Three of the Democrats vying to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue met in a pandemic-tinged candidate forum April 20 where they agreed on bashing the reopening of some Georgia businesses as premature — and on most other topics, too.

Sarah Riggs Amico, Jon Ossoff and Teresa Tomlinson are among seven Democrats competing in the June 9 primary election for the right to challenge the Republican incumbent in November. The three appeared in an online forum sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish Democratic Council of America and the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon of Atlanta, which was formed by Sandy Springs residents.

Joining in the April 20 virtual forum for Democratic candidates in the U.S. Senate race were, clockwise from top left: candidate Teresa Tomlinson; moderator Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America; candidate Jon Ossoff; and candidate Sarah Riggs Amico.

The coronavirus pandemic permeated the forum, starting with its format of being held via the Zoom teleconferencing service. A theme from the candidates and moderator Halie Soifer, the JDCA’s executive director, was criticism of President Trump’s crisis leadership and Perdue’s role as his “sycophant,” “enabler” and similar terms. But the candidates worked their way down to Gov. Brian Kemp, as the forum came a few hours after his controversial announcement that he was allowing some types of businesses to reopen under certain safety guidelines.

Asked by an audience member whether they agreed with Kemp’s action and, if not, when the shutdown should be lifted, the candidates agreed that more testing for the COVID-19 disease is needed first.

Tomlinson, a former mayor of Columbus, Georgia, said that officials are “flying blind” without such testing. She said the state should wait to lift shutdowns a minimum of 14 days after the pandemic’s peak, which she estimated to be next week. “We cannot waste the sacrifice that has come to this point,” she said.

Amico, an unsuccessful 2018 lieutenant governor candidate and trucking company owner, called shutdown-lifting decisions without thorough testing a “fool’s errand, and all it will do is reignite the virus, not reopen our economy.”

Ossoff, the CEO of an investigative journalism company and unsuccessful 2017 candidate for Congress in the local 6th District, referred to Kemp’s previous role as Georgia secretary of state as a measure of incompetence. Ossoff said it’s “no surprise… he has failed to spin up a robust testing regime here in Georgia, because unfortunately, the man lacks the executive capacity and managerial capabilities necessary to achieve complex things at scale in a timely manner.”

The candidates largely agreed on many other topics, ranging from healthcare and abortion rights to policies on climate change and nuclear diplomacy with Iran. One exceptional policy difference on voting rights came from Ossoff, who proposed lowering the voting age to 16. He said that because young people are affected by many policies and such global issues as climate change, “They should be brought into the process. They should be allowed to vote.”

While the policy substance of the candidates’ answers was often similar, their approaches were often geared toward the political identities they are pitching as the best to challenge Perdue. Tomlinson presents herself as an experienced government executive; Amico as a business person with campaigning strength; Ossoff as corruption-exposing journalist with youth appeal.

Tomlinson was the only candidate to take a real shot at the others, saying that “all candidates are not created equal” and that the U.S. Senate seat is “not a starter job and it’s not a business.”

Amico cited her business experience as part of her understanding of the pandemic shutdown’s impacts. “Look, I’m one of those small business owners that wasn’t able to get into the Paycheck Protection Program before the funds ran out,” she said.

She also said she won about a half-million more votes in her unsuccessful lieutenant governor campaign than Perdue got in his successful Senate campaign, suggesting she can compete with him. Not discussed was that in that 2018 race she was essentially the unofficial running mate of Stacey Abrams, who vied with Kemp for the Governor’s Office in a nationally spotlighted race.

Ossoff, whose company makes exposé documentaries, touted that experience as ideal in fighting the “corruption” of Perdue and the Trump administration. The 33-year-old said he believes Perdue would attempt to criticize him as too young for the office, but that “I believe my youth is my greatest asset and will lead us to victory in November.”

Ossoff said youth turnout will be key to a Democratic win and that he has the best youth appeal. He claimed to have doubled the youth turnout in his unsuccessful run for the 6th Congressional District seat in 2017. “The last thing anyone says about Washington is, ‘There’s too many young people in power,’” he said.

Tomlinson said her executive experience is unmatched by the other candidates and includes security clearance and a Homeland Security role in the Columbus area that allowed her to head off disasters. She said she was in charge in 2014 when a person with the Ebola disease was quarantined in the Columbus area and that she was briefed on other threats that were not made public.

“It’s the things that never happened, the disasters that never came to fruition…,” she said of her most important accomplishment as mayor. She called herself “someone who’s thinking about it so you don’t have to. So that when you go to bed at night, you think, ‘I don’t know what’s going on in Washington, D.C., but I know Teresa’s there and I’m going to sleep well at night.’”

Soifer said the forum had hundreds of viewers on Zoom. The online format had some rough moments. The candidates had cameras and microphones of varying quality and beeping sounds from Zoom activity sometimes intruded. Tomlinson’s answers were cut short a couple of times and Soifer sometimes lost track of whose turn it was to answer.

The other Democrats in the primary race are Marckeith DeJesus, Maya Dillard-Smith, Tricia Carpenter McCracken and James Knox. Libertarian Shane Hazel is also running for the seat.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.