Why Georgia Democrats are staying quiet on Trump’s legal peril

BLUE RIDGE — One by one, prominent state Democratic lawmakers at a “rev up” rally Saturday in the North Georgia mountains stood to tell a crowd what energized them about the party’s future.

They talked about Democratic victories in Atlanta’s suburbs, the party’s hopes to make new gains in rural Georgia, the long push to expand Medicaid, and new efforts to preserve abortion rights and roll back permissive gun laws.

What wasn’t mentioned: Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and the legal peril that the former president faces in Miami, New York, Washington — and, later this month, potential charges by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

The former president’s legal problems might be one of the most potent political issues for Democrats in November 2024, with polls showing most registered voters are deeply concerned by the criminal charges that have piled up against him.

And the indictments could have particular kick in Georgia, a must-win state for Republicans that Trump lost by roughly 12,000 votes in 2020 - and the backdrop for many of his best-known attempts to reverse his defeat.

But Democrats at state and federal levels worry that talking about the courtroom jeopardy could fuel Republican attacks that they amount to a coordinated attack by a weaponized Justice Department to destroy Trump’s comeback.

Democrats gather in Blue Ridge for a “Rev Up” rally on Aug. 5, 2023.

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“Donald Trump doesn’t come up because we are focused on the issues: healthcare, education, gun safety and individual rights,” said state Rep. Shea Roberts. “He doesn’t stand for any of that, so there’s no need to talk about him.”

Let it ‘play out’

President Joe Biden has set the tone, staying silent about the legal issues to separate himself from the Justice Department’s probe. He doesn’t want to give Trump or other Republicans fodder for their “witch hunt” claims.

And many of the state’s top Democrats have followed his lead. U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff was scheduled to guest-host a WSB radio show a day after Trump was charged with illegally retaining sensitive national-security documents after leaving office.

Ossoff instead preferred to talk about agriculture issues and the threats of artificial intelligence technology — only giving brief attention to the historic indictment.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff speaks during an event that intended to educate members of the public about implementation of the Chattahoochee River Act at Jones Bridge Park, Thursday, August 3, 2023, in Peachtree Corners. The Chattahoochee River Act was sponsored by Rep. Lucy McBath and Sen. Jon Ossoff in the House and Senate. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

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Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

“Protecting classified information matters,” Ossoff said. “It matters to our national security, and we are a nation of laws in which no one is above the law. This process will play out in federal court.”

The arms-length approach spread to the grassroots. At Saturday’s rally, which drew about 100 people to a local agricultural facility, the half-dozen Democratic lawmakers focused on their 2024 agenda - and made no mention of Trump.

“He didn’t come up at all because he’s not the elephant in the room,” state Rep. Ruwa Romman said. “People are worried about their hospitals closing, their children’s education.”

‘Is that a goat?’

This is no swing territory. Trump won 82% of the vote in surrounding Fannin County in 2020, and Gov. Brian Kemp expanded the GOP margin to 85% last year. Republicans dominate county and regional politics.

And the cultural divide between the mostly suburban and urban legislators who headlined the rally and an audience filled with rural residents was on display.

Hanging prominently on the wall behind each speaker was an ad for a well-known nearby store, “Drug & Gun,” that sells pharmaceuticals and firearms.

Democrats gather in Blue Ridge for a “Rev Up” rally on Aug. 5, 2023.

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At one point, state Rep. Solomon Adesanye was interrupted by loud braying from nearby livestock. He paused, briefly perplexed.

“Is that a goat?” said the east Cobb Democrat, to nods and laughter from the crowd.

And lawmakers received pointed questions from locals who say the state party has neglected rural Georgia, particularly towns like Blue Ridge with deep liberal strains, in favor of the vote-rich bedroom communities surrounding Atlanta.

“I know y’all don’t see as much activity as you’d like,” said state Rep. Shea Roberts, who represents parts of Buckhead and Sandy Springs. “But I can tell you help is on the way.”

She and others stressed that Democrats believe that even marginal gains in deep-red rural territory next year can help Biden carry Georgia again - with or without Trump on the ballot.

They passed out informational packets about how to keep Medicaid coverage, asked for donations, charted out plans for future rallies and invoked the surprising bipartisan coalition that doomed a school voucher effort.

“There are a lot of Republican voters in these districts who no longer have a party they can trust,” said state Rep. Lisa Campbell, who won a competitive north Cobb seat last year. “We want to earn their votes, too.”