Opinion: The noose behind Gabriel Sterling’s moment

December 1, 2020 Atlanta - �Gabriel Sterling, Voting System Implementation Manager with the Georgia Secretary of State�s office, speaks to members of the press during a press conference at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta on Tuesday, December 1, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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December 1, 2020 Atlanta - �Gabriel Sterling, Voting System Implementation Manager with the Georgia Secretary of State�s office, speaks to members of the press during a press conference at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta on Tuesday, December 1, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Even if you don’t know what to call it, you know what a GIF is. It’s the animated image that accompanies a Twitter or text message on your smart phone. It can be a quick video of a teenager rolling her eyes. Or a warm puppy wagging its tail.

In this case, it was a slowly swinging noose — aimed at a 20-something election worker in Gwinnett County with an easily Googled name. “You are guilty of treason. May God have mercy on your soul,” read the Twitter message that came with it at 1:51 a.m. Tuesday.

Some hours later, Gabriel Sterling placed himself behind a microphone at the state Capitol and called out President Donald Trump, two U.S. senators from Georgia, and anyone else who has assisted in spreading the fiction of a stolen presidential election. Which in turn has sparked threats of violence against election officials across the country.

“Someone’s going to get hurt. Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed — and it’s not right,” said Sterling, who carries the weighty title of voting system implementation manager for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Sterling has a cop posted outside his home now. Raffensperger and his wife are under the protection of the Georgia State Patrol.

“All of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this,” Sterling said. “I can’t begin to explain the level of anger I have right now over this.”

One day later, a much calmer Sterling was ready to explain what one reporter called his “cold, hard fury.” It was the noose that set him off, you see.

By the time we talked, his moment — and that’s what we called it — was having an effect. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who had jointly called for Raffensperger’s resignation after Georgia was called for Democrat Joe Biden, quickly said that, of course, they condemned violence in any form. “How ridiculous to even suggest otherwise,” Loeffler’s spokesman said.

More than a dozen prominent Georgia Republicans — none of them currently in office — urged their party to shift its focus to the Jan. 5 runoffs for control of the U.S. Senate. Left unsaid was the part about putting Trump’s defeat in the rearview mirror.

But the influence of Sterling’s moment had its limits. The night before, President Trump had already re-Tweeted this over the fast-spreading video of the Georgia election official’s outrage: “Rigged Election. Show signatures and envelopes. Expose the massive voter fraud in Georgia. What is Secretary of State and @BrianKempGA afraid of. They know what we’ll find!!!”

And on Wednesday afternoon, just before Sterling and I spoke, attorneys Sidney Powell and Lin Wood, wading in the deepest end of the conspiracy pool, held a rally of several hundred like-minded Trump followers in Alpharetta. All refused to accept the verdict of Nov. 3. “You listen up, Gabriel. You’re not going to sell our votes to China!” Wood said.

I can’t explain Wood’s reference to China without risking an aneurysm. But it does allow us to return to the noose.

“These QAnon conspiracy guys were there filming at the Gwinnett election headquarters,” Sterling began. They focused on a young man, a technical worker employed by Dominion Voting Systems, maker of Georgia’s new voting machines. Their video, at this writing, was still posted on YouTube.

“He took a jump drive, put it into the election management system, then took it over to a laptop,” Sterling said. Our QAnon players saw something nefarious. Perhaps because they couldn’t conceive of the tediousness of what was actually happening. These are Sterling’s exact words:

“There’s an item in the election management system called a batch report,” he said. “In the election management system, if you have Excel on there, that’s another license you have to pay for. So they don’t have it on there. They put it on [another] computer with Excel, so they can read it and print it.”

Save a dollar, inspire a conspiracy theorist. The noose meme was sent a few hours later. Judging by his name, the recipient may be a first-generation American. A threat like that would carry weight.

I will not call out the noose’s author, who appears to be a fan of Lin Wood, Marjorie Taylor Greene and others who insist against all evidence that the presidential election was stolen. He doesn’t need the publicity.

The phone call from the Dominion worker’s boss in Colorado came some 90 minutes before Sterling had his moment. Permission to explode was sought, and received, from Raffensperger.

“This is a kid who just took a job. He didn’t deserve this to happen to him. I was just thinking about it, and I’m like, all these election directors and election workers around the country — if Lin Wood, Sidney Powell and the president are right, they’re all part of a vast conspiracy to rob people of their vote and undermine democracy,” Sterling said. “I won’t say I snapped, but I was vibratingly pissed off.”

Is it possible for people to also believe that Venezuela president Hugo Chavez, dead these seven years, can be one of the many secret authors of Trump’s defeat?

“On the face of it, that’s Looney Tunes. But they believe it because the president — a person they had put in a position of responsibility and respect — had said this is what is happening. ‘It was stolen from you and it was stolen from me,’” Sterling said, repeating Trump’s mantra. “It gets into the lizard part of the brain and becomes a visceral thing. Maybe I went to that place yesterday.”

Before we leave Gabriel Sterling and his moment, there are a few additional things you need to know about the man. First, like his boss, Brad Raffensperger, Sterling is a conservative Republican with decades of campaign work behind him. He knows how to play hardball.

There is a North Fulton connection here. Sterling co-chaired, with now-Mayor Rusty Paul, the campaign to create the city of Sandy Springs in 2005. Sterling served as a councilman from 2011 to 2018.

Sterling was also part of the campaign to create the city of Johns Creek. And ran Raffensperger’s successful city council campaign

Another thing: Democrats may appreciate what Sterling did last week, but they haven’t gotten along with him in the past, and they certainly won’t in the future. Within Raffensperger’s office, Sterling has been the enforcer when it comes to relationships with county election offices.

While the Nov. 3 election was surprisingly smooth, his battles with election officials in Fulton and other counties in the aftermath of a chaotic June 9 primary were epic.

“I’m an operations guy. There are times in any operations where people in those positions — there can be carrots and there can be sticks,” Sterling said. “A lot of the counties, they didn’t appreciate tough love, but they’re appreciative of it now. I was the one who came up with the grant programs to defer some of these costs.”

Moreover, when the Legislature returns to the state Capitol next month, Republicans plan to heap plenty of new restrictions on the absentee ballot system that Democrats have used so successfully in the last two election cycles. Both Raffensperger and Sterling will be part of that effort.

I mentioned that Sterling knows how to play hardball, didn’t I? He and I finished our conversation late Wednesday evening. But Sterling wasn’t done. He had a date with CNN, and there dropped what many might consider an incendiary accusation.

As stated above, Georgia’s two U.S. senators demanded the resignation of Sterling’s boss after Georgia was called for Biden.

“Let’s face it. Senator Loeffler and Senator Perdue were forced by President Trump to ask for my boss — Secretary Raffensperger’s resignation. The implicit threat was that he would do two Tweets and torpedo their campaigns,” Sterling said.

This is something to ponder on Sunday, while we watch Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock engage in their only one-on-one, televised debate.