Jon Ossoff is waging a not-so-subtle stealth campaign.
The new Boy Wonder of the Democratic Party hopes to break out of a crowded field in the right-leaning 6th Congressional District in north metro Atlanta and steal an election right out from under the noses of the GOP.
He has gained national recognition because the special election to replace Tom Price is one of the first post-Trump races. The campaign is being cast by some as an early referendum on the Donald’s presidency.
There’s like 18 candidates — more than at an open casting call at a Tyler Perry movie — and a lot of possible story lines. But the campaign might as well be called the Jon Ossoff Race, because he’s all that anyone is talking about.
I figured that the main story line would be: Republicans beat up on young hotshot because he looks like he recently graduated junior high and the voters of the Sixth District need someone with a little gray in their hair.
But then Jere Wood, the mayor of Roswell, brought up an interesting side story: Young Jon’s name.
In an article earlier this month in the New Yorker, the mayor was asked about the whippersnapper.
“This isn’t a youth vote up here,” Wood told the New Yorker guy when asked about the makeup of the 6th. “This is a mature voter base. If someone is going down the list, they’re gonna vote for somebody who is familiar.”
The mayor is right about one thing, people in the 6th are always chasing kids off their lawns.
‘Is he Muslim? Is he Lebanese?’
The mayor paused and then told the New Yorker, “If you just say ‘Ossoff,’ some folks are gonna think, ‘Is he Muslim? Is he Lebanese? Is he Indian?’ It’s an ethnic-sounding name, even though he may be a white guy, from Scotland or wherever.”
The mag writer went onto note that yes, Jon, is indeed a white guy, although his ancestors did not wear kilts. They were probably dodging the Cossacks. His dad is a Jew of Russian-Lithuanian descent.
Ossoff told the mag that, “Our name was probably truncated at Ellis Island. From something like Ossoffsky.”
First let me pause and explain something: The old tale of immigrants’ foreign sounding names getting Americanized at Ellis Island is largely a myth. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the bureaucrats at Ellis simply went with the names on the ship’s log, which was put together in the Old Country, back where people knew how to actually spell their funny foreign names.
What usually was the case was the immigrants Americanized their own names. Old man Ossoffsky probably wanted to ease his way and the path of his ambitious descendants — just like someone in my past figured there was an easier way to spell O’Tarpaigh.
I called Jere Wood, who has a good-old-fashioned American-sounding name, at least the last part of it, anyways. Wood is in his fifth term of heading the prosperous town of Roswell and is no fire-breathing alt-righter. He’s a bow tie and suspenders guy, a lawyer with wire-rimmed glasses. And he has a first name that looks like it should have an accent over one of the “E”s.
I said Jere sounded French or something.
Au contraire, he countered, “It’s redneck from someone who can’t spell.” He said his dad named him after a friend from Arkansas.
What’s in a (funny-sounding name)?
The mayor was already backing away from his earlier statements. Seems he’d been getting grief, that it sounded like he was beating up on those with funny-sounding foreign names.
Jeré said he did not intend to offend. In his original analysis, he was referring to how voters view unknown candidates who might have somewhat unusual names; at the time he said it, Ossoff was not yet a household name.
The problem Ossoff might have had with fuzzy name recognition has certainly been solved with the millions he has brought in from all over the country. Also, the GOP is spending tons of money to beat him.
Candidate Bob Gray, a white-haired fellow who has a good old-fashioned American-sounding name, is pointing out that Young Jon “EVEN WORKED FOR AL JAZEERA.” Gray figures most people in the Sixth can agree that Al Jazeera is a pretty darn foreign name. (Ossoff’s film company did some documentaries for the international news network.)
Studies do show that there can be a negative impact from having a “foreign sounding name.”
A University of Montreal report last year found that candidates with “foreign-sounding names” did OK in wider elections but had a mixed bag in the municipal races.
That makes sense, especially in the more obscure races. I remember voting in Chicago and trying to consider the candidates in the down-ballot races — you know, the candidates you have no idea about. So, back then, the habit was to look for the Irish names. It’s kind of like comfort food.
Smith (D) and Jones (R) and vice versa
A look through the names of the 236 Georgia legislators does not find a lot of exotica. There are five Joneses in the House, three who have Rs after their name, two with Ds. There are three Smiths, two with Rs, one a D. And there are four Williamses, two of each political persuasion.
In 2010, David Nahmias, a state Supreme Court judge with a stellar pedigree, was forced into a runoff by Tammy Adkins, a unknown lawyer who did virtually nothing in the general election. Political observers thought many voters just had a problem with a judge with a name that many could not pronounce. (It’s pronounced NAH-mee-us.) He won, but only after spending a bunch of cash.
Beth Schapiro, a retired political strategist, said, “It’s human nature to be drawn to what is familiar.”
She added, however, “He could be John William Smith III, but if he’s seen as a Democrat, many people won’t vote for him.”
It does seem like Young Jon is making the most of the name thing. There’s a website called “Vote your Ossoff.”
I mean, maybe that Ossoffsky fellow back on Ellis Island had some foresight.