To international audiences watching the Republican civil war over Georgia’s election results, Gabriel Sterling is that wonky, plain-speaking, conspiracy-deflating state official who made headlines by accusing President Trump of stoking death threats.
But in Sandy Springs, he’s Gabe Sterling, the local guy who served a couple of terms on the City Council and is wrapping up a term on the local Development Authority board. On the council, he had a reputation for that same policy-geek approach and an ability to hammer out compromises. He also is known for making his own hard-hitting campaign-law complaints, once attempting to boot a Democrat off the ballot in another Republican’s race. That’s part of a politically ambitious streak that has some residents wonder if Sterling, with his unprecedented profile boost, might take a shot at the Mayor’s Office in next year’s election.
Sterling was not available for an interview. But two of his former colleagues had thoughts about recognizing that familiar face on the national news.
Chip Collins served on the council with Sterling and currently chairs the Sandy Springs Development Authority, where Sterling is ending a vice-chair stint. Collins says that when controversy erupted over Georgia’s election results, he told friends, “Listen, the one thing I know is, you can believe every word that comes out of Gabe Sterling’s mouth, that he’s everything that you want in a public servant.”
Collin said he laughed at reading newspaper descriptions of Sterling as “wonky” — because they’re right. “Gabe loves government. In fact, he loves government more than making money,” said Collins. “He’s in it for the right reasons. And he loves digging into the granular details.”
“I’m proud of him as a friend and a fellow Sandy Springs-er,” Collins added about Sterling’s calling out of the president and other officials. “… I wish there were more plain-speaking, courageous, honest politicians like him… I think they’re things that need to be said and I’m really proud of him.”
Sandy Springs City Councilmember Andy Bauman also welcomes his former colleague’s criticism of Trump — but believes it should have come sooner. In a recent Facebook post, Bauman said he has frequently criticized Sterling for “silent complicity” with “Trumpism.”
“It’s hurt our friendship. Our country has been to hell and back, and that Trump incites violence has been well known to the 80 million Americans (including some in the GOP) who voted against him in this election…,” Bauman wrote, while adding: “Better late than never and we should all have his back.”
“Threats of violence to those who manage and secure our elections is especially dangerous. Free, fair and secure elections are the very foundation of our democracy,” Bauman added in a text message. “So while I have disagreed with Gabe on some political matters — especially when it comes to Trump — I cannot stress enough that I — and really all of us — should be grateful to him, [Georgia Secretary of State] Brad Raffensperger, and all of the thousands who worked in these elections to preserve, protect and defend our democracy.”
Sterling joined the Secretary of State’s office in January 2019 as “chief operating officer.” As the 2020 election loomed with new voting machines, he took on the title of “voting system implementation manager.” As the Nov. 3 election results showed a historic, and historically close, win in Georgia for Joe Biden, Trump refused to concede, triggering a combination recount and audit. Sterling was often put in the role of explaining the obscure systems and processes and fending off attacks from some other Republicans. His skill at doing so quickly drew social-media praises from political science professors, Hollywood celebrities, elected officials and many others.
Lucy Lawless, a liberal activist and the iconic former star of the cult hit “Xena: Warrior Princess,” was among Sterling’s new fans.
“I love that Georgia State official who just gave the voting brief on @CNN,” Lawless said in a Nov. 6 tweet. “What a snarky, exhausted, educative, clarifying speaker. Don’t mess with him. And don’t put your damn microphones on his plinth!!! #CNN, Please can we see more of him!!!”
But there was a dark side to the attention. Sterling has said he was subjected to death threats and hacking attempts, and had police officers guarding his home. At a Dec. 1 press conference, Sterling spoke in anger at length about similar threats directed at others, including a young voting-system technician in Gwinnett County, and expressed fear that murder was inevitable. He called out Trump and Georgia’s U.S. senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, for failing to denounce the violent fringe of election criticism.
“Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language. Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions,” Sterling said in the commentary that rocketed him to international notice. “This has to stop. We need you to step up, and if you’re going to take a position of leadership, show some.”
Publicly denouncing a sitting Republican president is probably not the way anyone imagined Sterling would gain a national reputation. Now 50 years old, Sterling was already known as a conservative policy wonk when he attended Sandy Springs’ Riverwood high school, and he earned his stripes by joining the Republican Revolution that swept the U.S. Congress in 1994.
That year, he ran the campaign for the late U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood of Augusta, a dentist who unseated an incumbent Democrat in a massive upset. Sterling went to work in Washington for Norwood, whose policies included a Patients’ Bill of Rights and related healthcare reform, hardliner stances on undocumented immigration, opposition to continuing the Voting Rights Act, and fighting gun control laws, though Norwood had accidentally killed a childhood friend while they played with a firearm.
