’s more than any other freshman U.S. senator during that two-year span.
“I don’t like partisan politics. And I don’t particularly care about ideology,” he said in an interview in his Atlantic Station office. “The way to get things done is to find common ground and build relationships. We’re talking about work product, not rhetoric. It’s elbow grease.”
Ossoff put his philosophy a different way at a meeting of suburban business leaders: “Effective leadership isn’t about being the most ruthless combatant on MSNBC or CNN or Fox News.”
It’s an approach that also proved effective for Warnock, who made his surprise-inducing work with Cruz, the ultraconservative former GOP presidential candidate, a trademark of his stump speech.
Warnock captured hundreds of thousands of swing voters in last year’s midterm victory over Republican Herschel Walker, a former football star who embraced Donald Trump and stuck mostly to culture war issues.
But it’s also similar to another Georgia politician, one who could be on a collision course with the Democrat in three years: Gov. Brian Kemp is a likely future candidate for federal office who has vowed to focus on “real people” rather than political posturing.
“Then I suppose we can agree,” Ossoff said, flashing a smile after a recent stop. “There’s exhaustion with political drama and dramatic politicians. Public service should fix people’s headaches, not create new ones. And I aim to serve.”
Already, Kemp’s allies are framing Ossoff’s work across party lines as a transparent farce to mask his liberal leanings, including support for coronavirus relief funding and a climate change and tax package that every Republican in the Senate opposed. A FiveThirtyEight analysis showed Ossoff has voted with President Joe Biden about 97% of the time.
“Jon Ossoff is a calculated and cunning political animal who is simply doing whatever it takes to advance his political career — and ultimately his political agenda,” said Ryan Mahoney, a GOP consultant and former Kemp aide.
“Georgia Republicans would be foolish to mistake his bipartisan efforts as benevolent behavior,” Mahoney said.
Begrudging GOP kudos
Georgia Republicans have learned the hard way not to underestimate Ossoff, whose approval rating hovers around 46% in the latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll.
The Democrat crashed Georgia’s political scene in 2017 as a little-known 29-year-old fighting an uphill battle to flip a suburban U.S. House.
He came within 4 points of winning that special election, transforming himself from a “make Trump furious” candidate into one more concerned with wasteful spending than a head-on clash with Republicans.
Ossoff shifted strategies in 2020 when he challenged Perdue, taking new steps to court Black and liberal voters, including advocating for an expansion of federal voting rights and a “public option” government health care plan.
But his work across party lines has attracted Republican fans.
Mayor Michael Chidester is the top politician in Byron, a GOP bastion that staged a 2022 rally for law enforcement that drew just about every leading Republican candidate in the state.
Ossoff made a beeline to Byron a few weeks later to highlight federal funding for a new water main to fix water shortages that have long plagued the town. Chidester left the event impressed that Ossoff ventured to areas “typically colored red on a voting map.”
“He recognizes that needs at the community level are not colored red or blue,” the mayor said.
Since taking office, Ossoff has also struck a rapport with Gary Black, the former three-term agriculture commissioner who was a GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate last year. Among their projects, the two have joined forces to boost the Georgia Poultry Lab in Gainesville.
“Jon and I have a number of different viewpoints, but we’ve worked together to find solutions, too,” Black said.
“You don’t cross party lines to expand meat processing, solve pecan trade issues with India or advocate for (University of Georgia) research,” the Republican added. “Those are just things you should do as a Georgian when you get up and go to work, and I think voters would like to see more of that.
‘Missiles from friends’
After Ossoff helped persuade Indian officials to lower a hefty tariff on pecans that had long plagued Georgia growers, Ron Lee of McCleskey Cotton in Dawson begrudgingly readied a confession that he knew would bring “missiles from friends.”
“I vote Republican the majority of the time and was pretty skeptical and critical of Ossoff when he was running,” Lee said. “But I’ll say this: He apparently knows his constituency, and he has really done a pretty decent job thus far.”
One of Ossoff’s key GOP allies in Washington is Grassley, the grizzled former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Ossoff said the two “hit it off” over an extended breakfast shortly after he was elected, and they soon worked together on measures to expand security camera coverage in federal prisons, secure more funding to fight opioid abuse and finance new mental health services.
Grassley told the AJC it was challenging to find Democratic co-sponsors in the last term but that Ossoff showed an early interest in crossing party lines.
“Because of our bipartisan collaboration, we were able to pass several of these priorities into law and continue working to advance the others,” Grassley said. “I’m grateful for his leadership and partnership in supporting these important matters.”
Ossoff said he aims to continue a bipartisan approach that isn’t focused on “the hot-button news of the day or the priorities of professional activists.”
“We found common ground,” Ossoff said, “because our states’ needs are so much more aligned than the political discourse and media might suggest.”