ATLANTA -- Former congressional candidate Jon Ossoff said he will challenge Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue and "mount a ruthless assault on corruption in our political system" that has prevented Congress from addressing urgent issues.
The Democrat told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he would "raise a grassroots army unlike any this state has ever seen" by expanding the network of supporters who helped him raise roughly $30 million in a 2017 special election he narrowly lost.
"We have squandered trillions on endless war. We have squandered trillions on bailouts for failed banks. We have squandered trillions on tax cuts for wealthy donors. Then we're told there's nothing left over for the people," he said, adding: "The corruption must be rooted out. And Sen. David Perdue is a caricature of Washington corruption."
Ossoff's campaign, which he'll formally announce Tuesday, makes him the fourth Democrat in the race against Perdue, a first-term Republican and former Fortune 500 chief executive with strong ties to President Donald Trump. He also becomes arguably the best known contender thanks to his nationally watched campaign for Georgia's 6th District.
The 32-year-old announced his Senate run in tandem with the highest-profile endorsement yet in the contest: U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Atlanta Democrat and civil rights icon who said Ossoff "sparked a flame that is burning brighter than ever."
"Like the many thousands Jon has already organized and inspired, I am ready to work tirelessly to elect him," said Lewis. "Georgia and America need Jon."
In an interview at his Grant Park home, Ossoff said his first act in the Senate would be to co-sponsor legislation that seeks to undo the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision and allow new restrictions on corporate political donations.
He said he chose to run against Perdue rather than compete for the soon-to-be-vacated seat held by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down at year's end for health reasons, because Perdue "is one of the least effective and most out-of-touch members of the U.S. Senate."
"We're in a state where one in three rural children live in poverty, where we have the worst maternal mortality in the entire country, and in a half a decade, this guy hasn't come down from his private island to do a single town hall meeting," Ossoff said. "He hands out favors to his donors. He runs errands for the president."
Republicans have dominated statewide elections in Georgia for most of the last two decades, and carried the state in presidential races in every vote since 1996. But Democrats hope an embrace of more liberal policies and unease with Trump will fuel the party's comeback next year.
Ossoff joins three other Democrats who have a head-start: Business executive Sarah Riggs Amico, who was last year's runner-up for lieutenant governor; Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry; and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.
They might soon have more company. About a dozen other Democrats are weighing a bid for either of the Senate seats, encouraged by the promise of an unprecedented amount of attention, funding and resources from party leaders aiming to flip the U.S. Senate, where Republicans hold a 53-47 edge.
A former congressional staffer who runs an investigative journalism firm, Ossoff rose from obscurity to become a sudden star on the left before losing to Republican Karen Handel by about 4 points.
That vote centered the nation's attention on Georgia's 6th District, a stretch of north Atlanta from Cobb County to DeKalb County that Republicans figured would be easy to hold when Trump tapped U.S. Rep. Tom Price to be his health secretary shortly after he won another term by 24 percentage points.
Instead, the contest set one fundraising record after another as it became a $60 million nationally watched proxy fight over Trump, the GOP push to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the battle for suburbia.
So intense was the fight that Handel brought Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan to Georgia for what she called an "all hands on deck" campaign. Ossoff kept all but a few lower-profile Democratic figures at arm's length over fears of alienating crossover Republican voters.
Ossoff showed how a virtually unknown millennial could make a conservative suburban stronghold one of the most competitive battlegrounds in the nation with a mix of liberal policy stances to "make Trump furious" and centrist-sounding messages to woo independents.
But the nationalization of the race contributed to his downfall as Handel and her allies relentlessly cast him as a puppet of Nancy Pelosi and liberal Democrats. Voters were also reminded that he didn't live in the district -- he resided a few miles south -- with attack ads throughout the contest.
In the interview, Ossoff said he would use his 2017 campaign as a blueprint for his Senate bid, pointing to the more than 13,000 volunteers and nearly 500,000 donors who gave average contributions of $21. His defeat helped pave the way for Lucy McBath, a gun control advocate who upset Handel last year.
"My candidacy was such a threat that Republicans at the highest level made my destruction their highest priority," Ossoff said. "And I narrowly lost that race, but we built something special and enduring. And I'm still standing and ready to fight."
His remarks, laced with criticism of Republicans, offered a preview of a campaign that would not hesitate to clash with Perdue or Trump.
"I learned never to be intimidated from telling my own story and touting my own accomplishments by the inevitable partisan smears that will come from super PACs in Washington," said Ossoff. "I've been through the fire. I no longer care what they say about me."
Ossoff had prepared his campaign long before Isakson's surprise announcement two weeks ago that he would step down -- a move that cements Georgia as a battleground state by triggering a second Senate contest in 2020.
At town halls and political rallies, Ossoff has honed a populist message that echoes his party's liberal wing. He's pledged to legalize marijuana, guarantee health insurance for all Americans and expand tuition-free higher education programs.
He told the AJC that his decision to run was influenced by two more recent developments. The first is Republican support for new anti-abortion restrictions that infuriated him and his wife Alisha, an OB/GYN resident at Emory University. He said he sees Georgia as the "front line in defense of choice."
The second is his company's work producing global investigative documentaries that have exposed crooked judges, corrupt police officers and war criminals. It's also sparked deadly retribution, including the assassination of an undercover journalist in Ghana who worked with Ossoff and his firm.
"When the president of the United States is denouncing journalists as enemies of the people and targeting the press at political rallies, that sends a message all around the world to despots and governments that they can attack journalists with impunity," Ossoff said. "Where is America's moral leadership?"
With his entrance into a race that could attract even more scrutiny than the intense special election contest, Ossoff said he expects a reprisal of attacks that mock his age and role as an aide in Congress, where he was an intern to Lewis and later a national security staffer to U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson.
"I expect they'll bring all of that again because they recognize that I'm a threat," he said. "And I say bring it on."
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