ATLANTA — LaTosha Brown is one of the many Southern organizers who turned Georgia blue in 2020 for the first time in nearly 30 years. But on Tuesday, she didn’t want President Joe Biden in the state.
After working 70 hours a week, leading bus tours across the state and rallying voters to the polls last year, Brown, who co-founded Black Voters Matter, said she was fed up with the Democrats she helped elect. As Biden called on the Senate to get rid of the filibuster in order to pass voting rights and elections legislation in Atlanta on Tuesday, she stayed away.
“So you come into Georgia, and what?” said Brown, who is based in Atlanta. “It’s taken a year to talk about, ‘we gonna put away the filibuster.’ There’s all kinds of energy and momentum I think has been squandered.”
As Brown sees it, she helped give Democrats power but, one year later, she and other Black voters are worse off when it comes to their ability to vote. There is frustration evident in her voice as she explains how voting rights still does not seem like a priority for the administration.
“It makes the work harder for us,” Brown said. “What am I supposed to go back and tell people?….How do I convince them to turn out again?”
Brown’s skepticism exemplified the political thicket Biden entered when he touched down in Atlanta on Tuesday to give his latest speech on the need to protect democracy, pass election reforms and, if necessary, revise the Senate’s rules. After months of inaction, those who have been demanding his help increasingly doubt he can deliver.
A number of groups boycotted Biden’s speech. And the state’s most high-profile voting rights activist — gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — didn’t show either, citing an unspecified scheduling conflict.
Biden’s speech, delivered at the Atlanta University Center Consortium on a brisk afternoon, served not only to put a spotlight on the onslaught of state Republican voting laws restricting ballot access but to keep the very Democratic base that Brown says is disillusioned, engaged.
The president, who served more than 30 years in a Senate that’s now become a thorn in his side, continued to push back against anti-democratic forces led by his predecessor. A self-described “institutionalist,” he condemned the chamber he once served in as a “shell of its former self” and warned that the “threat to our democracy is so grave” that it warranted “getting rid of the filibuster” if voting rights legislation is unable to pass any other way.
Biden appealed to national lawmakers’ sense of history and reminded the public that he’s “so damn old” he was alive and starting college in 1963 when Fannie Lou Hamer was pulled off a bus, jailed and beaten, after registering voters in Mississippi. He asked national and state lawmakers how they would want to be remembered as they face the same questions their predecessors faced, whether it be in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday in Selma or during Lyndon B. Johnson’s passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It appeared, at times, as if Biden was also posing the question to himself.
“I ask every elected official in America, how do you want to be remembered? Consequential moments in history, they present a choice,” Biden said. “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? You want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? You want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.”
Those who did show up to watch Biden speak said they were eager to hear him and Vice President Kamala Harris make their case. In interviews with a dozen attendees, including organizers, city council members, students and civil rights leaders, two things were repeated: A desire for Biden to lay out a plan for passage of the two bills before the Senate and an unabashed, persistent and vocal endorsement of changing or eliminating the filibuster.
“I wish they would have done it sooner but I’m glad they’re doing it now,” said Melanie Campbell, who joined a virtual meeting with White House officials and other civil rights leaders last week. Campbell and other leading Black women organizers had asked for Harris and Biden to come to Georgia.
Some attendees argued that Biden was not the hurdle. “We all need to remember that FDR and LBJ had significant majorities in Congress. The Senate is the problem, not the President, and unfortunately, until we change the composition of the Senate, advancing civil rights is going to be an uphill battle,” said Neil Makhija, executive director of the national South Asian civic organization IMPACT, who attended the Atlanta speech.
But, for others, skepticism was not too far below the surface. Gerald Riggs, a member of the Atlanta NAACP, offered a warning similar to Brown’s as he mingled with other local organizers, elected officials and operatives who were waiting for BIden.
“We mobilized way too many people to the polls with the promise of the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the George Floyd Justice and policing act, neither of which have been moved on,” Riggs said. “So I’m speaking for all of the activists that I mobilized and the voters that we mobilized. They want to hear about that. No more excuses.”
The White House has repeatedly defended the sequencing of Biden’s agenda, noting that he entered the Oval Office at an unprecedented time as a global pandemic raged and Americans were suffering from an economic downturn. Aides also note that attacks on democracy and the protection of voting rights is the reason Biden launched his campaign while arguing that Biden’s been far from shy about the threats confronting the country.
Biden’s speech came two days into the Georgia state legislature’s new session as Republicans sought to expand on the bill they passed last year that was spurred by former President Donald Trump’s lies of a stolen election. This time, some Republicans are pushing a measure to ban drop boxes for absentee ballots altogether.
Tuesday morning, inside Georgia’s state house, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, outlined his own proposals for federal elections legislation — which include amending the Constitution to require “citizens-only voting” and national voter ID laws — while accusing Biden of pushing for a “federal elections takeover.” Baoky Vu, a Republican who was pushed out of his position on the DeKalb County board of elections and censured by his local party for opposing his party’s restrictive election laws, said he supports Raffensperger’s re-election bid. But he also continues to worry about the voting bills passed in Georgia last year.
“This is a step by step, deliberate attempt at undermining the institutions of democracy itself,” Vu said of the dynamic in Georgia and across the country. “That’s why I think it’s so critical to have people focus on what can be done at the federal level.”
While some Georgia Democrats were happy to see the president put a spotlight on those laws, others were curious as to why Biden wasn’t elsewhere. Among the scores of local Georgia Democrats who chose not to show up on Tuesday was Erick Allen, candidate for lieutenant governor and chair of the Cobb County delegation in the state house.
“I think it is appropriate to make this your first stop to honor the legacy of the work of John Lewis, considering this is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act they’re trying to get passed,” said Allen. “But I think there are other places that need to be hearing this message to put pressure on their senators to get this done. Georgia gave him the Senate majority. So we’ve done as much as we can do on this.”
“If you’re going to come to Georgia, you need to also announce that the next time the tires of Air Force One hit the ground, it’s going to be in Arizona and then in West Virginia,” Allen continued, referencing the home states of the two Senate Democrats most resistant to changing the filibuster rules: Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)
But it wasn’t just Biden’s presence but Abrams’ absence that created buzz at Tuesday’s event. Standing in line for security, a number of city council members and local Democratic officials wondered aloud to each other why the Georgia gubernatorial candidate wasn’t in attendance.
“It’s all over the news,” said one woman.
Abrams would later put out a statement highlighting that she and Biden had connected on the phone in the morning and had a conversation that “reaffirmed” their “shared commitment to the American project of freedom and democracy.”
For the activists watching, talk of who or who not was in attendance was a distraction, ultimately, from the large question: Just what would come next? Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP praised Biden for his “powerful words” but said he had “not prioritized voting rights protections the same way he prioritized other policy issues like BBB, infrastructure bill or covid relief.” It was time, he said, for the president to recalibrate the focus.
“The use of the bully pulpit is something that every president utilizes to build momentum for policy initiatives. But he did that today. But until we actually have a bill on his desk, ready for signature, there’s still much more work to get done.”