Several weeks before the April primary for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District seat, the editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times invited readers to use the newspaper, particularly its website, as a forum “to talk about the merits of the candidates and the needs of the district, the state and the nation.”
Readers since then have responded in spades. As the June 20 runoff election neared and the debate intensified, partisans of Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel have used the newspaper’s pages to hurl brickbats — about what constitutes Jewish values, which candidate is best for Israel, the presidency of Donald Trump and the candidates’ contrasting résumés.
The most expensive (a reported $50 million) U.S. House race in American history has been waged, with thousands of yard signs — many planted in lawns outside the 6th District — and incessant television and radio pitches that have locals eagerly longing for the day after.
The 6th District’s estimated 58,000 Jews account for about 8% of its population, and roughly 45% of metro Atlanta’s total Jewish population. The district comprises parts of three counties outside the city of Atlanta and mostly outside the Interstate 285 “Perimeter” highway.
The independently owned Atlanta Jewish Times, - which circulates 12,000 print copies weekly and receives 50,000 unique views monthly on its website, http://atlantajewishtimes.timesofisrael.com, did not endorse a candidate in the primary or in the runoff.
“In this election, neither candidate is clearly superior or inferior. Thanks to the money poured into advertising and the two-month runoff campaign mandated by the federal courts, people are not lacking in information, nor is the campaign lacking in attention. And I’m not self-important enough to think people are waiting for our endorsement to make a decision,” said Michael Jacobs, on his second tour as the AJT’s editor.
(Disclosure: As a freelancer, the author writes a biweekly column and long-form articles for the Atlanta Jewish Times.)
Ossoff and Handel emerged from the April 18 nonpartisan “jungle primary” of 18 candidates. The prize was vacated when Republican Tom Price became secretary of health and human services. The district has been in Republican hands since the former House speaker Newt Gingrich took office in 1979.
Ossoff was a bar mitzvah at The Temple, Atlanta’s oldest Jewish congregation. The 30-year-old former congressional aide and co-owner of a documentary company nearly won the seat outright in the primary, receiving 48.1% of the vote.
Handel identifies as Christian. The 55-year-old businesswoman and former Georgia secretary of state captured 19.8% of the vote.
The last Jew in Georgia’s delegation was Democrat Elliott Levitas, who represented the 4th District for five terms before losing his 1984 bid for a sixth.
The sparring in the AJT has targeted Ossoff’s work in Washington for the Georgia Democrat Rep. Hank Johnson, who apologized for likening West Bank settlers to “termites” (comments that Ossoff called “deeply offensive”) and for his company’s sale of a documentary to the Al-Jazeera television network.
Handel has been lashed for supporting Trump and for her 2012 resignation as senior vice president at Susan G. Komen for the Cure after the breast cancer charity ended, then restored funding (that Handel opposed) of Planned Parenthood.
“Letters and guest columns have run pretty even, but the responses to such opinion pieces have run strongly in Ossoff’s favor. That is, when we run a pro-Ossoff piece, we might get one reply or silence from the Handel side. When we run a pro-Handel piece, we’re flooded with pro-Ossoff responses. As a result, we’ve probably been 75% pro-Ossoff in what we’ve published, and if you include online comments, it might be closer to 85%. I think those percentages reflect the passion behind the pro-Ossoff (really anti-Trump) side versus the lack of excitement Handel inspires,” Jacobs said.
The best example was a May 11 guest column http://atlantajewishtimes.timesofisrael.com/why-karen-handel-deserves-jewish-vote/ in support of Handel, written by Chuck Berk, local chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Berk responded to a guest column from the previous week, http://atlantajewishtimes.timesofisrael.com/why-ossoff-has-earned-our-support/, that touted Ossoff’s support for Israel.
Berk tied Ossoff to the “dangerous 2015 Iran deal,” “liberal Democrats [who] sympathize almost as much with the Palestinians as with Israel,” and “money from out-of-state sources, much of it from anti-Israel J Street supporters.” The column provoked more than 30 comments and a dozen letters to the editor.
“Either readers bombard the paper with complaints and pressure them for higher standards, or expect similar garbage to continue from random political operatives disguised as concerned Jewish citizens,” one comment read.
A Berk supporter countered that “his comments are very factual, to the point and address the heart of the matter versus emotionalism and political ideology as demonstrated by his distractors (sic), who seem to be talking off a common sheet of talking points.”’
The newspaper injected its own comment: “Just to clear up what appears to be some confusion, this column represents the personal views of the writer, not the views of the AJT…. Everyone has every right to disagree with, criticize and counter the arguments made in this article. We appreciate the exchange of ideas and want the AJT to be a place where people can debate issues of the day,”
Jacobs sees one hopeful sign emerging from the rancor.
“People from in-town areas, outside the 6th District, have dived into a campaign in an outside-the-Perimeter district they previously wrote off as being too white, too affluent, too conservative and too intolerant for them to engage with,” he said. “In the long term, this election could reduce divisions in the Jewish community by breaking down real and imagined barriers as people inside and outside the Perimeter have engaged with each other.”