That led Sterling to a long career as a Republican political consultant and strategist. In the early 2000s, he got involved in another Republican-led effort much closer to home: the Sandy Springs cityhood movement. Sterling served on the committee that mustered local support for the effort, which led to incorporation in 2005 as the state’s first new city in 50 years.
Fraught with partisan, racial and class divisions, the Sandy Springs incorporation and its spirit of local control triggered a wave of other metro Atlanta cityhood movements that Sterling consulted on, including Brookhaven, Johns Creek and Tucker. Sandy Springs drew national attention — including praise from such Libertarians as the Reason Foundation and criticism from such liberals as Naomi Klein in “The Shock Doctrine” — for its model of privatizing almost every city department and job. In later political campaigns, Sterling promoted his expertise in that privatization of government, which the city itself recently largely abandoned in a surprise move.
In 2011, Sterling defeated a local strip-club owner and a real estate agent to win election to the Sandy Springs City Council, a seat he held until January 2019. As a councilmember, he was known for the wonkish attention to policy detail that would be familiar to his new internet fans, such as delving into incorrect sales-tax charges, which turned out to be an issue of possible statewide significance. Mayor Rusty Paul and other councilmembers often relied on Sterling to explain the nitty-gritty of proposed ordinances. He gave the occasional sharp-tongued response to critics back then, too, though on matters usually no more serious than zoning variances for swimming pools or apartment projects.
A well-known foodie — he once gave the Reporter his recipe for fried okra — Sterling harbored ambitions of starting a beer brewery called Elbow Bend and was known for developing policies favorable to the dining and alcohol industries.
Sterling played behind-the-scenes roles in striking compromises between unhappy residents and city government in some contentious projects. The most unusual came when Mercedes-Benz USA moved its corporate headquarters to Sandy Springs and wanted to rename a local street for itself, to the chagrin of a neighboring Mormon temple that did not want to be associated with something as materialistic as a luxury automaker. Sterling was credited with cutting a deal to rename only part of the street.
In 2017, someone mailed threatening packages of white powder to a local Republican congressional candidate and to the Fulton County Republican Party office in Sandy Springs. Foreshadowing his comments about election threats, Sterling said political violence comes from both sides of the aisle and lamented its effects on young volunteers from both parties.
“It’s just sad when we get to the point where people on either side are out there trying to make things better, and someone who’s not right is trying to scare people, out of political disagreement,” Sterling said at the time.
Campaigns and election complaints
In recent years, Sterling has eyed higher offices, including an aborted campaign for a state House seat and an unsuccessful 2017 run for chair of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.
In his quest to lead the board in Fulton — the sprawling county that includes Sandy Springs, most of Atlanta and more than a dozen other municipalities — Sterling filed a formal complaint accusing eventual winner Robb Pitts of campaign finance violations. “Pitts seems to have a problem following the law,” he declared in a campaign press release. Pitts called the accusation “mudslinging.”
After bowing out of a previously announced 2018 run for Sandy Springs’ House District 51 seat, Sterling backed fellow Republican Alex Kaufman. When Democrat Josh McLaurin joined the race, Sterling filed a formal complaint alleging that McLaurin was ineligible to be on the ballot because of a recent residency in New York.
The complaint eventually was dismissed and McLaurin won the seat in the “blue wave” of Democrat victories. But that came only after the Georgia Republican Party used the complaint as negative advertising claiming that McLaurin was under “criminal” investigation and McLaurin responded by suing the party for libel.
During Sterling’s time on the City Council, the city came under investigation by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office for possible violations in the way it ran an election. In 2016, the council approved the city running its own special election — rather than hiring the county to do it as usual — to fill a council vacancy. The election for the District 3 seat was held the same day as a county primary election, but at a separate polling place that was not within the district.
That confusing situation led to the state investigation about a possible polling place notice violation. But more than four years later, the case remains unheard by the State Election Board for unexplained reasons, a situation a local legislator once called “insane.” The case has dragged on so long that since it began, Sterling has left office, made the Fulton commission run, and joined the office that began the investigation.
With Sterling’s elevated profile and bipartisan praise, there is local chatter as to whether he will make another run for office. But the local pickings are slim for Republicans in the wake of the Democratic flipping of the suburbs in recent elections.
In Sandy Springs, the Mayor’s Office and City Council seats are on the ballot next fall. Incumbent Mayor Rusty Paul remains undecided about a re-election campaign, but has previously spoken about retiring.
Collins said he has not heard anything specific from Sterling about a mayoral run and that locals have talked about many people who could garner support. But, Collins said, “I would certainly put Gabe in that category [of viable candidates] … I would support Gabe in anything he wanted to do.”