Former President Barack Obama on Friday blasted Republican Brian Kemp for not stepping down as the state’s chief elections official as he runs for Georgia’s highest office, and he touted Stacey Abrams’ “more hopeful vision” of government.
He told thousands of supporters at Forbes Arena on Morehouse College’s campus that America is at a “crossroads” and that Abrams would help the country get back on track.
“The health care of millions of people are on the ballot,” he said. “Making sure that working families get a fair shake is on the ballot. But maybe most of all the character of our country is on the ballot.”
Without mentioning Kemp by name, he said the secretary of state was among Republicans “trying to disenfranchise people and take away the right to vote.”
“If you’re aspiring to the highest office in the state … how can you actively try to prevent citizens from your state from exercising their most basic right?” Obama asked.
“They’re trying to disenfranchise you and take away the right to vote. Stacey’s opponent has already been caught multiple times …” he said, as boos echoed in the crowded arena. “Don’t boo. Vote. They don’t care about your boos. They care about your vote.”
Kemp has repeatedly refused to step down as secretary of state while running for governor, pointing to Democratic predecessors who stayed in the role while seeking higher office. He’s also said he would direct a recount in the governor’s race if one is required.
Obama also took aim at national Republicans, blasting President Donald Trump without invoking his name for “trying to scare you with all sorts of bogeymen, trying to scare you with all kinds of divisive issues.”
The visit attracted a crush of attention at a crucial time in the race for governor, with polls showing it too close to call. A line outside the cramped venue stretched for nearly a mile, with some waiting in line since the crack of dawn.
The visit from the former president, beloved by the Democratic base and reviled by many Georgia Republicans, came a day after Abrams shared a stage with media icon Oprah Winfrey in two events that garnered national attention.
Virtually every potential 2020 presidential hopeful has stumped with Abrams in her bid to become the nation’s first black female governor, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who also drew booming applause at Friday’s event. He spoke about the need to elect Democrats to overturn policies that make it harder to vote and allowed for gerrymandered districts.
“The system is rigged,” he said. “There has been a systematic effort to cripple our democracy and to disenfranchise those who do not subscribe to certain political views.”
Kemp, too, has drawn big names to Georgia. Vice President Mike Pence campaigned with Kemp at a string of rallies across the state on Thursday, and Trump will headline a get-out-the-vote event for the Republican on Sunday in Macon.
Kemp spent Friday making a flurry of visits across southeast Georgia, where he urged conservatives to ignore polls showing the race in a statistical tie. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll released Thursday had the race deadlocked with just 5 percent of undecided voters.
“We’re the poll. You’re the poll,” he said at an event in Sylvania. “Let’s prove these polls who the real poll is, and we’ll do it on Tuesday.”
A diverse crowd filled the arena to see Obama, with many students from Atlanta University Center schools in attendance and brimming with excitement at what was, for many, their first political event.
“I stood in line Wednesday for five hours to get tickets, and I stood in line for five hours again today,” Clark Atlanta University graduate student Renika Jones said. “I felt like it was important for us as young people to be here, to vote and to know that our vote counts.”
Joy Jackson, a graduate student at Morehouse School of Medicine, said she made it a point to be in the building.
“I’m not quite old enough to have voted for Obama,” the 23-year-old said, “but I can vote for Stacey to make history again.”
Jackson said seeing Obama as the first black president made her believe she could accomplish whatever she put her mind to.
“He’s the first president I was cognizant of. He’s my president,” she said. “He’s the reason I’m in medical school now so I can become a doctor. And with Stacey, as a black woman, I can see that even more.”
Democrats hope a wave of energy will help flip a sweep of statewide seats long held by Republicans, from the Public Service Commission to secretary of state. But the party has focused special attention on a smaller clutch of races, including governor, lieutenant governor and two competitive U.S. House seats in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.
Lucy McBath, a candidate for the 6th Congressional District, spoke about becoming an activist after her son was killed and how her frustration grew when politicians told her that the timing wasn’t right to pass gun control legislation.
“After hearing these words repeated to me again and again and again, I knew I had to do more,” she said. “And then Parkland happened, and those children that were murdered in Parkland were the same age as my son when he was gunned down.”
Abrams, who spoke right before Obama, referenced his legacy as she made the case for expanding Medicaid, strengthening public education and overhauling the criminal justice system.
““I know that we can’t wait for change,” she said. “As someone said, we must be the change we want to see. And Georgia, I’m here to tell you we are ready.”
Obama exhorted Democrats to surge to the polls on Tuesday, calling the midterm vote the “most important election of our lifetime.”
“And that’s saying something,” he added, “because some of those elections were mine.”
It’s a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Recent AJC stories have examined Kemp’s finances and Abrams’ position while in the state Legislature as a leading collector of per diem. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.