Democrat Joe Biden’s projected presidential election victory over Republican incumbent Donald Trump is being greeted with different emotions among some local political observers — but also with common hopes of Georgia and America moving forward in a spirit of unity.
It remains to be seen whether such a spirit can emerge from Nov. 7, the day major media organizations projected Biden as the Electoral College voter winner. Georgia’s ballot-counting was still crawling along late that day with a neatly divided electorate giving a 9,200-vote margin to Biden. And activists in both parties were bracing for two momentous runoff elections Jan. 5 for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats that could decide that chamber’s partisan control. Another outstanding question: How Biden’s victory and the Senate battles may trickle down into local politics in the Atlanta suburbs.
Across the metro area, Biden supporters turned out for spontaneous street celebrations, while some Trump supporters protested, alleging unsubstantiated problems with the count. “Donald Trump, you’re fired,” read a message soaped on the rear window of an SUV that cruised down Buckhead’s Peachtree Road shortly after Biden’s projected win.
“You can’t be expecting me to think with words in a moment of such intense emotion,” said Valerie Habif of Sandy Springs, a co-founder of a grassroots political group called the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon. “…In the midst of the nightmare that we were living, could we ever have dreamed that Georgia would do this? And now what’s ahead of us is greater than what was behind us,” she said, referring to the Senate battle.
J. Max Davis, a Republican who was Brookhaven’s founding mayor and whose father long served in the Georgia House of Representatives, voted for Trump. But he also once met Biden in person and likes him. Davis spoke on the phone from Florida, where his family went on vacation after tiring of the grueling anxiety of watching day after day of election counts.
“I know people that are upset. I’m slightly upset,” said Davis. “But when it comes down to it, we’re all Americans. We just all need to understand that withdrawing from a friend or castigating your neighbor because of their politics is really a little bit infantile.”
Davis said he is reminded “the world is not coming to an end tomorrow” and that “we all have to row this boat together.”
Division and unity
For activists like Habif, Biden’s victory is a triumph over the Trump’s insulting manners and approving comments of White supremacists and neo-Nazis in a time that saw an increase in reports of anti-Semitic incidents and violence. She said she wishes election numbers had a bigger margin and “had been a more resounding repudiation of Trump.” But it will do.
“Look at us. We have the first Black vice president, and the first female Black vice president, and the first Indian American vice president,” Habif said, referring to Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris. “There’s a Yiddish word… kvell. It’s when you’re filled with pride, filled with joyous pride. What we’re doing is, we’re kvell-ing.”
Davis said he understands why Trump turned off many voters as a person.
“I voted for Trump. It doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he said or did,” said Davis. “I know he’s crass. I know he’s bombastic like the salesman that he is.” But, Davis said, Trump had many good policies and successes on the economy, China trade and remaking of international free trade agreements.
On the other hand, “I think Biden has a little of that in him as well,” Davis added. “I don’t dislike Joe Biden at all. … He’s a good person. I think he wants what’s best for the country,” though his advisors and Democratic Party officials might be a different story.
Davis’s perception comes from a visit he made to the Obama White House for a U.S. Conference of Mayors event while he was leader of Brookhaven. Davis said he ended up sitting with the then vice president — at one point even serving as Biden’s support when he stood on a chair to give a speech — and spent 25 minutes speaking one-on-one with him.
“I came away thinking, ‘This guy — I could almost vote for this guy,’” Davis said with a laugh. Among the topics was Biden’s own brief past as a Republican. “He was so engaging. He’s a natural politician.”
Shortly before the presidential election was called, Brookhaven’s current mayor, John Ernst, issued a similar call for unity. “One thing I can tell you, no matter the election outcome, we are all still in it together,” Ernst wrote. “While we may disagree politically, it is our differing opinions and viewpoints that make us stronger.”
Biden himself promised unity in his televised first speech as the presumed president-elect. “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify,” Biden said. “Who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States. And work with all my heart with the confidence of the whole people, to win the confidence of all of you.”
Local political fallout
Trump’s divisive manner, on the other hand, likely cost him votes in Atlanta’s increasing blue northern suburbs, and that can be bad for political diversity, Davis said.
“There are a lot of people in Brookhaven who aren’t necessarily blue, but Trump, his personality may have turned them off… They just couldn’t conscience voting for Trump,” he said. “It was a personality referendum, in my mind, not necessarily an ideological referendum.”
He believes one of the casualties was Nancy Jester, a Dunwoody Republican who lost her District 1 seat on the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners to Democrat Robert Patrick. The board will be all Democrats. “That fact that Nancy Jester lost, to me, is a tragedy. … That hurts me just about more than anything else,” said Davis, calling her a “watchdog.”
“I wouldn’t think the Georgia Legislature would be good if it was… all one party. I wouldn’t want that if I could,” said Davis. “You always learn something from the other side of the aisle, whether you agree with it or not. … There’s always somebody who has an intelligent counterpoint… and when you don’t have that check in there, I just think that leads to corruption and it leads to bubble thinking, and we do not need that in DeKalb County.”
For Habif and her 1,500-member Democratic group, the election showed the power to sway local voters in longtime Republic strongholds. Democrats did not flip many seats this time — but they already did two years ago in local Congressional and General Assembly races and retained them this time. One local race remained undecided and even tighter than the presidential election — in Buckhead and Sandy Springs’ House District 52, where Republican incumbent Deborah Silcox was losing by fewer than 350 votes to Democratic challenger Shea Roberts. Habif said that race shows Sandy Springs politics continue to change and that it could affect the city’s municipal elections in 2021.
“This organization was always about local change,” Habif said of her Democratic women’s group. “But at no point did we ever believe that what we did locally would have a national impact. And when we look at not what happened in the country but what happened in Georgia … think about the power of one. When the vote gets that close, it’s the power of one. And when many ones come together, that’s about the power of us.”